Privatisation is Violence: On the Predicament of Medical Students in Ukraine

— The NotA Collective

The last two weeks have seen another addition to the litany of brutal wars ravaging our brothers and sisters on this little planet we call home; Ukraine has joined Syria, Yemen, etc, to the club of countries having to fight off invasions by imperialist superpowers, each one of them invaded for the economic and geopolitical interests of a small ruling class of ultra-rich oligarchs. But one thing that’s different this time, for Indians at least, is the surprising (to many of us) revelation that there are around 20,000 Indians stuck in the country, many attending medical colleges.

We at NotA have been watching, along with all of you, all the videos of young men and women pleading for their lives. They are being bombed1 and personally attacked2 by the Russians, and they are being beaten up and denied entry at the Romanian and Polish borders. There’s also a possibility that some are being used as human shields by Ukrainian forces.3

The government has not responded at all to the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine. They have failed to formulate or convey any concrete plans as to bringing back the Indian students.4 Instead, they are seen shouting on social media with the only concrete advice to reach the borders as soon as possible.5 As if it wasn’t obvious otherwise. There have been a few flights arranged for these students, but not nearly enough. And our great prime minister, immortal be his name, had a characteristically clear and competent response that, as always, completely solved the problem: he instructed us to study medicine in India and not smaller foreign nations, and asked the private sector to invest in building more medical colleges.6

This response is obviously unbelievably callous to the students already caught in such a horrible situation, and obviously inadequate for the situation at hand. What is less obvious is that it is calling for a solution that will make the problem even worse, in the long term. What Modi will not tell you, because it is not in his interest to save lives, is that privatisation is the main cause of the predicament of these poor students.

It’s not hard to see why. A private medical college in India costs Rs. half–one crore, and a medical college in Ukraine costs Rs. 20 lakhs — less than half as much.7 A difference of Rs 30 lakhs is more than 15 years of salary for four out of every five Indians.8 So, of course, they prefer a Ukrainian college to a private college in India. But wait, what about public colleges in India? Aligarh Muslim University fees9 are only Rs 40,000 a year! Surely that’s the best option!

Image from the World Inequality Database.8

Here’s the point, though. To get a seat in a public medical college, there need to be seats at public medical colleges. India right now has around 80,000 medical seats every year, and over 15 lakh applicants!10 Less than half of these are in government colleges.11

Image from Deswal and Singhal.11

The number of medical colleges isn’t just much less than the number of applicants, it’s also significantly less than what India needs. The WHO recommends that a country should have one doctor for every 1,000 people; in India, there is only one for every 10,000!12 So, we need ten times as many colleges, and they can either be government colleges or they can be empty colleges.

This is part of a much larger trend of ignoring education in India. Many NEET-aspiring and enrolled kids in medical colleges (sometimes as young as age 17) commit suicides.13 Official reported suicides associated to NEET increased to 14 in 2021 from 7 in 2019; the number is only getting worse due to the pandemic.14 Total number of student suicides in 2020 was 12, 526!15 This was 8.2% of total deaths! The number is even higher than that of farmer suicides,16 which we all agree is a huge crisis that needs to be dealt with. These large numbers can only be because of the inadequacy of the education system.17 How dare the government lay allegations on students who want to pursue education outside when the only option left is either suicide or leaving India. Hardly has the prime minister cared for the students of his own country, let alone those outside.

Right now, there are students stuck in a warzone, fearing for their lives. They are stuck in a warzone because there is a lack of medical education in India, and because what little is there is quickly becoming less and less affordable. The violence these young men and women are facing is being inflicted by Russian troops and Russian bombs, but it is caused by privatisation and the neglect of public health in India.

And Modi wants to make the problem worse.

