Deprived of scholarship South Asian University students boycott classes

New Delhi: Samad Rahmani, from Afghanistan, was caught in a dilemma whether to return home or stay back in India when he was about to begin the second semester of his Master’s course, at South Asian University.

Completing his Bachelor degree from Pune University he was already in India when the pandemic stuck the nation and a lockdown was declared. Eventually, he started the Master’s course on Sociology online from Pune rather than heading back home to rely on poor internet connectivity. 

However, Samad had to extend his visa to continue his stay in India. “I was suggested by officials from Pune to get the visa extension from Delhi. It was financially unsound to travel back to Afghanistan and then come back again. So, I requested South Asian University to help me extend my visa and allow me to stay at the hostel. But the authorities said that if they allowed me they would have to allow all other students in the hostel, and thus my request was denied,” said the first-year student.

While 2020 has not been easy for anyone, several foreign nationals who got admitted to the University were left clueless without the promised financial support from the authorities.

Some first-year international students from Master’s courses have started to drop out of South Asian University awaiting months of scholarship. These first-year Master’s and PhD students along with their Indian peers have not received any scholarship money since October 2020, the beginning of their course, as per a press release. They also alleged that they do not have identity proof as scholars from the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) sponsored institute. The eight members of SAARC are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The University had already asked foreign students of batch 2020 to continue classes from their home countries until notice, but those who were already in India needed assistance. For a special case like Samad’s, the authorities had to consider the matter. “After a week of requesting, they issued a bonafide certificate, and told me I could either stay in India or go back to Afghanistan, but the stipend will not be processed until offline classes resume.”

One needs a bonafide certificate from the authorities for the process, and it can be issued only after their documents are verified physically. Samad has currently managed accommodation with some men from his hometown and is working part-time to earn some money to get by. “It is really hard for me to stay here without any work. I have been using the WiFi here for the classes,” said Samad.

The varsity authorities claimed that with online classes it makes little sense to pay students their due scholarship, in a statement released to the media.

Following months of unanswered requests and emails, the first-year students called a strike from the end of March, demanding immediate disbursal of scholarships and freeships with arrears from the beginning of the semester, issuance of bonafide certificates for non-Indian students and phased accommodation in the university campus. They eventually started to boycott classes following the University’s unresponsive attitude towards their repeated emails demanding what they were promised in their admission offer letters. 

“Before boycotting classes the administration was not treating us like students. It is a good way to protest and get our rights addressed by the University,” expressed Samad. “After we started the boycott from April 5, the authorities released a second list for freeship students, and I got to be one of the new students to get the opportunity,” informed Samad. 

Every student has to pay $440 for the first semester, and $100 each for admission and security deposit, amounting to a total of $640. Those who are entitled to scholarship or freeship are refunded for the semester tuition fees after the verification process is completed.

Similarly, Samad and others who got into the freeship list on the second semester will get a refund of the previous semester fees once the verification of income certificate is complete, according to the authorities. 

“We have students from all SAARC countries and many of them do not have the financial support to continue their studies here. Five students have dropped out in the second semester from our batch,” said Asmaul Husna, a first-year Master’s student in Sociology. “It’s almost 7 months. Apart from the first-year Master’s and PhD students, others got permission to join campus. All of them are getting scholarship money, only we haven’t received anything,” said Asmaul, who hails from Bangladesh.

Students, like Samad, who managed to get a visa and came to India are struggling with accommodation. The authorities have allegedly not paid these students a monthly housing allowance of Rs 8000 ($107 approx), which must be provided in case a foreign student does not get to stay at the campus hostel.

“I come from a very humble background. I was working as a lecturer at a private college, before joining SAU. I had to leave the job to attend the classes. However, the attitude of the administration has been dismal and frankly, sub-professional. We deserve the promised scholarship as well as the house rent. Also, the course that I am in requires a great deal of access to good quality literature, which is difficult for me to get in Bangladesh. The professors have helped us with all the necessary materials online, but frankly, printing costs a lot of money. The authorities are citing the ‘special conditions of the world’ to not give us scholarships, knowing well that these ‘special conditions of the world’ mandate better management of funds, because the people are in much more need of money. Ironically, it was also during these special worldly conditions that the university took huge sums of money without verifying the documents for admission. If the administration wanted it, they could have easily taken our documents online and verified them,” said Padmaja Karmakar, first-year LLM, from Bangladesh.

Due to the pandemic, most institutes have not resumed offline classes causing much concern for the student community across the globe. Sajawal Hussain, a first-year Master of Sociology from Pakistan says, “I’m not able to understand even a single concept from the semester studies online. Studying from the mobile phone for long hours, as well as the expensive internet packages is very inconvenient. It’s an absolute mockery.” Several students like him await the scholarship while struggling to afford high-speed internet for the online classes in their respective hometowns.

Ishaan Arora, a first-year Master’s student and a Delhiite, said, “Unlike some of my peers from other countries, I do not require a scholarship or freeship. Despite sitting at home in Delhi where everything is available, I have faced a lot of issues with the online classes. I can only imagine how much worse it can be for students from areas which do not have a consistent internet connection.”

“We had been requesting the authorities to address our concern for months, but we received no intimation. However, when the media reached out to them regarding our boycott, they replied to their email queries in a matter of days,” Ishaan added.

A statement issued by the University to the media reads, “It was very clearly written in the scholarship offer letter that scholarships will be disbursed only after completing all in-person registration formalities i.e. physical verification of documents and physical presence in the campus. The fact remains that the scholarships will be effective from the start of the first semester i.e. 26 October 2020. Arrears will be paid when the university opens for physical classes and students turn up in person and carry out the in-person registration process.”

The South Asian University Researchers Association (SAURA), an elected student organization in the SAU campus, has extended their support to the first-year students’ ongoing strike and made a formal representation to the University administration asking that the legitimate demands are immediately accepted. Other student bodies across the nation have extended their support in solidarity with the SAU students’ decision to boycott classes.

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