Illustrating The Power of Discourse: Open House Discussion on Fees Issues

Illustrating The Power of Discourse: Open House Discussion on Fees Issues

We have entered a new phase with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic coming forth as the stonewall to many families' financial expenditure. Many have been struggling to make ends meet owing to the lockdown. In what came as a bolt from the blue was the 2020-2021 fee structure, which didn’t have any alteration from the usual semester fee structure. The fee structure hosted on the official site of NIT Rourkela under the announcement section brought a certain agitation and discontent among the students. The perception after seeing the notice was that the students would have to pay complete Mess Fees, Student Activity Fees, Medical Fees, Hostel Seat Rent, and Hall Establishment Fees for the upcoming semester. 

Abiding by the true spirit of NIT Rourkela, the solution to this problem was sought through discourse. Unlike any other institute, the topmost administration of NIT Rourkela agreed to address the issues of the students in an Open House Discussion (OHD) where any student could ask any question directly to them. Before delving into the proceedings and outcomes of the OHD, let us have a look at the developments that built up the context for the event.

Events That Led to the ambiguities regarding fees

In an article published on August 31, Team Monday Morning interviewed the SAC President Prof Seemita Mohanty and asked whether the students expect a reduction in the SAC fees this year, seeing that no major event will occur. To this, she replied:

This doesn't particularly come under my jurisdiction. What I can say is that there won't be any reduction in SAC fees, and this was a collective decision made by the Deans and Heads committee, and I should not make any comments on it.

She was also enquired about the plans for budget approval of different clubs for this academic year. She replied:

The plans for the budget is more or less the same, just that, this time due to the ubiquitous pandemic, fests such as Innovision, Vriddhi and others may not be possible, so rather than putting funds under these heads (except celebrity night that happens in March), we have included the fund in the SAC Society budgets so that the respective clubs can use them under the Society. For example, the fund for Innovision (tech-fest) will go to the Technical Society funds, similarly for Nitrutsav and Cosmopolitan, the funds would go to respective societies. The correct figures will be out only after we release the budget for the year which will be available after Dean's and Director's signatures. Things have been delayed, but that is only due to the pandemic situation. This year we have kept some money aside for BBA maintenance and renovation. After the Director's approval, it is up to the Vice Presidents of the Societies, the student representatives, and the club President to decide the micro-budgeting part (distribution of the funds among the clubs). However, I am always there if they ask me for their suggestion or if there is some issue I need to resolve.

A detailed interview of SAC President, Prof Seemita Mohanty, can be found here.

The next development related to the fees issue was when, a message was circulated on NIT Rourkela's official telegram group by the Dean Student Welfare, Prof Snehashish Chakraverty stating:

Institute will pay Rs.800 to all those UG and PG students who are not getting a monthly stipend to meet the cost of data pack recharge for attending online classes, which is going on due to COVID-19 situation. This is for the current semester.

Next up, in an article published on September 28, Team Monday Morning (MM) put a few questions related to the fee structure for the current semester to the Director, NIT Rourkela, Hon’ble Prof Animesh Biswas during his interview. MM inquired about Rs. 800 that was going to be provided to the students concerning the eligibility, and how is that amount going to be provided.

To which, Hon’ble Director replied:

Only those students who are not receiving any scholarship or stipend will receive the amount. We understand that due to online classes, students have to bear the internet charges, so it's a small effort from our side to help the students make the process a bit smoother for them. The modalities of it have not been decided yet. Our finance department is handling it, and most probably, it will be via bank transfer that we would be providing the said sum.

MM also inquired about the mess fees taken for Spring Semester 2019-20 to be refunded for the period when the students were not on campus due to COVID-19 and also about the recent fee structure for 2020-21.

