At the heart of the current debate at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University lies a fundamental question: does the government recognise its responsibility to invest in a robust public education system that is open to all?

Students at the university have been protesting for weeks against a “whopping 999%” proposed increase in fees for hostel rooms and other facilities. Utilities they had not been charged for before would now cost Rs 1,700. After protests, quelled by force, the government announced a “major rollback”. Upon closer scrutiny, this applied only to students at the university who are below the poverty line – according to some estimates, they form about 40% of the student body. But they would still have to pay Rs 300 and Rs 150 for rooms that had previously cost Rs 10 and Rs 20 and 50% of the new utility and service charges. This for students who live on less than Rs 32 a day in rural areas and Rs 47 a day in urban areas.

Since its inception in 1966, Jawaharlal Nehru University presented a radical promise in India: quality higher education for all, cutting across caste, class and economic divisions. For decades, it has tried to keep this commitment to social justice. The university has seen dissensions within, but it is JNU, more than any other institute of higher education, that has succeeded in crafting a vibrant academic culture that is informed by voices and concerns across the socio-economic spectrum.

The proposed fee increases strike at the heart of that vision. It would force several students, below the below the poverty line as well as first-generation graduate and post-graduate students out of the system. Nominal hostel fees were vital to the thousands who came from across India to seek a better life and education. With the proposed fee hikes, JNU could become the most expensive central university in India. While many who could afford it would be pushed to education and careers abroad, it would also end the hopes of thousands in small towns and villages in India.

The proposed changes also tap into larger concerns about public funding in education, especially higher education, in India. The global ranking of Indian universities has declined steadily In 2014, the highest ranked Indian university was the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, at 328. In 2018, it was the Indian Institute of Science, at 420. Despite this, over the past half a decade, funding for higher education seems to have slipped steadily in the Centre’s list of priorities. Even as the Centre promised an increase in spending on education, the share of the Union budget allocated to it fell from 4.14% in 2014-’15 to 3.4% in 2019-’20.

While the lack of trained faculty and vacancies in staff positions may be a key factor, there is a more fundamental flaw in governmental thinking. Education is a fundamental right, not a privilege for those who can afford it. The short shrift given to education contradicts the Modi government’s own appeal to aspiration and social mobility. Besides it needs to invest in and prioritise higher education for its own interests. Making a university degree the preserve of the well-heeled can only curtail the supply of skilled professionals, teachers and innovators needed to revive a flailing economy.