January 16, 2022

The Fee Must Fall Movement: An Ongoing Struggle Towards Victory

Parichay Yadav

IT is true that the history of public education has been fraught with neo-liberal, authoritative and regressive attacks on the promises of secular, scientific and accessible education in this country. It has been, however, at its core, also a history of continuous student struggles fought not just against these attacks but for an equal and just society. The debarring and imposition of fine on 11 students of Pondicherry University over protests against fee hikes are a reflection of this same anti-student sentiment. The university and the government are hell-bent on selling off education.

In 2018, when the Pondicherry University administration proposed a fee hike, it did not consult any student representatives.  There are around six thousand students who study at Pondicherry University.  It assumed that these six thousand students, who represent different class and caste backgrounds, gender and sexual identities, familial setups and support, kinds and levels of physical disability, and a lot of whom, thus, face severe structural disadvantages and are barely able to fulfil the existing fee requirements, will be able to pay this exorbitantly hiked new fee.

The administration simply did not care for the students. It cited concerns about the lack of funds, inability to pay the faculty, etc., as being the driving force behind the fee hike.

The fee hike in JNU, which was proposed along the same lines of their having not been a hike in the fee in years and hence, the new fee hike is

justified, was protested by thousands of students. The fee hike in Kurukshetra University, in Visva Bharti, which have all have been underlined by a common thread - the intention to make universities a playing field for the rich representing and furthering ruling class interests- also saw protests.

 The attacks on the idea of a university as accessible and just spaces providing space for critical thinking have been on almost all fronts- students have been targeted for protesting the vicious CAA-NRC, faculty members have been investigated for teaching their own subjects critically, scholarships have been denied to students for participating in protests, students have been suspended for making graffiti in college, millions have been spent on installing cameras and surveillance mechanisms in universities to control the movement of students, reservation criteria are being diluted, fellowships have been deducted, etc.

The students began the “Fee Must Fall” protests at Pondicherry University. The initial phase of protest had begun as and when the unjustifiable fee hike was first proposed. The previous students’ council of 2018-19 opposed the fee structure when the university released its prospectus for admission to the 2019-20 academic year.   Representatives of the students’ council went on an indefinite hunger strike in front of the gate in July 2019, forcing the university to constitute a committee, including representatives of the elected students’ council, to resolve the issue.

The committee had no intentions whatsoever to address the concerns raised, wasting seven months to nothing, and the vice-chancellor never bothered to meet the student representatives regarding the matter. The culmination was an indefinite strike in February 2020, occupying the administrative block for 33 days. The struggle was marked by hunger strikes, lathi charge and detention by the police, nights spent in the open by hundreds of students, night after night, singing, dancing, raising slogans, studying, demanding that they be heard.

The beauty of the protest was this: that we saw each other, we understood, and we made a commitment that none of us, has to drop out of this university because of the fees. Once the university moved to the Madras High Court in March 2020, we hoped that it would conduct negotiations with the council as ordered by the court and we will win a victory for the student body. We had decided that we will continue till victory because so much was at stake.

In these pandemic times, suicide rates among students are seeing a record high. The dropout numbers among students are in the thousands.  Many of us have exhausted our financial reserves in surviving the pandemic and are at the same time forced to look at a future without any employment opportunities. The mental health of so many of our fellow students has taken a toll. The digital divide in the country has made learning, in its true sense, impossible. And yet, the attacks on students and on public education have continued. Universities have shamelessly continued to demand regular fees from students despite them not using any university facility and despite a pandemic raging in the country which has resulted in the loss of life, jobs, and finances for the most marginalized of us.

The government has gone ahead with the NEP without ever consulting any student representatives over something that will literally transform the landscape of higher education and make it commercialised, communal and centralised. Scholarships have been delayed and reservations have not been implemented well.

It is in the middle of the same pandemic, that Aishwarya, a fellow student at Delhi University, had lost her life due to the delay in receiving her scholarship from the university. It was during the same pandemic that Pondicherry University sent a show-cause notice to the students for participating in the “Fee Must Fall” protest. The pandemic did not make this government or university administrations any kinder or accountable or sensitive towards student’s issues. They have been relentless in their exploitative policies. We need to be relentless with our struggle, thus. For it is kindness towards each other, accountability towards each other’s dreams and rights, and sensitivity towards the struggles that so many of us within the university and outside fight every day that carries us forward. It is time to again find our feet, to hold hands with each other, and to march towards that which is rightfully ours, towards a just, equal and beautiful society. This is our dream.

As this piece is written, Pondicherry University has debarred 11 students including the writer, for protesting during the “Fee Must Fall” protests. These suspensions have been used to scare the student community, to ensure that no one protests in the future. These tactics and motives are old, but their failure has also been old. Students have emerged victorious at Visva Bharti. Students have marched towards victory, in solidarity with each other, against the most powerful of attacks on the ideals of a just world, with all their heart, time and again. It is time.

This process of commercialisation makes education a luxurious commodity, not likely for students from the marginalised sections to afford. Thus, in a broader sense, each struggle against fee hike, for making education accessible to everyone, inherits the same class character and the undying spirit from all those historic struggles of the working class and the peasantry, including the recent farmers’ agitation against the farm laws which emerged victorious after one year. Hundreds of students are protesting every day at Pondicherry University against the suspension, but more so because they believe that fee must fall. And the fee will fall. The struggle will continue, for so much is at stake and there is so much that we can do. To equality, to each other, to victory!