If bureaucrats and university officials can enjoy subsidies, why not students?

Those from poor family background but with strong academic credentials must not face any obstacle in pursuing their education. A differential fee structure can be a plausible solution

If bureaucrats and university officials can enjoy subsidies, why not students?

NR Mohanty

Students of Jawaharlal Nehru University are up in arms on the issue of fee hike just as students of universities in England had risen a few years ago.

In both cases, the grievance of students was similar: the steep hike in fees made education unaffordable, especially for students from weaker financial background. In both cases, the response of the university administration was similar: since the fee structure was frozen for a very long time, it was necessary to increase it manifold for reasons of economic viability.

That brings us face to face with the core question: Must public universities be self-sustaining financially to exist or is the state or the Government obliged to support institutions of higher learning for ensuring access of the poorer students to such citadels of education?

In England, the first option prevailed; the British government remained adamant and the Supreme Court there too refused to come to the rescue of the protesting students, the higher fee became a living reality there.

In India too, given the openly anti-intellectual stance of the ruling dispensation today and the current tendency of the apex court endorsing most of the controversial decisions of the executive, it is most likely that the JNU administration will have its way – in fact, it may become a trend setter for other public universities across the country.

The paramount issue, therefore, is not whether the fee hike should be opposed as such (that is possibly a fait accompli), but how to soften its blow so that students from weaker economic conditions can continue to study at a prestigious university like JNU.

I was a student of JNU almost four decades ago. The hostel fee in 1979 was Rs 20 per month then; after 40 years it remains the same. There is an anomaly here. The fee could have been increased incrementally and intermittently over the years; that would have possibly passed muster. But when you increase the fees 30 times (Rs 600 per month) in one go, then there is bound to be resistance.

Imagine a situation – if university officials and the government bureaucrats (and even elected representatives) who enjoy hugely subsidised housing facilities are asked to pay rent 30 times higher all at once, what would be their reaction to such a move?

Aren’t they a greater parasite to the system, instead of them calling students parasites? In fact, a student’s wherewithal to pay more does not exist as she has no income; these public officials can afford to pay much more as they are highly paid and pampered beneficiaries of the government’s largesse.

An argument can be made that at least students who hail from financially well-off background can pay the higher fees whereas those who belong to weaker economic conditions continue to pay the lower fees. That would perhaps make a lot of sense.

I possibly could not have come out of my hometown in Odisha (Orissa then) and joined JNU, had not the living cost been affordable (In fact, many of us would not have ventured to come out of our small towns and come to Delhi to take the entrance test at the

university, as all selection tests were centralised in Delhi then, had the university not reimbursed our train fares and had the university not offered us accommodation in the campus for five days to take the written test and the interview).

My father was a government servant and he had to provide for four children pursuing education simultaneously. The fee at JNU was not only moderate; I also received generous Merit-cum-Means scholarship. That made my stay in JNU a heavenly experience, free of any financial hardship.

Many students came from similar circumstances as mine. But I must admit, some students came from a more deprived background. Some of them did not manage to get the Merit-cum-Means scholarship (as there were limited scholarships available).

But the university went out of the way to come to the rescue of such students. They were assured that if they continued to do well academically, they would not have to quit studies for financial reasons. That reassurance was a huge factor in making JNU a genuine melting-pot of students of varied backgrounds from all over the country.

But even at that time we debated why students from visibly affluent backgrounds should not be asked to pay higher fees. There were quite a few students who consumed the choicest liquor and who were capable of spending at least a couple of thousand Rupees an evening in a restaurant in the neighbourhood Priya complex, those who could fly in and out of the city at ease (at a time when travelling by plane was a luxury). Why should such students not be asked to bear a part of the subsidising cost of the poorer students?

The question of differential fee structure again came to our mind when some of us qualified the UGC NET test and received a princely sum of Rs 400 a month. That was much more than what we needed for our monthly expenses. In fact, our bank account became healthier with time.

In fact, we were embarrassed that, as students, we had such a healthy bank balance whereas some students were struggling to barely survive. Some of us had a strong feeling then that the scholarship-holding students must be asked to pay higher fees. But the university was averse to enforcing a differential fee structure in the same campus.

But it is time possibly to strongly advocate the same, especially as the university is asking for higher fees. A NET scholarship holder today gets Rs 31,000 (Junior Research Scholarship) and Rs 35,000 (Senior Research Scholarship) per month.

It is an offense to any sense of justice to demand that such students should pay Rs 20 as hostel fee per month. There should be absolutely no hesitation in asking a student earning Rs 35000 a month to pay the hostel fee of Rs 600 a month. Similarly, students from extremely rich families must be asked to pay, if they wish to be part of the campus residential life, Rs 600 a month.

But the students from the genuinely poor backgrounds with strong academic credentials – and they are the real ambassadors of JNU – and those who are not getting any government scholarship must not face any obstacle in pursuing their education.

There is nothing wrong if they continue to pay Rs 20 per month, or even better, if they are given hostel accommodation (and the entire education) free of cost.

In order that our system ensures fair play and justice to all sections of the society, the differential fee structure is the only answer.

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