The Director had the following to say: 

No, we have decided to adjust the mess fees in the subsequent semesters' fees for the period in which the students were not there on the campus. We have had an extensive discussion on this. Our policy has been to take the full fees in advance at the beginning of the semester, unlike other NITs. Hence, the full fees will have to be taken in this semester as well. About mess fees, it will be adjusted in the next semester fees for the period in which students won't be present on the campus. 

A more detailed interview of Director of NIT Rourkela, Hon'ble Prof Animesh Biswas, can be found here.

Scheduling and Itinerary for Open House Discussion

Owing to a lot of voices from the student community, Team MM proposed an Open House Discussion (OHD) on the fees issue with the authorities via online mode on MS Teams and was finalized to be held on 3rd October 2020 at 5:00 PM.

Director Prof. Animesh Biswas, Registrar Prof. Pradip Kumar Das, Dean Academic Prof. Saroj Kumar Patel, Dean Student Welfare Prof. Snehashish Chakraverty, and Chief Warden Prof. Swadesh Kumar Pratihar, along with Class Representatives across batches, Hall Representatives, SAC Student Representatives, ICS Coordinators, Hall Secretaries, Team MM, and all interested students, were present in the meeting. Students joined the meeting at 4:45 PM and were briefed about the rules and limitations of the OHD. The authorities started joining the meeting at 5 PM, but due to some technical issues, the meeting started at 05:40 PM (IST). A short Introduction about the OHD was given by MM, and the mechanism was explained once again in front of the authorities. The administration was invited to keep their initial stance regarding fees collection for this semester, which would help the OHD to move forward. The discussion began on a total of 7 topics in a phase-wise manner. In all these headers, moderators from MM (Aditya Tripathi and Tanaya Sahoo) asked the basic question and clarifications regarding the issue, and then the floor would be open for anyone to present relevant clarifications/ ask questions. Broadly the agenda of the OHD included:

  1. Economic Condition of families during the pandemic. (ICS also contributed to this section.)
  2. Mess Fee 
  3. SAC Fees (Student representatives from SAC contributed to this section.)
  4. Medical Fees 
  5. Issues related to the batch of 2020 
  6. Issue of M.Tech first-year stipend 
  7. Miscellaneous 


MINUTES OF THE OPEN HOUSE DISCUSSION

A live stream was being done on the Monday Morning’s YouTube platform using an unlisted video. Owing to privacy and security concerns, the live video streaming was cancelled. Over 900 students were a part of the Team where the meeting was conducted but owing to the technical limitation of MS Teams, only around 300 of them were able to be a part of the OHD at the same time.

MM - What is the stance of the administration regarding the collection of fees for this semester? 

Dean (AC) - Despite the global pandemic situation, we are on schedule in the academic calendar context. We published the results of the spring semester of the 2019-2020 academic year on time. Despite all this, we haven't collected the fees for the autumn semester, which was due from July before registration. Many students had requested the fee portal opening because they had to take bank loans and submit the fee collection form to various scholarship sections. In a recent HOD meeting, we discussed the fee structure regarding all the aspects of fee collection. Although students are not there on the campus still, we are incurring a lot of extra expenses. Eventually, we decided not to charge the students extra. The fee portal will be opened soon. 

N.B.: The fee portal for Autumn Semester for the academic year 2020-21 is currently open. The last date of portal remaining open is 15th November 2020.

Statement from ICS (Regarding Economic Conditions)

Aalisha Padhy, one of the ICS (Institute Counselling Services) coordinators, discussed the family's economic conditions. In a brief yet highly impactful speech, she mentioned everything regarding the economic condition problems that every household has to face due to this pandemic. 

Addressing the House, she said 

The COVID-19 Pandemic has had a serious impact on households in both rural and urban methods. Any alternative method of earning has been snapped because of lockdown. Most of them who had one earning member of their family have lost their job. Piling up misery to their problems is hospital expenditures. Every day, we receive a new WhatsApp message regarding help for treatment of relatives and students belonging to the NITR family. While many of the students and their families have to incur expenditure due to COVID treatment, there are also cases where families have to face other health problems like strokes and other diseases due to the financial stress of lockdown. Many households had to seek mental support due to such cases.

