Eligibility criteria for National Overseas Scholarship a roadblock: Dalit students

Data shows that very few students from socially and economically backward classes have been successful in availing the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS).
A group of students sitting and talking in a college campus
A group of students sitting and talking in a college campus

The controversial decision adopted by the Union government to deny funds to students seeking to research Indian culture, history and heritage under the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) has been widely slammed. Anti-caste activists have pointed out that the government is afraid that Dalit students will expose the inhuman caste system existing in the country and dent India’s image. The discussion has also thrown light on the other aspect of higher education – very few students from socially and economically backward classes have been successful in availing NOS. Students express that by excluding the research topics of ‘Indian culture/heritage/history/social studies’ the government has further restrained them from studying abroad. The scholarship, which was introduced in 1954-55, seeks to provide scholarships to 100 students every year. For the current academic year 2022-23, the awards have been increased from 100 to 125.

While a majority of the scholarships are allotted to students from the Scheduled Castes community, students from Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, and Landless Labourers and Traditional Artisan communities aspiring to pursue master’s and PhD in foreign universities can also avail this funding. The scholarship is provided by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Since 2019, the government has been allocating a budget of Rs 20 crore towards this scheme.

While the annual report for 2020-21 published by the Ministry of Social Justice identifies around 70-180 students every year as beneficiaries of the scheme since 2016, an RTI query filed by activist Mesharam reveals that only around 50-70 students have been able to avail NOS annually since 2016.

Tejaswini Tabhane, a student activist, says, “Already very few students have been able to get this scholarship. Now, the government wants to further restrict the students from getting funding for their education.”

One of the reasons for the poor numbers is the income ceiling as an eligibility criterion, say Dalit students. As per this, the total income of the parents should not exceed Rs 8 lakh per annum.

“Because of this income criteria I could not pursue my education,” laments Anshul Kumar, a sociology student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Anshul, who is a Dalit student, was offered a master’s at SAOS University of London. Coming from a marginalised community, availing the scholarship was the only way he could have pursued his dream of getting a degree from a prestigious university. “When I looked up the website, I was dismayed to find that the income ceiling was only at Rs 8 lakh; my family’s income was slightly higher than that, so I was not eligible.”

Demanding that the income ceiling should be removed, Anshul argues, “The government has introduced a blanket income ceiling. For them it does not matter if the tuition fee is Rs 10 lakh, Rs 40 lakh or Rs 80 lakh. How does it make sense? In some states like Karnataka, if the family income is between Rs 8-15 lakh the government provides 50% scholarship, if it is above Rs 15 lakh the government will provide 30% scholarship, etc.”

Rahul Gautam Thaware (27) had high hopes of pursuing higher education in Australia. Toward his dream of getting a degree from the University of Technology Sydney, he invested a year solely on the scholarship process. In 2019, he had thought of applying for NOS. However, as his father’s gross earning (as a high school teacher) was Rs 7.40 lakh, he could not apply as the income ceiling at that time was Rs 6 lakh.

“The following year when I had tried to apply after my father retired from service, I was still ineligible because that year the government added graduation percentage as another criteria.”

As per the fresh NOS guidelines, a student is required to have scored 60% in graduation to pursue a master’s programme, and 60% in post-graduation to pursue a PhD. “My graduation percentage was 57%, so my dreams were shattered,” a disheartened Rahul shares.

Without any means to avail funding for his studies, Rahul enrolled in Azim Premji University, where he is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy and Governance.

The government also refuses to give scholarships to students for the second time.

Some students who were disqualified for the scholarship have taken to crowdfunding to support their education. Rapper Sumeet Samos Turuk, a former JNU student known for his anti-caste music, was denied scholarship by the Odisha state government citing that it cannot be given twice, as it was his second master’s. After a brief struggle with the government, Sumeet decided to appeal online for funds. He is presently doing his MSc in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford.

Another rule for NOS is that only two children of the same parents/guardians can apply.

“Not more than two children of the same parents/guardians will be eligible for scholarship under the scheme and a self-certification will be required from the candidate to this effect. The second child of the same parents/guardians will be considered only if slots are still available in the last cycle of the year in which the applicant has applied,” the guideline states.

Rahul Suresh Sapkal, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Policy Studies at IIT Bombay, demands that the government remove both income and 60% marks as criteria to avail the scholarship. “I secured second grade in Class 10, but now I’m an Assistant Professor. Many students are denied the scholarship because of marks. This ensures that only certain Dalit students who had the privilege to study in private schools and colleges are able to get good education abroad. What about students from rural areas?”

Condemning the hurdles created by the Union government, student activist Rahul Sonpimple, who is also a member of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, a student organisation at JNU, says, “These scholarships are meant to compensate for the historical injustice done to a community, but the government has been behaving as if it is doing a charity.”

Explaining the problems of first-generation educated Dalit students applying for NOS, he says, “Historically oppressed students find it really difficult to manoeuvre the bureaucratic process. They need help. There should be a network of people willing to help them in this process. All this process itself demotivates one from seeking the scholarship. Further, they are also asked to have some money in their bank accounts, which the government will reimburse later. But these are definitely demotivating factors.”

Pointing to the data about students who have availed the scholarship so far, he says, “The data tells the story – that the problem is not from the students’ end but from the government’s end.”

Under the NOS, the government provides an annual maintenance allowance of £ 9,900 (US $ 15,400). Along with it, the government covers tuition fees, visa fees, airfare and medical insurance for the students.

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