‘Can’t continue at Harvard’: SC, OBC students hit as Maharashtra makes 75% must for study abroad scholarships

Maharashtra has also imposed an income limit for Scheduled Castes, defining a ‘creamy layer’ which students say is “unconstitutional”.

The changes in eligibility criteria of the overseas education scholarship scheme has jeopardised study abroad plans of many students from marginalised communities.  (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)The changes in eligibility criteria of the overseas education scholarship scheme has jeopardised study abroad plans of many students from marginalised communities. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Team Careers360 | June 14, 2024 | 11:06 AM IST

By Sanjay & Sheena Sachdeva

NEW DELHI: After completing a masters in education (MA Education) at Savitribai Phule Pune University in 2021, Eknath Wagh cracked the entrance exam for Harvard University, US. The 28-year-old first-generation learner from Maharashtra’s Buldhana has secured admission in the masters programme in education policy and analysis.

However, his future looks “uncertain” as the Maharashtra government recently revised the eligibility criteria for its overseas scholarship scheme. Applicants from Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Caste (SC) categories now need to have scored 75% or above right from Class 10 till the latest qualification, which can be an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. The previous cut-off was 60%.

Not just that, the state has also imposed an income limit of Rs 8 lakh on Scheduled Castes where none exists in central law. Students say that defining a ‘creamy layer’ among SCs is “unconstitutional”.

The central and other state governments offering overseas education scholarships have set the cut-off at 55% to 60% marks in their latest degree to pursue courses abroad.

The new marks requirement is acting as a “barrier”, say students. Wagh, who comes from a farming family, scored 71% in BA Economics at Fergusson College, Pune, in 2017.

He got the admission offer letter from Harvard in March 2024 and accepted the offer by paying USD 250 (Rs 20,890) on April 15.

“My course started in June and I am attending classes online. Physical classes will begin in August 2024 and I have to submit the fee. I cannot attend physical classes until I have a sponsor who will submit my fee to the university. I need a scholarship award letter from the Maharashtra government for continuing my classes at Harvard,” he said.

“I will not be able to continue if this 75% marks in graduation rules stays. I will be out of the race. I do not know whether Harvard will defer my offer or not.”

The changes in eligibility criteria of the overseas education scholarship scheme has jeopardised study abroad plans of many students from marginalised communities. Community leaders and Ambedkarite activists said that this policy change is going to hamper higher education plans of many first-generation learners.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has also been filed at Bombay High Court challenging the new rules.

Also read Maharashtra: Cabinet nod for scholarships to 75 students for research in mangroves and marine biodiversity

Maharashtra Government Overseas Scholarship: Changes

The Maharashtra government supports study abroad dreams of students from historically-marginalised backgrounds by providing scholarships to 75 SC, 40 ST and 75 OBC students every year. Its Directorate of Technical Education (DoTE) also awards scholarships to 40 general category students for their higher education abroad.

As of now, advertisements inviting applications under its Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj Scholarship Scheme from SC and OBC students are out with the revised eligibility criteria. Eligible students can apply for the scholarship till June 30.

Apart from 75% marks in the latest degree and in class 10 and and 12 to pursue further studies abroad, the government has fixed the annual family income limit of Rs 8 lakh for SC and OBC students. It has also capped the scholarship amount to Rs 30 lakh for masters and Rs 40 lakh for PhD.

The eligibility criteria for SC and OBC students are now more stringent than what they were for unreserved category students – from the forward castes – in 2023-24, the latest available rules.

General category students required 60% marks, had the same income limit of Rs 8 lakh and there is no cap on their scholarship amount, according to the 2023-24 scholarship manual issued by DoTE. The 2024-25 scholarship manual for general students is yet to be issued.

Study Abroad Scholarship: ‘Shut down or remove cap’

“Foreign education elevates the careers of students. Previously, many students from slum areas have been able to uplift themselves and their families through these foreign universities and scholarships,” said Rajiv Khobragade, a student representative and member of an NGO, The Platform.

“The cap of Rs 30 lakh doesn't cover anything these days. Either the government should shut down the scheme or remove the cap. Earlier there was no cap for the fees because it varies from university to university… To some extent, the cap on living expenses is understandable because it is tied to inflation. Many government officials are not aware of the cost students have to bear in countries like the US. If the state government has no money and doesn’t revise the criteria, they should close the scheme,” said Anil Wagde, a US-based diversity advocate.

