Here I would try to argue that the University Grants Commission’s decision to scrap non-NET fellowship is problematic by calling into question the idea of merit and entitlement based on which some are trying to justify this decision.
After the JRF amount was hiked, many expected that the same would happen for the non-NET fellowship amount which stood at Rs. 5000 and Rs. 8000 per month for MPhil and PhD students of central universities who are not getting any other UGC fellowship. However, the committee that was deliberating on the topic of increasing this fellowship amount has decided to scrap the fellowship altogether.
Then, what could be the argument in favour of continuing with the fellowship? After all, aren’t we talking about students who could not qualify for JRF, and hence have proven themselves ineligible? Why must the government waste more money on them?
If we are to honestly answer this question, a look at qualifying for JRF as a metric for eligibility must be called into question. For that, let us take a look at the ‘education’ system.
Schooling: What Is Excellence?
This education system provides education in a language that is not accessible to most, in a manner that actively dissuades students from thinking critically and analytically, and with content that is tainted with class, religious, caste, gender, and other biases. Broadly speaking, the education system has different approaches towards the poor, the Dalits, women and the ‘third’ gender, the disabled in the society, people from various ‘underdeveloped’ parts of the country, and neither last nor the least, the disobedient and the critical thinker – the said categories are NOT mutually exclusive. And the idea of excellence in such a system reflects all those biases.
What is excellence in a system where in maths and sciences, your tried-and-tested formula for excellence is a list of ‘suggestions’ – questions which will presumably appear in the examinations you are preparing for, which either your elite private or government school or your tutorials whom you pay a shitload of money will provide you with, so that you can ‘excel’ by mugging up the answers to those questions? What is excellence in a system where the teachers trained by the same rote-learning methods will not accept a correct answer because that answer does not come from the books or notes they have mugged up? What is ‘good writing’ in a system where students speaking various dialects are forced to write in the elite Brahminical dialects (which are not even recognised as dialects, but are seen as the ‘shuddh’ expression of the language) and are penalised with humiliation and low grades when they struggle with it? What is ‘good history’ in a system that is mostly preoccupied with the lives of the rulers, and that too with strong Hinduist Brahminical taints and hardly permitting analytical expressions from the students, demanding mostly memorising of dates of battles and names of rulers? What is excellence in literature in a system where the literature of and by the marginalised in terms of caste, class, ability, language, culture and gender hardly finds its way into the textbooks, and while their stories in their narration stay far from the syllabi, the literature by the authors revered by the elite is almost never subjected to critical analysis to explore the existing oppressions in different social systems and to inspire thoughts regarding how to change the systems? What is excellence in a system where ‘specialised’ education methods and equipments for PwD students are seen as a waste of public money where a little spending could have made it possible for many of them to study the subjects they would’ve liked to, even though the government has money for the bureaucrats, parliamentarians and corporations? And how easy for a student to speak up for their rights when they are crushed under the weight of the one teaching this monstrosity of an education system strives so hard to impart – that you deserve to be treated as shit if you fail the system?
‘Underdevelopment’, or deliberate negligence on part of the governments to provide proper educational facilities, has turned getting education into a struggle for many poor, dalits and tribals. The lack of teachers, books, pencils, blackboards, computers, internet, various educational toys to aid the learning process, free time from housework and other labour, electricity, guidance from parents and other sources etc has created and keeps on broadening the gap in accessing materials necessary for their ‘good performance’ in schools between the poor students and their wealthier counterparts.
Colleges: An Open Space?
The schools send some through to colleges and chuck the rest out at various levels. In higher education, along with rote learning, marginalisation based on class, caste, gender, ability, culture, good English which is a privilege of the elite too enters the rank of ‘merit’, further throttling the expressions of most of the marginalized, both in the classroom and on the answer script which determines one’s entry into the next stage. The silencing mechanism incorporates, among others, ridiculing and ignoring their contributions to classroom discussions, both by teachers and many other elite students. This delivers a blow to their confidence and takes a toll on their studies.
A System of Exclusion
UGC-NET is the crowning glory of such a system. Further, it espouses another attribute present in the education system – that of exclusion through competition. Whether you will get the JRF does not depend on your score alone, rather it also depends on how others perform on it. This other attribute of the education system fosters animosity among students and reduces cooperation and learning from each other. Many have attacked UGC-NET for its stress on rote-learning, but that will tell only part of the story. It is not to be seen as an aberration of the education system, but as reflecting its values. And the education system is not to be seen as some benevolent failure, but is to be seen as a violent system which has integrated the values of irrationality and uncritical obedience to authority which protects its classist, Brahminical, elitist fabric.
This education system needs to be overhauled for a better one, and that will not happen in isolation while the society continues with its classist, casteist, ableist, patriarchal, elitist practices. But this decision to scrap non-NET fellowship is a step clearly against that direction, as this will deny many a shot at MPhil and PhD, making higher education further exclusive to those with privileges and barring many from the marginalized a chance at contributing to the academic discourse and changing it for the better. The MPhil and PhD students are research workers, and the non-NET students are paid quite low for their work, which often involves travel expenses to field sites, libraries etc, purchasing of books and other materials, arranging for accommodation and food where there are no free hostels and messes and so on. Even access to many online journals and articles are privileged and one has to pay if one is outside the privileged circles. The elitist ‘logic’ that justifies a lower payment to a contract teacher compared to a permanent teacher, a higher payment to a manager compared to a factory worker (where this education system worked to determine their positions in the society) is the same ‘logic’ where JRF and non-JRF students’ getting differential compensation for the same work finds justification. It is high time we rebelled against this.
For a more detailed exploration of the casteist nature of merit, see this.