  1. Ukraine: Indian Student Killed in Kharkiv; Embassy Tells All Indians to Leave Kyiv. (2022, March 1). The Wire. ↩︎

  2. @ImranTG1. (2022, February 27). [Tweet]. Twitter. ↩︎

  3. Hindustan Times. (2022, March 3). Ukrainian Forces using Indian students as human shield, says Russia | Ukraine rebuts startling claim [Video]. YouTube. ↩︎

  4. Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. (2022, February 27). #47 Student Narrates The Tale of Being Stuck in War Zone Ukraine. Spotify. ↩︎

  5. @IndiainUkraine. (2022, March 2). [Tweet]. Twitter. ↩︎

  6. With Indian students stuck in Ukraine, Modi urges private sector to invest in medical education. (2022, February 26). Scroll.In. ↩︎

  7. See @RohitChan666. (2022, February 25). [Tweet]. Twitter. or Barik, S. (2022, February 26). Ukraine was the go-to country for Odisha’s aspiring doctors. The Hindu. ↩︎

  8. According to the World Inequality Database, 80% of Indians make less than Rs 15,000 per month. See @PratapVardhan. (2022, February 1). [Tweet]. Twitter. ↩︎

  9. Vats, S. (2021, October 29). MBBS Course Fees – Govt./ Private, AIIMS and JIPMER Medical College Fees. Careers360.Com. ↩︎

  10. @drtandon07. (2022, February 27). [Tweet]. Twitter. ↩︎

  11. Deswal, B., & Singhal, V. (2016). Problems of medical education in India. International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health, 1905–1909. . The graph is from here. ↩︎

  12. Raman, M. (2021, April 18). A Referendum on Hope. Not Your Newspaper. ↩︎

  13. Suicide of S. Anitha. (2017, September 1). In Wikipedia. , Chandrababu, D. (2021, September 16). 3rd NEET aspirant dies by suicide in 4 days across Tamil Nadu. Hindustan Times. ↩︎

  14. Kapur, M. (2021, September 17). What do the NEET suicides say about India’s high-stakes exams? Quartz. ↩︎

  15. Nanisetti, S. (2021, November 27). Student suicides go up. The Hindu. ↩︎

  16. It should be mentioned here that this is somewhat misleading, since the official count of farmer suicides excludes landless and women farmers. And the same can be speculated for the number of reported deaths of marginalised students. ↩︎

  17. The NotA Collective. (2021, October 14). On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

No Pedagogy for the Oppressed: Caste (in) Academia

– Deepti Sreeram

An upper-caste Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad once told me that EFLU would have been better off if it was still a private institution.“It wasn’t disruptive and crowded back then. The campus was peaceful,” the Professor told me.

He was referring to the political unrest on campus. Between 2010-12, the campus was in the middle of the Telangana movement1. Despite the absence of a fully recognised student union, organisations like the Telangana Students Association (TSA) and the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA) were at the forefront of various student-led agitations in Hyderabad. At one of the student protests at EFLU, the then acting Vice-Chancellor of EFLU had insulted a Dalit student leader for speaking in improper English. The leader graciously dismissed the remark even though there were legitimate grounds for public outcry.

When Rohith Vemula left us with a heart-breaking note, students across campuses protested against the ruling government. Left-wing student organisations included Jai Bhim in their slogans and held Ambedkar study groups. Academics across universities wrote articles, academic papers, think pieces and solidarity statements that critiqued the relationship between caste and academia and called for justice. None of these attempts made any discernible difference. The number of marginalised students forced to take their lives due to institutional apathy has only increased since then.

I recall these seemingly disconnected but pertinent events because of the changes that higher education in India has undergone in recent years. Public universities like UoH, JNU, Jamia Milia, DU and EFLU have experienced unprecedented levels of State-sponsored violence. Student activists who participated in agitations have been suspended or rusticated. Some of them were photographed2 and barred from taking the PhD entrance exam. Others were charged with the draconian UAPA3 for their protests against the State. At several public universities, reservation policies were flouted4 while research scholarships were delayed.5 This had a significant impact on the lives of marginalised students who attended these institutions. In the meantime, several new private universities flourished.They expanded their academic programmes, collaborated with international universities to create ‘institutions of excellence’ and become the preferred choice for Liberal Arts over public universities.

