Student unrest escalates at flagship regional university

Two students have been expelled and three suspended for various periods amid ongoing and protracted protest action at a New Delhi-based flagship regional university established and governed by the eight member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The students of South Asian University (SAU), who have been involved in unrest and agitation for almost 50 days, are calling for an increase in stipends and scholarships, and more time for students to complete their PhDs in the wake of COVID-19.

They are now pushing their cause beyond India’s borders and have appealed in writing to student unions and other student groups across South Asia to observe a day of protest on Friday 2 December in solidarity with their “struggle for accessible higher education in the South Asian region”.

“The struggle is a united effort to preserve the unique character of the university as a public institution facilitating the uninhibited flow of knowledge across borders,” according to the appeal released on 30 November signed by a group calling themselves the “General Body of Students” at SAU.

Besides India, students of all other SAARC member nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are studying at South Asian University (SAU) which started its operations in the academic year 2010. Among its ideals is to promote regional cooperation among young people and provide opportunities beyond national borders.

The university now offers postgraduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines and its degrees are recognised by all the eight SAARC countries.

The protests escalated last month after police were called in and two students received expulsion notices.

Struggling with cost of living

Amol Shaila Suresh, a masters student in development economics at SAU, told University World News students are struggling with the cost of living

“We feel that with rising inflation there is a need to increase the stipend because it is becoming difficult for [students] who have come from outside India to live here and meet their expenses.”

Suresh, who is Indian, added: “When this institute was established, it was their mandate that no [student] should be deprived of studies due to lack of money under any circumstance. But now the situation has become such that it is becoming difficult for the [students] to survive.”

Students say the amount of stipend money has been reduced since the pandemic and economic criteria for determining who gets scholarships tightened, leading to a drop in numbers qualifying for financial assistance.

A student from Bangladesh enrolled for a PhD, requesting anonymity, said: “The authorities have not been interested in listening to our demands. They have reduced stipends and now there are fewer scholarships. It is becoming difficult for us to survive.”

Earlier, there were five scholarships for Indian and another five for foreign students in each of the seven departments. Now they have reduced it to two in each department, one for a foreign student and another for an Indian, the student said.

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