On Monday, hundreds of JNU students went on protest in New Delhi against a recent fee hike decision by the administration. Students say that the fee hike is an attempt to exclude students from marginalised and low-income backgrounds from accessing quality education.

In recent times students from many universities have gone on protest against fee hikes imposed by their administrations. What is the deeper issue at play here?

The fee hikes in numerous universities including the IITs, IIMs, NLUs and several other sought-after institutions are designed to overlook students from underprivileged backgrounds who cannot afford quality education without a public subsidy.

Fee hikes make things worse for students from lower income backgrounds, pushing them to take loans, which means that they will leave university with the highest levels of debt. In essence they price out poor students from India’s premier universities.

For a very long time, successive governments have underfunded higher education in India. In the last budget the government allocated only Rs 37,461 crores for the entire higher education sector – for comparison it also bought 36 Rafale fighters for Rs 62,000 crore. It imposed severe fund cuts for technical education institutions as well as the University Grants Commission.

Meanwhile, as many have observed, the proposed Higher Education Commission of India intended to replace the UGC will extend political control over all public universities.

Many of India’s central universities have long been comatose due to extreme administrative apathy, intellectual corruption, underrecruitment of faculty and staff, and underfunding.

This multi-dimensional crisis affects the most significant demographic of Indian society. The country has lost a number of prestigious universities due to these internal malaises. Universities like Patna University and Allahabad University, which were once considered to be prominent centres of teaching and research, have now lost all their glories.

However, JNU has stood the test of time. The university is one of the top ranked university in the Times World University rankings. It was ranked 96 in Asia and between 601-800 in the world. The government’s own National Institutional Ranking Framework ranked it number 3 in 2016 and number 2 in 2017. JNU is also well known for its research output throughout the world.

An exclusionary education system has long been a feature of Indian society. Access to education in India was typically controlled by the upper castes, especially Brahmins. Reading, writing and formal education were violently denied or restricted to the majority of Indians.

The recent fee hikes can be understood as a manifestation of this systemic disease. What kind of social transformation or enrichment can Indians bring about, when only the children of the rich can afford a quality education, contributing to the culture of favouritism and nepotism?

Through successive governments the state seems to have come to an arrangement, whereby public institutions will fail to deliver quality education to students, and privately owned businesses will make the maximum of this opportunity.

As policy analyst Angshuman Chaudhary points out, "‘education’ is being increasingly seen as a consumer service that is a direct function of individuals’ financial capital. If you have more money, then you are automatically entitled to ‘better’ education. As if it’s the same thing as a golf club membership or a pair of shoes or real estate. Thanks to this dominant thought, boisterous private players now have free reign to set their own price on ‘good quality’ education and cartel-ise the fee structure, thus excluding millions from accessing this good quality education...

"But, what is worse is the internalisation of the idea that the private sector is the only viable model for high-quality education. More and more people are now convinced that free, state-sponsored education for all is as special (and non-existent) as a unicorn, or at the very least, a leftist cliché. Market economy tropes like ‘quality control’ are employed to justify that the free market model is a blessing. This is despite the fact that fancier classrooms and more amenities does not translate to meaningful education. This is also despite the absence of a single theoretical barrier to good quality state-funded education."

In the last five years the private education industry in India has nearly doubled in size. Research shows that the revenues of this sector stood at $97.8 billion in 2016 and are projected to reach $180 billion in 2020.

At the same time, with a few exceptions in the states, governments are spending less and less public money on education.

Education spending dropped from 1% of GDP in the NDA government’s first budget in 2014 to 0.62% in 2017-18. Its share in the budget has been slashed from 6.15% to 3.7%.

This violates the state’s obligation to provide quality education to all Indians. If the majority of students cannot afford a good education, the right to education guaranteed in the Constitution will remain a mere slogan.

In a number of judgments such as Unni Krishnan, J.P. & Ors. v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. and Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka the Supreme Court has reiterated that the right to education is a fundamental right, a guarantee that becomes worthless if this right cannot be exercised by the poorest of the poor.

Another problem in the current debate, dominated by upper-caste Indians, is that education is still considered to be an individual’s private accomplishment. Its larger benefits to society are rendered invisible.

University graduates are vital for a healthy society. We need to stop seeing education as something that only benefits individuals. The availability of affordable quality education, at all levels, directly relates to our country’s well being.

The lack of quality, affordable education is also a major reason for unemployment.

According to recent reports, India’s unemployment numbers are at a record high. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy recently estimated that 11 million or 1.1 crore jobs were lost in 2018, pushing the unemployment rate to 7.38%. A leaked NSSO report pegged the unemployment rate at 6.1%, the highest in 45 years.

The student protests show that many young people are looking to enter university and extend their education beyond schooling to improve their employment prospects.

When suitable employment is not immediately available, they are likely to remain patient if they are not denied an education, and see others like them benefiting in terms of employment or other opportunities.

But quality education is already inaccessible to most. A recent report by an employability assessment company estimates that over 80% of engineering graduates in India lack the skills needed to be employable in existing businesses.

This should be a warning bell for the government.

If we look outside India, unaffordable university education and crushing student debt have already led to large protests in the United States and a number of countries in South America.

Of the 36 wealthy, democratic countries that currently make up the OECD, seven subsidise fees for public colleges and universities. And about two dozen countries provide free or nearly-free education at public colleges and universities to their citizens.

The significance of accessibile education for Indians cannot be underestimated. It is high time we look at student protests against unaccountable administrations and massive fee hikes as evidence of a larger structural problem underlying our systems.

Apeksha Priyadarshini/ Facebook

Prannv Dhawan and Bhaskar Kumar are students of the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.

(Cover Photo: The Telegraph)