Students too add extra woes to these problems as they need financial assistance for better facilities like laptops, broadband connections, expensive data packs. While they have been asked to pay for mess fees, while they are staying at home and incurring the same expenses. For a middle-class family, having a stable income, it's difficult to manage. From the feedback that the Monday Morning and ICS have taken from the student fraternity, there is a significant proportion of students stating that financial problems exist. We have had various grievances that cannot be stated here. 

In response to this, the administration went ahead and addressed the issues that the institute is facing during the pandemic. 

Dean (AC): The administration has been kind in such respect for genuinely poor students. Whatever the Institute Counselling Services have told is true. So we require the list of students who have genuinely lost their job so that we can help them out in such cases. Let the students who face genuine issues submit their genuine proofs. We will consider such cases and help them.

Hon’ble Director: In this year, MHRD has slashed 50 crores from us due to this economic situation. It is a double faceted problem. Every one of us is facing the problem. It is understood that some students might be facing such issues, but we are facing huge problems from our side as well. Registrar sir can better elaborate on this.

Hon’ble Registrar: There are 3 grants under which we get funds from the ministry, i.e., Head 31, 35,36. Head 31 deals with MTech, PhD fellowship, and pension, whereas Head 36 deals with the salary of faculties. The ministry has assured us that no compromise will be made regarding the salary of faculties. But on the contrary under head 31, we have received only 53 crores in place of more than 103 crores rupees resulting in a shortage of Rs. 50 crores. There is also no scope for further allotment of funds under this head. Moreover, other things like security, electricity, lawn maintenance bill and many other bills are included under this. Such things are unavoidable, irrespective of the presence of students on the campus or not. 

He further added,

We are paying the electricity bills of 11 hostels at around 2.4 crores rupees per year. What we get from hostel fees is at around 6 crores. There should be healthy competition among the hostels such that we know the hostels' requirements and shall fix up the energy contribution bills.

We are giving 71 lakhs water bill for hostel components. For pumping water treatment and distribution, we spend over 1.2 crores for the total campus. This year we have doubled the water fees for the faculties. But nothing has been done for students. We spend over 70 lakhs on hostel maintenance costs too. This year we will be utilizing 1.5 crores for the painting of 10 hostels. All this money comes from the various heads of students' fees. 

Before the COVID situation, we had spent 1 crore for a basketball and tennis court. Similarly, we have spent a total sum of 38 lakhs this year on the renovation and maintenance of the swimming pool. 

Speaking about the justification for collecting medical fees, he added:

Considering the medical bill's collection for the past 4-5 years, we have collected a sum of around 14-15 lakhs less than the actual amount spent considering its unpredictability. We are on the negative side as we are spending more, and there exists a 1.5 crore negative budget that is persisting, and all these, along with the promise of maintenance, can be done only by this money. With around 47% deduction under head 31, it would not be easy to cover these expenses.

MESS FEES

Context - Considering the current scenario, even if we go back, we wouldn't be availing of the mess for more than 1.5 months, and these fees of 1.5 months fees can be readjusted from previous semester mess fees. Why should we pay for the autumn semester for this year?

Dean(AC) - Rs 17500 are the mess fees for students who take admission for the first time. It is not a fixed amount for other students. Whatever mess bill you have incurred in the spring semester, you need to pay it this semester. Supposedly if you are not coming this whole semester, then the mess fee you will pay next semester will be zero. Everyone, irrespective of their semester, has to pay the sum of money.

Chief Warden - We take an advanced payment of 17500, and whatever is consumed is refilled in the next semester. The 2.5 months fees of the spring semester will only be charged this semester. For the batch of 2020, the mess fee will be refunded once the students evacuate their rooms. Once all the modalities are over, we will be gradually processing it slot by slot. 

