Over the last few months, AISA has been at the forefront of many student issues and protests in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the struggle against caste discrimination or for better medical and hostel facilities, these initiatives have served to build up a radical left alternative for the students’ movement in the southern state. The following report outlines briefly some of the key struggles undertaken by AISA in recent times:

Demanding Better Hostels and Health Facilities

In a situation where the government is busy reducing allocations to education, the conditions and availability of hostels for students from Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes is steadily becoming worse. Students have now begun organizing themselves to deal with long-pending demands on hostel issues.

Throughout Tamil Nadu, law college students have no hostel. The only hostel for law students is in Chennai and there is one private hostel in Salem. This causes great difficulties for students who are keen on pursuing their studies.  On 20th March, AISA organized a dharna in front of the Law College, Madurai in which Comrades Vindotha (AISA sec. Madurai), Rameshwar Prasad, Vengatachalam (State Gen. Sec), Com. Raha Sankar (State Vice President) and Com Bharathi (State President) spoke. Com Usha (State Gen.Sec. AIPWA) also addressed the meeting.

A Protest Dharna was organized in Selam on March 23, 2010 demanding proper maintenance of Hostels and payment of scholarship dues. The protest was presided by Karthikeyan and Muthukumar (Law College Students, Selam). Comrades Vengatachalam (State Gen. Sec. AISA), Gopal (Kanchipuram District Secretary, AISA) and Comrade Bharathi (State President-AISA) participated.

In a dalit hostel in Madurai, a girl student died because of inadequate health care facilities. AISA immediately responded by issuing a poster condemning the incident and a sustained struggle forced the administration to accept responsibility and pay compensation to the girl’s family.

In a similar incident, a student of Meenaxi College died from a virus fever after the warden of the hostel did not allow her to leave the campus to receive medical treatment. AISA took up this struggle as well, organizing protests to force responsibility on the college.

Demanding a Proper Inquiry into the Deaths of Outstation Students in Chidambaram

Two months ago, an outstation student of Annamalai University, Chidambaram met his death after falling from an overcrowded bus. The tragedy occurred due to negligence and led students from the university to organize a protest. However, the police met the students’ demonstration with a brutal lathi-charge in which three students from Bihar died. AISA intervened condemning this brutal attack and demanded a proper investigation into the incident. However, till date, the authorities continue to maintain silence on these incidents.

Protest Against Caste Discrimination in School ID cards

The Murugappa Group is one of the leading corporate houses in Tamilnadu. It is known by it brand name TI (TI Cycles, TI Diamond Chain and so on). The Group also runs a school in the industrial town of Ambatur, near Chennai.

The management of the school issued ID cards to students where they were marked by their caste identification. Although there are many trade unions in the industrial establishment, none of them thought it fit to raise this issue. AISA, however, declared its protest in front of the school and also conducted a poster campaign condemning the school management’s discriminatory tactics. The intensity of the protest and the response it received was such that the trade unions were also forced to belatedly join the struggle.

Following protests, the local Inspector of Police met the Head Master and advised him to meet the AISA State President so as to solve the issue amicably. The management called the AISA leader over the phone and admitted they had committed a blunder. The struggle, however, went ahead as planned. The Head Master came out and met the protestors, assuring immediate withdrawal of the discriminatory ID cards. These ID cards were taken back before noon.

The protest was address by Dewaki (AIPWA, State Vice-President), Mohan, Munisamy (Uzipalar Urimai Iyakkam), Raja (AICCTU-Construction wing State Secretary) and AISA leaders Suresh, Murugadas and Aswin.  More than 75 people participated in the demonstration.

Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Memorial Conventions Held

Conventions commemorating the Martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar were held as part of Shahadat Saptah in Salem and Kanyakumari. Comrades, organizers and activists from AISA participated with great enthusiasm in these events. The Conventions committed themselves to upholding the revolutionary legacies of Bhagat Singh and Chandu. They voiced concern at the wholesale privatization of education and demanded the improvement of infrastructure in schools and colleges.

While many of these struggles have been victorious ones, many of AISA’s leaders have had to face the wrath of the administration and authorities. False and motivated cases have been registered against our activists Bharathi, Vengatachalam, Divya, Karthikeyan and Mlalarvizi for their involvement in these struggles or else they are facing suspension from their colleges.

However, we continue with the resolve that these struggles are about basic student demands and rights and must be taken forward.

Resist UPA’s Foreign Universities Bill !

Defend Sovereignty, Social Justice And Inclusion in Higher Education!

