Reclaiming academia: understanding the student movement of our time: Tony Kurian and Suraj Gogoi

This is a guest post by TONY KURIAN and SURAJ GOGOI

Students from different parts of the country started protesting since a Dalit student from one of the premier universities of the country (University of Hyderabad) committed suicide on account of caste discrimination by the administration. This new wave of protests can be traced back to Occupy UGC which erupted when University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to stop the monthly research stipend known as non-net fellowship of Rs 5000 and 8000 for MPhil and PHD respectively. The ministry concerned has since constituted a panel to review the decision on account of student’s protests. On the other hand, we are seeing India becoming part of World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on higher education. These instances should not be regarded as isolated moments but should be viewed as an integral part of a story unfolding. It is in this context that one should locate the student movement of our time. The movement itself is receiving much media attention, and, it was mostly couched as a student’s movement against the government. For sure, the immediate demands of the students is to ensure justice to Rohith Vemula. The present wave of student movement is aimed at reclaiming academia both from an exclusivist culture which permeates much of our academic institutions, and increasing influence of free market logic in our higher education.

 Why are we seeing a new wave of student protests?

To understand why a movement like that we are witnessing now is extremely important for a vibrant and democratic academic space, we should explore some of the unwritten rules of academia itself and our academic institutions. Research is a long-term investment for the person who undertakes it. Every day he or she spends as a full time researcher is a day forgone from the job market. For a research scholar to earn a permanent job, it can take anywhere between five to ten years after the master’s programme.

Due to its long-term investment, the students from lower economic background often find it difficult to opt for research as a career. This has meant that much of our academic institutions have become exclusivist spaces for the upper strata of both cast and class of Indian society. It is here we find the link between ‘economic capital’ and other forms of capital working in the academia. The workings of multiple forms of capital have ensured that academic success is just not about talent, but have to do much with factors which are generally thought to be outside academia. These other forms of capital such as ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’ ensures that academic success is just not the result of natural aptitude but is an amalgam of multiple factors. In our spaces of higher education, inter-generational disparity between students is reinforced through the influence of the other forms of capital. The scholastic success of a student is highly influenced by the ‘cultural capital’ previously invested by the family; the hereditary transition of these forms of capital is disguised and hence thought as legitimate competence. For example, ‘social capital’ which is durable social networks is often integral to academic success and is often linked to both economic and cultural capital one holds.

The key question that haunts us is, whether our institutions of higher education are equally open to people from all strata of our society. The fact that our educational institutions replicate multiple forms of discrimination which takes place in our society is widely recognized. Students from the lower strata of caste and class often find our institutions of higher education exclusionary. Then it is the reluctance on our part to accept the influence of the other forms of capital what create the climate of exclusion for the students from lower strata of our society who work their way through the exclusionary spaces of academia.

For any profession to be called as democratic, requires the participation of students from different social backgrounds. As knowledge is power and has the ability to reinforce social structure, the necessity to include students from various social backgrounds and life-worlds becomes more important. It is in this wider canvas that one should locate the importance of the new wave of student protests.

Public funding for education is important and more so for the students who cannot afford to be in higher education without basic minimum income. We would be in an elusive world if we think that public funding alone can put an end to the multiple forms of discriminations which has now become the language of our academic institutions. The need is to bring to light and question the multiple and disguised forms in which caste discrimination take place. If fellowships are taken away, we are creating a more fertile ground for the influence of all forms of capital in academia. It is only a sustained effort from our governments which can bring students from different social backgrounds to the best of our institutions of higher education. In a long term, this can result in the creation of a more equitable academia in which the working of multiple forms of capital is mitigated. Education should not be treated as a crowdfunding event. Treating education as a service for profit in a free market logic will only result in the influence of multiple forms of capital to be increased on our institutions of higher education.

Unlike the usual narrative given by the media, the present wave of protest is not a protest against BJP led government. It is a movement to reclaim our academia both from an exclusivist culture and from the logic of free market. It is only the sustained support of the government which can reclaim our academia for larger sections of our society. It is at the same time necessary to distort the ‘monitoring gaze of the metropolises’ in academic practice in India.

The saga of Dalit students’ committing suicides in our institutions of higher education have become the norm of the day. In the campus where Rohith ended his life, 8 other Dalit students committed suicide in last ten years. Similar news are emerging from different campuses of our country. If we are to put an end to this saga, the influence of multiple forms of capital has to be halted from our academic spaces.

Tony is a research scholar at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Suraj is a research scholar at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming academia: understanding the student movement of our time: Tony Kurian and Suraj Gogoi”

  1. Dear Tony/Suraj, I should agree with you on one fact – PhD and MPhil are distant dreams for students who don’t have financial support from the family, unless they have UGC or CSIR fellowship. However, I doubt if the message you are conveying has ever come out of the student protests after the tragic death of Rohith Vemula. This incident has gone out of the hands of sensible people and I must admit that the common man is already desensitized about it. Apart from the politicians engaged in mudslinging, I don’t see anyone talking about improvements required in Academia at this point in time. I doubt if anyone is getting that message from the protests now.


  2. Dear Tony/Suraj,
    Well written article. I agree with all the points raised in the article.
    I would also like to add one more point that irrespective of social background students come from, there is no justification in government/society expecting any research scholars in their prime time of youth to do free labour. While it is true that research scholars do research because they love doing it. At the end of the day, they are contributing to the large human public knowledge. They work longer hours and with more dedication and sincerity than many other government employees. Expecting them to work and not even get payed minimum wage is like telling professors, “you keep working and teaching for free since you love doing it”. Bulk of the actual science work is done by research scholars around the world. There is no justification in expecting them to work like slaves, and not get payed for their basic expenses. Or our society should stop bragging about scientific achievements in our country.

    Disclaimer: I am really happy our govt is funding me quite well for the research I do. But I am also aware that most of my fellow research scholars in our country don’t even get a fraction of benefits I receive.


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