Discontinuation of Maulana Azad National Fellowship: Inclusive Education, Minority Rights, and Merit

Author: Fatima Juned (commentary)
Editor: Soumya Singhal

On 8 December 2022, the central government discontinued the Maulana Azad National Fellowship [MANF], stating that it overlapped with other fellowships benefitting minority students. Implemented by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, MANF was launched in 2009 to execute the Sachar Committee’s recommendations on inclusive development. MANF assimilated 6 minority communities notified under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 – Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (Parsis). Students from these communities may receive financial aid to pursue higher education (MPhil and PhD). 

This commentary argues that the absence of financial aid from government bodies can push students from minority communities to rely solely on merit in a discriminatory and stratified education system. Particularly in the context of the scrapping of MANF, it highlights how the absence of adequate socioeconomic resources in acquiring his merit can deter vertical and horizontal mobility.

The Sachar Committee and the Need for Inclusive Education

In November 2006, then-Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh submitted the Sachar Committee Report. It was a comprehensive study of India’s Muslim population’s social, economic, and educational standing. The Committee was mandated to determine the proportion of Other Backward Classes [OBCs] from the Muslim community in each state’s overall OBC population. The Committee also assessed access to education and health services, municipal infrastructure, and bank loans given by government/public sector institutions. According to the report, the literacy rate among Muslims in 2001 was 59.1% compared to the national average of 64.8%. In 2001, 7% of the national population over the age of 20 was a graduate or held a diploma, compared to 4% of the Muslim population. 

Table 1: Proportion of Student Population in 2004-2005 

Age Hindus (General) Hindus (OBC) Hindus (SCs & STs) Muslims Other Minorities 
Age 23 and up 35.6 29.2 18.3 7.4 9.5

Source: PRS (2006)

The report further highlights that the gap between Muslims and other Socio-Religious Categories [SRCs] grows as education levels rise. The unemployment rates among Muslim graduates, both poor and non-poor, are the greatest among SRCs. To overcome these issues, the Committee presented various recommendations. The Committee focused on the need for the University Grants Commission [UGC] to develop a system where part of the allocation to colleges and universities is based on student population diversity. It further highlighted the need to facilitate admissions for the most disadvantaged socio-religious groups at regular universities and autonomous colleges and develop alternative entrance standards. 

Financial Aids, Equitable Education, and the Complex Question of Merit

Despite having the world’s third-largest higher education system after the United States and China, India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio [GER] in higher education was only 27.1% in 2019-20. Of the students enrolled in higher education programmes, 79.8% are in undergraduate-level programmes. Less than 0.53% of students are enrolled in Doctoral/PhD programmes. 

Annually, 1000 slots — 750 for subjects notified under UGC-NET-JRF and 250 for subjects under the basic science category of Joint Council of Scientific & Industrial Research [CSIR-NET JRF] — are available under MANF. The eligibility for the fellowship is contingent on candidates clearing standardised examinations like NTA-UGC-NET/CSIR-NET. However, as per Lok Sabha data, only 5,275 fellowships were awarded between 2014 to 2019. Clearing the State Eligibility Test [SET] was not a prerequisite for availing of the fellowship till 2018. However, the Union Government made NET/SET a mandatory requirement in 2019. 

Recurring reports have highlighted delayed disbursement of fellowship amounts to previous awardees, some even taking as long as 9 months. With the discontinuation of MANF, students from minority communities will only be eligible to compete for UGC’s Junior Research Fellowship. The UGC provides the JRF to the current M.Phil and PhD students in central universities who qualify for the National Eligibility Test [NET]. Even though the top 6% qualify, only a fraction of the students are selected to avail of the fellowship based on merit and the availability of funds. The rest are eligible to avail of the Non-NET fellowship with a nominal amount of INR 5,000 and INR 8,000 for M.Phil and PhD, respectively.

Table 1: Monthly Fellowship Amount under JRF and MANF

NET-JRF (+House Rent Allowance and Contingency Amount) INR 31,000
NET-SRF (+House Rent Allowance and Contingency Amount) INR 35,000

Source: Ministry of Minority Affairs (n.d); Department of Higher Education (2022)

Discontinuing MANF pushes students from minority communities to rely on the often-contested criteria of ‘merit’ to avail the JRF. Sociologist Satish Deshpande emphasises the need to view higher education from the prism of inequalities and exclusion instead of equality and competition. He notes that entering the higher education system predominantly relies upon ‘examination’ and ‘merit’, overlooking the factors that impact a student’s ability to acquire merit. He argues that there are three primary determinants of merit in competitive exams: economic resources, socio-cultural resources, and the ability to compete. Together they are referred to as ‘acquired merit’. Therefore, the discontinuation of MANF increases the minority communities’ inability to gain ‘acquired merit’ due to socioeconomic barriers and compete with the dominant elite. 

The government’s decision to discontinue MANF should be viewed concurrently with the discontinuation of pre-matric scholarships for students of classes 1-8 belonging to minority communities (Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Other Backward Classes) in 2022 and the budgetary deduction in 2021-22. The grants for the scholarship for students belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were cut down from INR 39 Crore to INR 15 Crore and INR 19 Crore to INR 8 Crore, respectively. Further, the amount for student financial aid in higher education declined from INR 2089.25 Cr to INR 2077.85 Crore in the 2022-23 budgetary allocation

To be eligible under MANF, students should not have an annual parental/guardian income of more than INR 6 lakh, implying fellowship awardees belong to marginalised socioeconomic strata with a need for financial aid to facilitate higher education. According to the former Chairman of the UGC, 54.1% of Muslims relied on government institutions for education, compared to 45.2% (national average) of other communities, due to limited access to private and unaided higher education. Discontinuing MANF risks decreasing the already bleak higher education enrollment rate among minority communities, for instance, Muslims without government-aided funding.

Higher education is a primary anchor for both social and economic mobility. Moreover, despite education being a critical part of the concurrent list, India spends only 3.8% of its GDP on education. The absence of public-funded education risks the expansion of expensive private education institutes. Such an expansion will make higher education further inaccessible for minority communities, who continue to be at the margins of higher education.