On April 11 2017, Punjab University turned into a war zone. Tear gas, water cannons, lathis, belts and police boots were unleashed on unsuspecting students, along with the choicest of casteist and misogynist abuses. Hundreds of students were mercilessly attacked by Chandigarh police (Police even entered ladies’ hostels) for having the temerity to challenge the jaw dropping fee increase announced by the University (100-1100 percent, across various streams). The protests against fee hike were called by Panjab University Students’ Joint Action Committee, which includes student organizations such as Students for Society (SFS), NSUI, PUSU, SOI, AISA, PSU (Lalkaar). The peacefully protesting students demanded the roll back of fee hike by convening a meeting of the senate at the earliest. Their demand to meet the vice chancellor was met with the ferocious brutality of Chandigarh police.
The happening in Panjab University cannot be seen in isolation with similar events in different campuses including IITs. Last year there was a steep hike in tuition fees of Btechs in IITs, moreover, hostel fees of were also raised. These events has to be seen in the light of commercialization of higher education in India which has been the result of state cutting back its expenditure in the higher education sector. The National Education Policy (NEP), 2016 which goes in the line of WTO-GATS agreement strongly recommends financial autonomy for the state funded institutes. In the name of attaining financial autonomy they wish to transfer the burden of maintenance charges and salaries onto students. Rather than strengthening existing institutions, the UGC is pushing universities to introduce skill based courses, which is part of the overall plan to ‘vocationalise’ education. Universities are being asked to offer online courses to further reduce costs. The budget cuts are having an adverse impact on central universities and centrally funded institutions that have a wide array of courses. Now, an agency named Higher Education Finance Agency (HEFA), a recommendation of NEP 2016, has been set up by the government to help private investors to push their loans into the higher education sector. All centrally-funded institutions, including the IITs and central universities, are being encouraged to draw 10-year loans from the agency to finance their expansion instead of looking to the government for grants.
Under these circumstances, Punjab University was forced to go for a steep hike in fee as it was unable to mobilize resources to meet its administration expenditure. Punjab University is funded by both the central and state funds (60:40), under Punjab reorganisation act, 1966. UGC has frozen the central share at Rs.176 crore and since Punjab University is not categorized as a ‘central’ university, it has reneged on its decision (in 2009) to fund Punjab University as a central university. Along with the UGC, the state government has also expressed its inability to enhance its contribution and has frozen its financial commitment to Rs.20 crores for the last 15 years.
Commercialization of higher education spells disaster for millions of students from traditionally marginalized groups who depend on Public universities for gaining access to higher education. Access to education has been a way of social mobility for marginalised groups in this country. Depriving established universities of funds is the beginning of the end of public universities in India and thus effectively depriving the only feasible means of social mobility of students from socially oppressed communities and poor families. Fee hikes in Universities would radically transform the student composition in universities with economic weaker sections completely getting left out.
The Indian state is being pulled in a particular direction by the global neoliberal orthodoxy, which demands the adoption of principles of commoditization and marketization is all spheres of human life. The various concessions provided by the Indian state to the traditionally marginalized communities including OBC, SC, ST, in response to increasing political assertion by these weaker sections over the years, has resulted in significant democratic gains by these groups. The unprecedented assault by the state on progressive sections, minorities, dalits and adivasis is a backlash of the ruling classes against an increasingly democratizing polity. The ongoing effort to undermine public universities is also one of the manifestations of the backlash of the ruling classes against the political and social gains made by the marginalised over the last few decades. The fact that Punjab university students were charged with sedition for protesting a fee hike betrays the fascist face of the Indian state which has been systematically branding people’s movements for economic and social justice as “anti-national.”
COSTISA condemns the violence unleashed on Punjab University students. It stands in solidarity with the students of Punjab University in their struggle against commoditization of higher education and their effort to save a public university from becoming a profit driven enterprise which would deprive millions of first generation students from gaining access to higher education. COSTISA demands that the fee hike be rolled back immediately. It also demands that all the charges against chargesheeted students be dropped unconditionally.
The Coordination of Science and Technology Institutes’ Student Associations (COSTISA)
Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras
Ambedkar-Periyar-Phule Study Circle, IIT Bombay
Students for Change, IIT BHU
Ambedkar Bhagat Singh Study Circle, IIT Kharagpur
Forum for Critical Thinking, IIT Kanpur