The Foreign Educational Institution (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill 2010 was recently cleared by the Union Cabinet presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is a bill with dangerous implications, for it allows foreign educational providers to set up campuses in India and offer degrees. The UPA will in all likelihood get it ratified, as it is on its way to being tabled before both houses of the Parliament.

Behind The Smokescreen of ‘Choice’, ‘Competition’ and ‘Quality’

The Minister for Human Resources Development, Kapil Sibal his cohorts would have us believe that this Bill will ‘enhance choices’, ‘increase competition’ and ‘benchmark quality’.

But this smokescreen of ‘choice’, ‘competition’ and ‘quality’, hides the real truth behind this Bill. This is a bill that will pave the way for virtually unrestricted entry of foreign private players in higher education. It will only hasten the process of converting education into a commodity available to a select few who can afford it. Above all, it essentially absolves the state of its responsibility to provide affordable, quality education to its citizens and to ensure social inclusion in institutions of higher education in the country.

We need only remember that according to a story published in the Indian Express, the aggressive advocate of the liberalization policy, Manmohan Singh, objected to an earlier version of the Foreign Universities Bill on two counts: 1) fee regulations by the UGC and 2) the modalities of giving approval to these universities. The PMO apparently argued that if the UGC regulates fee for foreign varsities, Ivy League institutes would not set up their campuses in India! In other words, the PMO made an all-out attempt to dilute even the minimalist restrictions that had been inserted in the bill to curtail the foreign education providers..

While the UPA is hastily trying to lay the red carpet for the entry of foreign universities, we need only point to the mess that it is facing over the complete unregulated behavior of hundreds of illegal ‘deemed’ universities in the country. These deemed universities are pockets of profit rather than learning, where ‘education’ and ‘quality’ have been reduced to a complete farce. To turn attention away from its connivance in this wholesale corruption and destruction of quality education, the HRD ministry has an innovative solution: it is time to invite foreign players onto the scene!

And what is the justification being offered? That the proposed bill will open the floodgates for the best universities to set up shop in India, and therefore Indian students will no longer have to go abroad to pursue quality education! But will Ivy League Universities actually come running to open their campuses in India? The farce of this argument has been repeatedly exposed by experiences across the globe.  Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA, points out:

Most foreign providers are not top universities but are rather institutions at the middle or bottom of the hierarchy in their home countries. Some have financial or enrolment problems at home and want to solve them with offshore ventures. And some are “bottom-feeders” who will provide a substandard educational product in India. … International experience shows that the “market” is slow to detect low quality — and there seems to be a clientele for poor quality in any case.”

Universities as Shops and Sources of Profit

The fact of the matter is that foreign universities will be highly reluctant to enter India unless it is hugely profitable to them; unless they are given a free hand to decide on their fee structures and course content. Several foreign universities have openly expressed their strong opposition to any attempt of the Indian government to introduce provisions of reservations, or to introduce stringent norms on hiring faculty, on fee structures or bans on remittances back home. And this is precisely why no foreign university or educational institution has sprinted to India and established its offshore campus even though FDI in higher education has been allowed since 2000. The sole motivation of FDI is always profit. And if the sources of profit are curtailed, then investors look for other destinations for their investments.

A Setback to Social Justice

The proposed bill will also mean a setback to the hard-earned victory of the student movement to ensure a degree of social inclusion in institutions of higher learning. Quota laws mandating reservations for SC/ST/OBCs will not be applicable to these foreign universities setting up operations in India.

Will Knowledge be Free?

Also at stake is the important question of what exactly will be taught in these foreign universities? The fact of the matter is that FDI serves to strengthen the stranglehold of neo-liberal ideas in academia. It impedes the development of critical research within our university education system, geared towards meeting the social, political and economic imperatives of the poor and underprivileged majority of a country like India.

Re-ordering education is crucial in order to ensure a workforce tailored to the exigencies of global capital. Global capital requires that education be provided only to the degree and extent that it serves the market. The question, for us, is – do we in India need education that will further knowledge and make us more self-reliant? Or do we need education that is a slave to global capital and the ‘free’ market? The needs of our people and the needs of global capital are clearly at odds with each other.

Higher education and research are not just means of eking a livelihood or getting a job – they equip people with the capacity for critical analysis. And the market does not need or want people with a faculty for critical analysis. In fact, the market views such critical analysis as a threat – because it can see through the seductive mask of the market to the cruel face beneath. The market needs research, certainly, but not the kind of research that seeks to understand, change or benefit society.

As the Foreign Universities Bill moves to the Parliament for ratification, the entire student community and the democratic sections of society will have to rise up in defense of affordable quality education to oppose this anti-poor, anti-student legislation which will hasten the process of converting higher education institutions into exclusive enclaves of the rich.