5th May, 2018: Saturday. News spread like a wildfire that Institute will be charging Rs 1.6 Lakh per semester as the tuition fee. An average expense of Rs 6000 (including mess, travel and other basic needs), the effective fee per semester becomes Rs 1.9 Lakh. 4 years ago, in my First year (joined in Aug, 2014), the effective fee was Rs 1 Lakh per semester. By the time I am graduating, I am already paying nearly double of this amount per semester. Average inflation rate has been around 5% which means that fee should be increased by not more than 8% each year, which sums up to roughly Rs 1.25 Lakhs for in my last year. On the contrary I have paid Rs 1.88 Lakhs per semester in my last year. This is because each year fee has been hiked by 15% pa. Due to this regular steep increases, students’s loans have exhausted, graduating students have to take up shitty jobs instead of pursuing Master’s or PhD in their field of interest.
This has been going on for too long now. It isn’t like if my fee at the time of admission is Rs 1 Lakh, then it will remain the same throughout my degree. There have been consistent fee hikes which has finally agitated all the students on campus. So a message was finally spread that BITSians will assemble on 6th May, 2018 in the Auditorium to protest against this move and will try to get concrete answers from the Administration. Dean of Student Welfare Division challenged a few student leaders that not more than 500 students will turn up in the protest. All their efforts will be useless.
6th May, 2018 (11 AM): Sunday. Auditorium. More than 2500 BITSians turn up to protest against fee hike during their end semester exams.
These 2500 BITSians gathered in the auditorium in the middle of the day to get answers to their painful questions. Hats Off to Siddharth Namburi, Bharatratna Pulli, Jai Agarwal, Satyansh Rai and a lot more people for doing such awesome mobilization last night and maintaining peace and logic throughout. The Director along with Sub-Registrar, Deans of Student Welfare Division, Alumni Affairs, Chief Warden and other senior faculty came to the auditorium to clarify our concerns and have an open conversation with our elected representatives.
Director opened the debate with a sentimental speech claiming that their previous revenue resources like Work Integrated Learning Program have shrinked due to low cost competition in the field. There is no single penny donated by Govt. and the hiked fee is still subsidized by BITS administration. The only source of “extracting” revenue is students and unfortunately they have to pay the fee to keep the institution running. Fair enough. Only sympathy for suffering students. After this, the Director opened himself to questions from student representatives.
I will not go into full details and refrain from biased interpretation of answers but try to portray important questions and their answers by the Director (Left most person on stage above). When asked the logic behind 15% hike, the Director said inflation is 8%, expansion of facilities is 4%, 2% is for maintenance and 1% is for contingency. The student representatives pointed to him that inflation is nearly 5% and never 8%, to which he was speechless. Then we asked about “expanding” research facilities on campus in the context of dropping research reputation and NIRF ranking of BITS Pilani. He answered by saying that in order to compete with world class universities, we have to invest more in research and since Govt. has reduced funding our projects, it is students who have to pay for it. There is no other way out of it.
When the Director was made aware of the fact that for many students, their original student loan was exhausted after 3 years and it is difficult to extend the loan or take second loan from the Banks, he replied, “We have indicated in the fee structure that there can be 15% fee hike. This should have been taken into account while applying for loan.” To this, a question was put up that now students are unable to pay the fee (due to exhausted loan) and what can the administration do about it? Should he/she drop out of college? He replied, “We have scholarships to help students.” A concern was raised that such high fee would lead to decrease in student quality as evident by 2017 cut offs. He replied, “We did not communicate that we are increasing seats. So this year cutoffs will not drop. We will see.” Finally we asked him that since we cannot see any observable increase in the quality of education as compared to the fee hike and clearly, at this stage, can we focus on affordability first? He replied, “If a student cannot pay fee, he can always opt (during admission) for Govt. College. But right now, we do not have any other revenue model and students will have pay for their education. If you have one, I am happy to hear and convey it to the highest authorities.”
Final question was posed, the fee is too much and BITSians cannot pay it anymore? What decision are you going to take about it? He replied, “I have to discuss with Birla Leadership Group. You see today is Sunday, so a lot cannot be done. I can assure you that something will be done about it.” We had to make him take a note that students are sitting in the jam-packed auditorium during their End semester exams, skipping their lunch and the best reply he can give to us is “Today is Sunday after all.” I immensely respect him for talking to us straight on and attempting to clarify our doubts. Since our student representatives were adamant on getting immediate solutions, he assured us that he will try to get in touch with other authorities like Directors from Goa and Hyderabad Campuses, Vice Chancellor (VC) and such. He returned after 45 minutes saying that VC is traveling. He will be landing in Delhi soon and will come straight to Pilani. He could get in touch with one of the three Directors and they have assured that together they will notify it to authorities.
