Setback to Science Education and the Emerging Student Discontent in IISERs

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Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) programme, one of Department of Science and Technology (DST)’s Scientific and Engineering Research under Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, was introduced in 2008 under UPA-I regime. The scheme was aimed to attract the youth population of the country to the pursuit of science in order to build human resource pool for strengthening and expanding the Science and Technology system and R&D base. One of the components of the INSPIRE scheme is Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE) that awards annually 10,000 scholarships each valued Rs. 80,000 per year for students pursuing Bachelors and Masters level courses in Basic and Natural Sciences in colleges, institutes, and universities in India. The criteria for selection ranges from meritorious top 1% of class twelve in any state / central board examinations to students pursuing integrated MS courses in Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER).

Notwithstanding the elitist character of the award, the SHE scheme has seen drastic fund cut ever since Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has come to power under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. In April 2016 the number of scholarships for students pursuing BS-MS degree for all IISERs was fixed at 585 by the DST as against awarding the scholarship to every admitted student in these institutions earlier. In order to continue receiving the scholarship under SHE scheme, a student was expected to maintain Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 6 and above on a 10 point scale or its equivalent. Last month, Dean of Academic Affairs in IISER Bhopal sent out a circular to the student community citing the supposed DST’s Letter No. DO No. DST/INSPIRE-SHE/2016 dated January 23 2018 (the letter is not found in the DST or INSPIRE website) that in order to continue receiving the SHE scholarship, the student needs to secure annual CGPA of 7 out of 10 point scale. The Office of Dean, Academics, IISER Mohali went one step ahead informing the student community a few days ago that the new rule is applicable across all batches of five-year BS-MS degree programme without citing the supposed new guideline from DST. It is not clear at this stage whether the supposedly new rule has been communicated to students of other five IISERs in the country especially so when it is claimed to be applicable from the upcoming academic year. Further, it has to be seen whether this will also be applicable to all institutions given the fact that 10,000 scholarships are awarded annually to students pursuing basic sciences in colleges, universities, and institutes. The number of students affected by this new rule form a significant section and has already created a furor among the student community. Many of them opted to study science with the promise of scholarship from the DST. The Student Representative Council (SRC) of IISER Mohali in response had rightfully asked for the guideline to be shown to them from the Dean Academics. The faculty community in IISER Mohali is maintaining absolute silence on the issue possibly fearing the backlash from the newly appointed Director Prof. Debi Prasad Sarkar who after assuming office sacked the Registrar of the institute.

While SHE scheme is witnessing the reduction of funding there was a corresponding increase in tuition fee in IISERs from last year. In 2017 there was approximately 300% hike in the tuition fee in the IISERs. The corporatization of higher education was evident in the Budget presented by the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley last month. All hitherto centrally funded higher education institutes under Revitalizing Infrastructure and Systems in Education (RISE) scheme was to be provided loan by Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA). This also marks the change from the regime of grants to loans where institutes are expected to pay back the borrowed money with interest. The bulk of the burden will fall on the student community with an increase in fees, cut in scholarship and revision to a market-friendly curriculum.