Students of India’s most prestigious university went on a hunger strike over fees

Students demonstrate for a rollback of the fee hike decision.
Students demonstrate for a rollback of the fee hike decision.
Image: Facebook/ Awaaz, IIT Kharagpur
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Aspiring engineers at India’s top university are tired of fee hikes.

More than 200 students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur staged protests outside the office of the university’s director this week, after the school notified students that hostel (housing) fees would rise to Rs 37,000 ($545) for the spring semester starting in January, an increase of Rs8,000 ($118). The announcement came after students had already enrolled for the new year.

Fee hikes are commonplace at the West Bengal institution, but tensions at the school have been brewing for months. In April, undergraduate students staged a peaceful protest against a decision by the IIT council, the governing body for the technical institutes, after it doubled the annual tuition for an IIT education to Rs2,00,000 ($2,948) from Rs90,000 ($1,327). On Dec. 14, after the hostel-fee announcement, 1,200 students signed a petition to roll back the latest increase.

During this week’s protests, eight students went so far as to embark on a hunger strike, and the whole fracas sequestered the school’s director and registrar in their office for an entire night. On Dec. 21, the school’s management agreed to look into the students’ grievances.

“This is not the first time; there is a regular trend in IIT to hike the fees by Rs2,000($30) to Rs 3,000 ($44) in each semester and we have kept quiet,” student Sayan Dasgupta told India Today. “This time it has gone up by a whopping Rs8,000, and we won’t keep quiet now.” Dasgupta characterized the move as “totally illegal,” alleging that the university is boosting fees to pay higher salaries and to share the burden of a “tax on food served” in the school canteen.

While a nearly 28% hike is sizable, the benefits students receive from an IIT Kharagpur degree are enormous: Graduates often go on to work at top-tier engineering, IT, finance, and consulting firms. Recruiters offer salaries between Rs900,000 ($13,268) and Rs1,200,000 ($17,691) per year—well above the average annual salary of $720. Google CEO Sundar Pichai is an alumni.

If the fee increase remains, the university’s research scholars—who receive a monthly Rs 25,000 ($369) stipend—will be hit hardest. “If the stipend is not increased how can we pay the increased hostel fees?” one PhD student wondered. “Within that small amount, we have to manage our food and other living expenses also.”