We decided to wait and let the VC address our issue. He came to Pilani at around 8pm, met with out student representatives and wasn’t very happy with the developments so far. He called student leaders incompetent and refused to address the students in Auditorium and preferred to hold the talks behind closed door. At this stage, we emptied the auditorium and all 2000 students sat in front of his residence to urge him to come and speak in auditorium. All peacefully! He agreed but on certain conditions: “There shouldn’t be any howling or shouting bad words in the auditorium. The crowd should behave. No interruptions at all.” Perhaps he was looking for excuses to not address the audiences. To his surprise, everyone obeyed. There was pin-drop silence when he held the mic. Throughout his 5 min cameo, he never used the words “fee hike”, lied on stage that student representatives have agreed to meet him on Friday and discuss the issue. But his lie was called out by Union president, Bharatratna Puli, and VC heard the “NO” of 2000 people.
This “NO” was more louder than Jadavpur’s hostage situation and VC left the auditorium within next 5 min. It disappointed 2000 BITSians who were sitting there all day long during their end sem exams to hear something meaningful from Vice Chancellor of a reputed Deemed University. Disappointment everywhere.
7th May, 2018: Monday. Exam day. As a symbol of protest, we decided to write #RollBackBITSPilaniFeeHike on our answer sheets and wear black. Protestors then stationed themselves near Main Gate and a student decided to sit on hunger strike. In order to make our voices heard, we decided to block the Main Road as was advised by Chief Security Officer (ironically). After multiple round of talks by senior professors and inspection by Police Team of Pilani, we removed the blocked around 6pm in evening. Later that night, a severe thunder and dust storm hit Pilani and students took refuge in nearby mess. Still didn’t deviate from their silent protest. Still no word from Administration about the issue.
8th May, 2018: Tuesday. We sat on protest in front of auditorium, right below Vice Chancellor and Director’s office. Still silently protesting against the unreasonable fee hike. Around 2:15PM, we started this initiative, a symbolic expression, “Change for a Change”. We decided to place a bowl in front of Director and VC’s office and urge the students to drop 1,2,5, 10rs coins (change) to help them run the institute. It wasn’t meant to insult anyone, just a symbolic representation of our protest. Yet no word from Administration. Later that day, through Director of Hyderabad Campus, we got to know that VC is having blackouts since the day before. Doctors have ruled out cardiac reasons and it could be Neurological symptom. To this effect, he has been hospitalized to AIIMS, Delhi where he is undergoing treatment. We wish him a speed recovery. Later in the night, protestors led a silent march to show that their strength and resilience is still unchanged.
9th May, 2018: Wednesday, It was communicated to us that directors of all 4 campuses have agreed to talk to student representatives of all 3 campuses and address the issue. After a little bit of convincing they decided to live stream the meeting to BITSians and alumni with the condition that video shouldn’t be leaked outside of the community. What we witnessed was sheer diplomacy by Directors. To some extent they made sense, where as on other issues they just beat around the bush. Meeting concluded at around 9:30pm (after 3 hours of discussion). Long story short: Directors agreed to keep the students in loop about the decision process. They will submit the demands to Vice Chancellor with their inputs as well. Till a decision is made, SWD will not release the fee for current batches. Till a decision is made, students were urged not to take any step (like road block or such) that would distract the directors from discussing the matter at hand and to have faith in them. Mind you, this wasn’t a small feat. An administration which seems impenetrable, to get all these demands satisfied was a big feat. Thanks to our Student Leaders from all 3 campuses, everything was done peacefully and silently.
11th May, 2018: Friday. So now, we wait. Directors are discussing it among themselves and will present to Vice Chancellor once he recovers his health. Students of Hyderabad Campus led a final march and submitted a Pen (a symbol of affordable education), a letter (with stories written about negative effects of increasing student loans) and a rose (a symbol of faith in Administration) in front of Administrative block. Students in Pilani campus made a human image of iconic clock tower in Gym Grounds in the night with flashlights. These were to assure administration that we have not lost our faith and respect for BITS Pilani and its administration. But, if the need be, we can again assemble and take necessary steps if our voices are neglected again.
This was the story of Silent Protest conducted by all 3 campuses of BITS Pilani. Amazing story isn’t it. In a country which has seen protests as violent as Rajasthan University, Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi) or Jadavpur University (West Bengal), this was a refreshing site for many. We showed that Gandhian Way of Protest can still work with some determination and logic. We, BITSians, stood apart from the crowd once again. What seemed to be a tragic ending to my final few days got converted into a magical one! Thanks to efforts of BITSAA international, alumnis all over India and world, student leaders of all 3 campuses and BITSian janta (of course), we made our voices heard. Kudos to everyone!
BITS Pilani, Its Magic!
(PS: All the photos have been taken by someone else. My purpose to use them here is just to illustrate the protest. And not make any profit from them.)