So what do these changes mean for the marginalised student?

Indian-style Ivy-leagues for the upper-castes

Until 2012, Public universities such as JNU, HCU, EFLU were the best universities offering social sciences and humanities in India, even with the proliferation of several small-scale private universities such as Amity, Christ etc. The progressive atmosphere, faculty, thriving student politics, reservation policy and the subsidised fee made these campuses an ideal space for liberal arts. In addition to this, students at public universities were more often at the helm of political movements. In 2000, when a special committee headed by Mukesh Ambani met the then government to discuss private investment in education, the committee described education as a “profitable market.”6 They also called for a ban on “any form of political activity on campuses… including student union activities.” Thus, in 2005, the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR)7 was implemented to ensure that political activities did not “disrupt education.” LCR ensured, among other things, that the university administration reserved the right to dissolve the union if circumstances warranted such a decision. The implementation of LCR and the coming of the new government in 2014 changed public universities for the worse.

The birth of ivy-league-like universities like Jindal, Ashoka and Krea (2012 onwards) during this period is significant. Unlike public institutions with poorly funded facilities, these universities have access to cutting-edge research and a liberal space where students can freely express their love and dissent as long as these ideas do not draw public attention.8 Students can also access networks of well-known authors, academics, business owners, and entrepreneurs and get mentored by them. Eventually, upon graduation, students get admitted to universities abroad or placed at well-paying companies.

However, securing admission to one of these universities is not an easy task. Unlike small-scale private universities that insist on meeting admission numbers, these universities have a rigorous admission cycle that prioritises “quality over quantity.” Undergraduate students, for example, are required to take an aptitude test similar to the SATs or write the SATs and submit the scores at the time of admission. They should also write application essays that would showcase their reading and writing skills. These admission hurdles are similar to the policies adopted by universities abroad, especially those located in the US and the UK. Because private universities do not have a reservation policy, the founders are keen to provide fee waivers or scholarships under the diversity quota. Under this quota, recruiters select a handful of meritorious students from economically poor backgrounds. The emphasis on merit justifies scholarships/fee waivers provided to some students who would not have been able to afford an education at these universities otherwise. The outcome of these policies is the creation of a homogenous upper-caste student population across institutions. According to this study,9 at least 84% of the Young India Fellowship cohort from the 2018 Ashoka batch came from a four-wheeler vehicle-owning household. 40% come from families with an annual income of more than 30 lakhs, and an astounding 80% come from upper-caste families.

Who gets to read and write better?

I had to write a 3000-word academic paper at the end of my first semester of post-graduate studies at EFLU. I remember how this had intimidated me so much that I had switched disciplines – Linguistics over Literature- to avoid academic papers. Similarly, some of my Bahujan classmates who struggled with English chose courses from the English Language Education department, which was popularly understood as an easy department. These choices inevitably divided the batch into two groups. Students (predominantly Savarna) who took courses from the Culture Studies/Literature/Film studies department were seen as intellectual students while students who opted for other disciplines particularly English Language Education (ELE), were looked down upon. ELE has generally occupied a similar marginalised position compared to the other disciplines in India. It is often seen as a means to knowing English as opposed to a potential space that could help navigate the systemic differences in the university. University administrations would therefore never consider dedicating resources to having an English Language Teaching (ELT) centre and would rather appoint poorly trained faculty to teach English.

When I joined Ashoka as a writing tutor, I was amazed to see the scale and architecture of the writing pedagogy at the university. The university had an undergraduate writing programme (UWP), a centre dedicated to writing and communication and an English as a Second Language (ESL) programme specifically designed for students who struggle with English. Similar support systems are also available at other ivy league like universities such as Krea, Jindal, SNU and Flame. In contrast, public universities like JNU, EFLU, HCU and colleges under DU saw academic writing as a skill that students learned without training. Though there were a handful of workshops targeting research writing skills, these were hardly a match compared to what was on offer at the ivy-league like universities. This approach to academic writing was similar to what was taken towards ELT. There wasn’t a need to dedicate resources when the savarna student did not require it.

