Let us understand the entire JNU fee hike protest from the vantage point of Sunita. She is an average Indian young woman. She lives in a village, close to a district town. Her father is an average Indian farmer who owns a little under 3 acres of land (average landholding in India is roughly 2.8 acres). Her mother works towards raising the family besides looking after their buffalo. Theirs is a five-member family (Indian average is 4.45), including her grandmother and her younger brother, who studies in Class 10. She is exceptionally bright and has topped her college in BA. She dreams of becoming an IPS officer, like the ‘Madam’ she saw in her college function. She wants to do an MA in JNU to pursue her aspiration.
She is not alone or atypical. She is among the millions of first-generation learners who are entering higher education – poor, mostly rural and disproportionately more from marginal communities such as Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim or OBC. This is not necessarily for love of knowledge. It is just that they have discovered, rather belatedly, that degrees are a passport to fulfil their aspirations to enter the middle class. Last year, we had 3.74 crore students in higher education, the number is growing by about 6 lakh every year. Sunita would be among the 11 per cent of those enrolled for higher education who manage to go beyond a simple graduation and have a realistic hope of a half-decent job.
What would it take for her to fulfil her dream? The Preamble to our Constitution promises her “equality of opportunities”. So, she should be able to pursue her higher education based on her ability, irrespective of her gender, her location, her family means. But can she?
How fee hike affects household budget
Her family is not very poor, certainly not below the poverty line. She is from a respected farming family in her village. Besides working on their own land, the family keeps a buffalo that yields some much-needed extra income. Last year, their monthly family income was Rs 9,350 (National Sample Survey’s latest estimate of average per capita monthly expenditure in India is Rs 1,446. My estimate is based on the rural figure multiplied by 5 and adjusted for inflation from the base year). Let us say it has gone up to Rs 10,000 per month this year, or Rs 1.2 lakh per annum.
Now, let us see what would it take her to go to JNU (it could be University of Hyderabad for that matter) to pursue her Masters.
An average rural family like hers incurs about 50 per cent of its total expenditure on food. Clothing, durables, electricity and transport account for another 30 per cent. That leaves the family with just Rs 24,000 per annum for education, medicine, all other services and any contingency. Her brother’s education costs them Rs 3,600 per annum since he studies in the local government school. The family wants to send him to a nearby private school that would cost Rs 7,800 per year (Figures are from the latest NSO survey on Household Consumption on Education).
For a moment, imagine yourself to be Sunita’s parents and look at your budget. Let us say you have access to the government’s latest survey on cost of education. It tells you that it would cost her annually Rs 13,000 if she stays at home and goes to the nearby government college, and Rs 17,000 if she opts for the local private college. The cost will be twice as much if she goes out and stays in a hostel.
The annual cost for studying at JNU would have been around Rs 32,000, while for most other public universities it would be about Rs 50,000.
You can now see why a jump in annual fee from an estimated Rs 32,000 to Rs 56,000 for a JNU student living in a hostel might make a difference to your decision (that’s additional 20 per cent of your annual household budget).
Not enough scholarships
And remember, we are not even thinking of a poor family. Sunita represents an average village family, better placed than more than half of rural India (That’s right: median of income distribution is lower than its statistical mean).
All this calculation excludes any additional courses or tuition or coaching that Sunita might need. She is of course not thinking of technical or professional courses like BTech or a Bachelor’s degree in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS), where her basic fee, excluding hostel, would be an estimated Rs 50,000 even in an ordinary public institution. You, her parents, have mercifully not heard about the run-of-the-mill private professional colleges that cost at least Rs 2 lakh a year, not to mention elite private universities that cost Rs 8-10 lakh a year.
What about a scholarship? So, you look up the National Scholarship Portal. Yes, she is eligible for a central government scholarship that could pay her Rs 20,000 per annum. But you missed the deadline by three years, as she needed to apply at the end of Class 12. In any case, it is awarded to only 82,000 students every year. If you combine all the higher education scholarship schemes of the various ministries of government of India, it comes to an estimated Rs 1,801 crore (about 2.6 per cent of its education budget) for about 1.4 lakh scholarships per year (less than 2 per cent of the students who enter higher education every year) in 2014-15. If you distribute that amount to the total number of students enrolled in higher education that year, it amounts to just Rs 527 per student per annum. Private universities in the capitalist US provide more students with financial aid than our ‘socialist’ country.
How to fix this
What would Sunita’s parents do, if they were to frame the country’s higher education policy? I bet they would insist on the following four steps.
- The cost of education should be affordable for a family like hers. If we have to be true to the constitutional promise of equality of opportunities, then tuition and other fees should be kept as low as possible. The fee charged by private institutions too should be effectively regulated. Higher education cannot be used for profiteering.
- There should be a quantum jump in the number and amount of fellowships. At least 10 per cent of all top students irrespective of caste or community and at least top 25 per cent students from educationally disadvantaged communities must get full scholarship that covers actual tuition and living costs (an improved version of this scheme).
- Other students should get the benefit of a generous earn-while-you-learn scheme. Under this,students can work within the institution for up to 20 hours in a week and can earn enough to pay their mess bills.
- The existing scheme of bank loans for students should be radically revised. The government should provide the surety on student loans and interest should be capped at around 7 per cent that farmers pay on their KCC card, with further relaxation on timely payment.
These are not new or radical suggestions. A committee appointed by the erstwhile Planning Commission, headed by Professor Pankaj Chandra, who was then director of IIM Bangalore, had made more or less similar suggestions in 2012. There was no follow up by the UPA or the NDA regime.
If you were Sunita’s parents, you would be thankful to JNU students that they raised this issue. At the same time, you would wish and pray that this protest does not end with rollback of fee hike just for JNU. You would know that very often, as in the case of the MeToo movement, a real and pressing issue is brought to light not by the worst-affected victim but by the victim who can best articulate it. You would want to focus on the deeper issues that this protest has raised: higher education has become unaffordable just when the number of those who desperately need it is exploding. Our education policy must respond to this pressing need. Solutions are available. What is missing is political will.
If you are reading this piece, you are clearly not Sunita’s parents. But should we all not think like one?
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.