writes Pratik Ali.
The decision on part of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to scrap the Non-NET Fellowship for research scholars (when students were expecting a raise after student demands; JRF, a merit-based fellowship taken by just a small fraction of those who pass the NET, was raised by more than 50% last October) drew some holes in a can of many worms. This should not be looked as the only factor leading to the protests that we know as #OccupyUGC, though. Students have witnessed in recent years increased insecurity in the university-system: teaching jobs are mostly on contract, ill-defined, with arbitrary powers exercised by college-administrations, greater measures for discipline and control (like CCTVs and biometric attendance), more exploitation through publishing requirements, greater imposition upon students through semesterization, weekly/monthly assignments, three-monthly exams, restructuring of an already imposed syllabus, whether by right-wing intervention or by demands of market. Most importantly, the question of getting “decent jobs” after studies is perhaps the most intensely occupying thought of most students today, and is itself a question invoking many uncertainties. This has made the grade-system more and more overbearing, leading to intense competition between students on the one hand, but at the same time adding to their collective anxieties and frustrations. What students are experiencing today is one of the most transparent processes of being accountable to the market in our daily lives. What is happening under the hashtag #OccupyUGC across cities is not just a demand for increased fellowship, but this collective frustration is looking for targets and ways of expression.
What do we see ourselves as? Most accounts have so far looked at #OccupyUGC as a defence of human rights. ‘Education’ is seen as a basic right which the state must provide at subsidized rates so that even the most marginalized sections can afford it. The fellowship-cut then is seen as a direct attack on a basic human right, and as harmful to education. We are thus supposed to be subjects of a welfare-state in an education system that is otherwise fine, more so as it allows for social mobility. Our task is seen as keeping this system intact.
Is there an alternative to this view? We present one: the irony about human rights is that even though they are accepted in principle by everybody from the state to the education fraternity (RTE) to the market that is attacking the so-called ‘welfare’ system, their violation is participated in by each and everyone. An alternative understanding would be that formal education disciplines and trains students into professions. They create mostly workers and a small fraction of managers from every new batch that enrolls. In doing so, education from the outset prepares ground for hierarchy and exploitation. Should exploitation be seen as a human right?
As research scholars, we find that ‘doing research’ demands from us higher and higher productivity: firstly, we must produce dissertations and present papers in journals and conferences; secondly, we must help our guides and departments in academic and extra-curricular activities; thirdly, because most research scholars at present don’t even get the fellowship and what we get is too meager, we must take up teaching/other jobs to sustain ourselves. Should we believe that research scholars are “getting an education” or aren’t we really keeping the university machinery oiled and running? The demand for increased fellowship then is no less than a demand for our wage; it is a demand against being fleeced for free. The question of fellowship can, in fact, be linked with that of minimum wage at this point.
What are the possibilities? Many. With a gathering like that witnessed outside the UGC headquarters numbering in hundreds, possibilities increase manifold. The first indication is that existing hegemonies feel threatened. ABVP, known for ‘capturing’ public space in Delhi University, is forced to perform futile spectacles. Civil administration is forced to suspend all pretence to democracy by calling in the police forces. There is always the danger of the gathering spilling and snow-balling in numbers. That is our strength. It becomes more than just fellowship. It can speak against individual harrassment based on gender, caste or religion. It can speak against the hierarchy of the grade systems through collective abstention from exams. It can beseige academic councils and intervene in the making of syllabi and time-tables. It can create spaces where curiosity isn’t impeded by censorship. It can leave entire attendance sheets blank if it so desires. The problem of housing becomes one of mutual aid. These tendencies are already seen all around. How they will expand and spill-over is a trend worth observing and participating in.
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