Since the establishment of universities like Ashoka, Jindal, Krea, academic writing has received attention as a discipline in Indian higher education. My colleagues who teach academic writing at these universities have argued10 that the new writing movement that emerged from these institutions will usher in a meaningful inclusive future in Indian academia. They also argued that a pedagogy of care is essential in the university classroom and how more care11 would have helped students like Rohith Vemula who experience alienation at the university.

As an Other Eligible Communities (OEC) student, I could pursue my higher education because of the subsidised fee structure and reservation policy at public universities. But these policies did not really make me stay at the university. My struggle with writing made me leave academia for good in 2014 and then it took me nearly six years to summon confidence, save money and apply for a PhD at a private university like Ashoka. This is when I was far more privileged than students like Rohith Vemula and Rajni Krish who had to work menial jobs and secure funds for their university expenses. How can then students like Rohith Vemula access care when it is only available at ivy-league like institutions?

In April, a video showing12 Seema Singh abusing students from marginalised backgrounds attending a preparatory English course, went viral. The course was primarily designed as a gateway course which would help students from Dalit, OBC and Adivasi backgrounds secure admission at IIT. It is inside this English language classroom that the Professor had unleashed abuses and threatened students. While the incident unleashed outrage from all quarters, excluding statements from alumni, no institution in India came forward with a statement condemning the incident. But consider this. When the BLM movement took off in the US, several writing centres,13 ELT programmes14 and universities published statements15 of solidarity. They professed their commitment to following an anti-race pedagogy and put up statements declaring the same. Though these may be dismissed as tokenistic, the absolute inability in acknowledging caste in our universities suggest that we are far far behind our contemporaries.The critical pedagogy that we promise or espouse is still designed for the cause of the savarna student and this is true for both public and private institutions. Until we overhaul this, there is no pedagogy and certainly no care given to the marginalised university student in India.

Deepti Sreeram is a first year PhD student at Ashoka University.

  1. EFLU students divided into two groups. (2010, December 24). The New Indian Express. ↩︎

  2. Ragesh, G. (2017, February 20). EFLU doesn’t allow 2 Keralite girls to write entrance, their crime – seeking justice for Rohith Vemula. OnManorama. ↩︎

  3. Express Web Desk. (2020, August 25). JNU PhD scholar Sharjeel Imam now arrested for Delhi riots. The Indian Express. ↩︎

  4. Teja, C. (2020, October 18). The News Minute | Telangana. The News Minute. ↩︎

  5. rishna, A. (2021, April 26). COVID-19: Students struggle for months without fellowship during pandemic. Careers360.Com ↩︎

  6. We have discusses this before at The NotA Collective. (2021, June 18). They Did Not Know We Were Grass. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  7. Sreeram, D. (2015, November 6). Right To Education: Denied. Tehelka. ↩︎

  8. Chopra, R. (2017, January 28). Lone teacher to sign Kashmir petition quits Ashoka University. The Indian Express. ↩︎

  9. What We Know About Diversity at Ashoka: A Look at the YIF Programme – The Edict. (2019, March 12). The Edict. ↩︎

  10. Dasgupta, A., & Lohokhare, M. (2019, June 24). Guest-Editorial – Building the Boat While Sailing it: Writing Pedagogy in India. Café Dissensus. ↩︎

  11. Dasgupta, A. (2019, June 24). The Writing Self and the Work of Care in Critical Writing Pedagogy. Café Dissensus. ↩︎

  12. Shocking Incident in IIT Kharagpur where a Professor is openly abusing students on record. (2021, April 27). [Video]. YouTube. ↩︎

  13. Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Action: First Steps. (n.d.). Columbia University Centre for Teaching and Learning. ↩︎

  14. Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning. (2018, July 11). NCTE. ↩︎

  15. Statement and Actions for Black Lives, Anti-Racist Commitment. (2021, February 11). CU Engage. ↩︎