Raju Kendre, founder and CEO of Eklavya Indian Foundation,which works towards the democratisation of higher education said many global scholarships increase their stipends yearly to match inflation. “However, our state and central governments are planning to cap scholarship amounts, despite already providing insufficient monthly stipends. Students struggle to survive and often have to do part-time jobs to cover costs.”

Maharashtra study abroad scholarships: Careers hit

Students complained that their study abroad dream is on the verge of being crushed because of the new changes brought by the Maharashtra government. Students came to know about the change only when the advertisement inviting applications from OBC and SC students was out on June 5.

Nikhil Angad Kudke, 25, the first generation learner from SC community of Latur completed his chemical engineering with 74.44% from DY Patil College of Engineering and Technology, Kolhapur, in 2022. He has received an unconditional admission offer from Australia’s The University of Sydney for pursuing a masters level course in engineering.

“Due to a shortage of just 0.56 % in the required 75% marks in graduation criteria, I would not be able to officially qualify for the scholarship. This rule would take away my dream to study at one of the best universities in my field. My two-and-a-half years of hard work to study abroad will be worthless. The sudden increase in the graduation marks requirement may limit opportunities for many students like me who were previously eligible, potentially reducing the diversity and talent pool for international studies,” he said.

Shraddha Ramesh Kamble, 27, completed her graduation with 72% from Siddharth College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, in 2017. She has received an unconditional admission offer letter for MSc in banking and international finance from University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

“I am a first-generation learner in my family and I belong to a lower middle class family. We cannot afford tuition fees and accommodation in the UK. Even though I am working, the amount is way too much for me to pay. And I can't even think about taking an education loan either. If the 75% criterion remains, it will damage my dream of studying abroad. I request the Maharashtra government to remove this criterion so that aspirants like me can go and fulfill their dream,” she said.

Akshay Punjaji Khandare, 22, of Nanded, completed his electronic engineering from Yeshwantrao Chavan College of Engineering Nagpur in 2023. He has got admission offers from multiple foreign universities.

“I have scored 73.6% in my graduation. The new 75% graduation marks policy will crush my study abroad dream. My father is a farmer and there is no one who can sponsor my studies abroad. Even after getting an unconditional offer from the top ranked universities, I am unable to get the scholarship due to such an unpleasant change in the eligibility criteria,” he said.

Overseas scholarship: Criticism

The mandatory 75% marks criteria is being criticised by students and Ambedkarites leaders.

“If someone is already admitted to top-tier universities like Harvard and London School of Economics (LSE ), the 75% marks criterion still gatekeep opportunities for students from the marginalised communities. This reflects the elite-centric, meritocratic approach of the Indian education system. It shows how our policies are ultimately not centered on serving the marginalised,” Kendre said.

Sumit Jhambulkar who is selected for admission at University of Bristol alleged that the government wants children from the marginalised communities ‘to not study’. “Earlier the minimum eligibility percentage was 55%, there was no financial income criteria. But now Rs 30 lakh is the cap for masters and Rs 40 lakh for PhD. How will a student afford the other expenses? The general cost of masters and PhD in foreign universities is Rs 40-50 lakh per year,” he added.

Even those who are receiving the Maharashtra government’s overseas education scholarships allege that there has been a delay in disbursement of scholarships.

“There are always delays in the disbursement in the form of fee payment to foreign universities. This causes embarrassment to us. The Maharashtra government also pays less fees to the universities than the required amount even though they promise to pay full tuition fees,” said a student from Columbia University who is funded by the Maharashtra government.

Maharashtra scholarship: Appeal and PILs

Students and academic leaders have appealed to the Maharashtra government to roll back its 75% mark criteria rule. A PIL has also been filed in Bombay High Court seeking removal of the rule.

Khobragade filed a PIL at Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court, on Thursday which is expected to be heard on Monday. “We have three main demands: to remove the criterion of 75%, scrapping the unconstitutional creamy layer of Rs 8 lakh income in scheduled caste scholarship, and an increase in the scholarship amount,” he said.

Kendre believes that the recent regulation requiring 75% in UG/PG is exclusionary. “Many deserving state university students will miss out. An immediate revision is needed to ensure all aspiring scholars can pursue their global education dreams,” he added.

Amol Meshram, who was admitted to the University of Glasgow in 2018 after seeking high court intervention to speed up the application process, said the government should not interfere in the eligibility criteria.

“If the foreign university thinks I am eligible, why is there a cap based on the percentage? The government should not add new eligibility criteria,” he said.

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