For almost a week now, the nation has been transfixed at the spectacle of JNU students doing what they are best known for. Taking to the streets and protesting. This time the trigger for protests is a hike in fees at JNU. The students claim that the increased fees put a quality JNU education out of their reach.
Well, at least the students are protesting about something that actually touches their daily lives, instead of imaginary enemies such as “US imperialism” or something in Gaza. A significant improvement, I would say.
The JNU protests have resulted in a predictable war of narratives on both mainstream and social media. The (mostly) left-wing students at JNU say all they want is affordable education. They say affordable education is a moral imperative in India, given our widespread poverty. They also point out that affordable education is an important investment in the future of our country. In their support, they remind us that higher education is free in a number of highly developed countries across the world, such as Germany or Finland or Sweden and how much good it has done to them.
The other side, consisting mostly of right-wing sympathizers, has struck back. They ask why JNU should be subsidized in the first place, especially given the reputation their student body has come to acquire. As taxpayers, they want to know whether the research at JNU is relevant and how it brings returns to our country. Research from JNU on the cultural background of fictional porn character Savitha Bhabhi, whether these were exceptions or not, does not help their cause in the public eye.
Sadly, the most important distinction has been lost in this fiery debate over JNU.
There has been no fee hike at JNU at all. None whatsoever.
Going to JNU remains free. Many if not most students actually receive a stipend for studying at JNU!
Then, what is the ruckus about? What are the JNU protests about?
Well, JNU has hiked hostel fees. Service charges and establishment charges for students to stay in their hostels.
Why is this being mixed up with the issues of free education? Now, go back to all those developed nations that provide free higher education. Does any of them provide free food and free accommodation for students? Of course not.
I can understand the demand for free higher education. But free board and lodging? Really? And why?
Even primary schools in India, or for that matter anywhere else, do not provide free accommodation. How can the JNU student body, consisting mostly of grown-up postgraduate students, possibly expect a free ride when it comes to board and lodging?
A simple Google search brought me to this BBC article on higher education in Germany.
In Germany, housing can be so expensive that students groups are now building box-like basic rooms out of cheap material for students to live in.
Indeed, it is not easy being in higher education for an extended period. That is essentially the promise of higher education everywhere in the world. Early on in life, you spend some years living in hardship. At the end of it, you earn a degree that becomes your ticket to social mobility.
Why are so many JNU students involved in the protests pretending their lives should be any different? If the hostel seems too pricey, move out. Get a part-time job to pay the bills. Other students are doing this all across the world. In doing so, students are actually learning valuable life skills: how to manage finances and navigate the real world. When they step out of school, this money and people management skills will stand them in good stead.
Higher education is not an extended childhood. There is nothing wrong with expecting grown-up students to find their own room and board. There is no shame in getting your own groceries, cooking your own food and sweeping your own floors. You would think that left-wing inclined JNU students would accept this premise. Actually, why would you? Nobody loves social classes as much as comrades do…
This is also a win-win from the point of view of standards in higher education. Instead of investing huge resources building, maintaining and administering free hostels, JNU can spend all that money where it really matters. They can spend on providing tools for high-quality research, attracting high-quality scholars, buying scientific and technical equipment.
Isn’t that what students want as well? Isn’t that what the country needs?
Sensible students at JNU need to realize that this is neither punishment nor persecution. This is, in fact, a chance to grow up and learn skills they will need for their life outside of college. The education is free. They can leave campus, earn their own money and manage their own room and board.
Some of the anger from students is also about new codes of dress, restrictions on visitors and so-called curfew timings. The resentment is not surprising, considering that these students are all adults. But, if you expect the university to be a nanny, expect to be treated like a child. Rules for dressing up, rules for going out, rules for coming in and rules for bedtime. It sucks. That’s why JNU students should embrace their adult lives, with both rights and responsibilities that come with it.