Following the #OccupyUGC protests against the decision to scrap fellowships for PhD and MPhil students, the Ministry of Human Resources Development on Sunday was forced to have second thoughts. It  constituted a committee to look into the future of fellowships that are not based on the National Eligibility Test, the exam that qualifies candidates to be lecturers. It also assured students  that all the existing "non-NET" fellowships for more than 35,000 researchers in central universities across the country will continue, irrespective of the report submitted by a committee by the end of this year. The students, however, have rejected the HRD minister's proposals.

In fact, the protests show no signs of dying down as students from across the country have begun to join the #OccupyUGC movement. They have several demands, including that non-NET fellowships be offered to researchers at all state universities, in addition to students at the existing 50 central universities that benefit from them. They also want the fellowships to be indexed to inflation.

The current wave of protests is just another chapter in a series of demonstrations held over the last year since the election of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government, which students claim is out to “saffronise” and “privatise” education. This disenchantment and widespread mobilisation among scholars present a hurdle for the Ministry of Human Resources Development's efforts to effect the so-called reforms it claims will change the face of education in the country.

South Africa’s #feemustfall

Strikingly, a similar discussion is underway in South Africa, where a protest in one university against proposed fee hikes spread like wildfire over the last fortnight to become a nationwide movement to demand more public funding for higher education institutions.

All major South African universities have been shut down since October 21, even though the government withdrew its decision to hike fee by up to 11.5%. It has promised a 0% fee hike in tuition in the next academic session. But students say this is a short-term solution that doesn’t address the larger problems of an underfunded education system.

After starting out with concerns about education, though, the South African movement has now branched out to cover other aspects of access to serves and social inclusiveness. Police crackdowns and tear gas shelling have failed to dissolve the crowds. The students are asking for more black representation in national universities, gender equality on campus and outside, as well as a hard review of the government’s policies for education and skill development. A large part of this mobilisation and organising has been assisted by social media.

Unrest in India

In India, too, students have effectively used social media to highlight their grievances. The #hokkolorob campaign started by the students of Jadavpur University students in West Bengal last year attracted nationwide attention to the fight against the Vice Chancellor who was accused of mishandling a case of sexual harassment on the campus and then allowing the police to crackdown on protesters in the middle of the night.

In recent months,  a viral post about the restrictions at the women's hostel at Jamia Millia Islamia, a popular university in the national capital, has sparked the #pinjratod campaign against sexist hostel rules. Students are trying to engage with the authorities to ensure that safe, affordable accommodation is provided to outstation women by their colleges.

This month, #OccupyUGC has gained support not just from students but from the teachers as well. More than 200 teachers have already signed a statement that condemns the move by the government to scrap the fellowships for students, and supports the movement for better grants for students.

As a testimony to just how seriously hashtags were taken in South Africa, the University of Cape Town put #feemustfall as a second respondent in a court hearing, attempting to sued the movement based on its hashtag.

Fight for rights

Even though the protests in both the countries are aimed at achieving specific – different –goals, they are united by the concerns of students in each place that about the cuts in funding for public education and falling education standards.

In South Africa, the University of the Witwatersrand, issued a statement explaining its predicament. “We have to make up our income to cover our expenditure in order to remain sustainable,” the university said. "If we do not do so, we put the quality of our academic project at risk." The university said that it spends approximately 5.1 billion rand (Rs 2,436 crores) a year while it receives a total subsidy of just over 1.4 billion rand from the government.

Other major universities in South Africa also find themselves scrambling for funds to keep crucial research facilities running.

Similar discontent is brewing in India, where the government has given no indication of raising the education budget to at least 6% of the Gross Domestic Product as suggested by a government commission more than 50 years ago. The problem is not restricted to MPhil or PhD students. Science researchers have been vying for larger stipends that would help them stay on the job. Meanwhile, there is a severe shortage of teachers even in the premier Indian Institutes of Technology and reports of cuts in student fellowships have only made matter worse.

As the Indian government gets ready to discuss opening the education sector to private and foreign players during World Trade Organisation  negotiations in Kenya in December, it would do well to look at the South African precedent and find the right solutions before student unrest at home forces it to.