Conclusion - The students' mess fees to be paid for the autumn semester fees 2020-21 would be equivalent to the incurred fees of the 2.5 months of the spring semester of 2019-2020.


SAC FEES

Context - SAC clubs will most likely be unable to use their budget due to the uncertainty surrounding the campus's opening, and even though we return, it won't be easy to conduct the regular events. So it is unfair to charge the same amount of SAC fees, as most of the SAC funds will not be utilized.

Deba Prasad Badajena (Innovision 2019 Convener): It is known that every year more than 50 per cent of SAC funds are unutilized. Considering this global pandemic, where everyone has to face an economic crisis, can certain projects that need renovation to be put to a temporary halt without affecting workers' salaries?

Registrar: Whatever money is left pending, we usually transfer it to the Student Aid Fund and spend it for Student related work with due permission. We are coming up with a Sports Complex with 25 lakhs rupees cost from Higher Education Fund loan from Canara Bank. Later we committed 6 crores rupees to CPWD Sambalpur regarding the construction of these facilities. The money in the student Aid Fund is 1.31 crores rupees as of 2018/19 year. This has been planned considering the future. There is a huge chunk of money involved in it. Considering these pre-committed plans, it would be difficult to go ahead without the payment of the SAC fees this semester.

Satyajit Raiguru (Secretary, Technical Society): Every year, 80-90 per cent of SAC fees are utilized by clubs and fests, and the rest are used for various odd works like maintenance, renovation, and payment of salaries. But till now, no budget has been allocated to clubs or fests. Moreover, conducting such fests in this leftover time is next to impossible. Moreover, the 800 rupees that are to be paid comes from the previous year’s Student Aided Fund, not this concurrent year. 

Dean SW: Suppose you don't pay the SAC fees this semester, what about the 800 rupees data pack, which comes from the Students Aid Fund, becomes 40 lakhs for all students. Various other expenses like renovation and maintenance costs sum the cost to 1.5 crores, which is withdrawn from the Students Aid Funds.  

Moreover, considering prospects, if we exhaust the Students Aid Fund's money, it would not be easy to manage. Moreover, we paid 1 lakh for a student who recently fractured his leg. The sum of money which we contribute to the Odisha Government for calamities comes from these funds. 

Registrar - Any budgeting that we do, we often take care of the 5 years vision. While taking any loan or submitting the project to the ministry, we often give them an idea of our financial plan for the next 5 years. Based on the multiple infrastructure and development plans, we have submitted our proposal to the Government, and if we get 5-10 crores less, it would be not easy to complete the projects. It is a committed obligation taken by us. 

Director - Considering the pandemic situation, we will also be providing a writing pad and cameras to online classes' faculties. Although the pandemic has saved us some expenses, at the same time, it has caused a lot of problems too. We even asked MHRD for the writing pads, but they didn't accept our proposal. We have invested 1.8 crores for writing pads and 19 lakhs for audio and camera systems. 

Suman Acharya(Student): What are your proposals regarding helping students whose families have faced an economic setback?

Dean(AC) - We can defer the particular student's fees to the next semester. We may not ask for full payment of that student's fees this semester, but he has to pay full fees the next semester. 

Deba Prasad Badajena (Innovision 2019 Convener): Considering the current situation, conduction of fests like Innovision, Vriddhi, Cosmopolitan, or Nitrutsav is next to impossible. Huge crowd gathering is done in these fests, which is not feasible. There will hardly be any offline activity even if we go back to campus.

Dean(SW) - Around 60 per cent of students do not use SAC yet pay the SAC fees. Director Sir has recently approved the money for renovation and maintenance of the Swimming pool. Similarly, if the round bulb of DTS does not work, then the total cost incurred is 80,000 to 1 lakhs. There are also various aspects like maintenance of courts, DTS, and staff payment who are involved in the maintenance work. Such work needs to carry on irrespective of the presence of students on the campus. 

Debaprasad Badajena (Innovision 2019 Convener): In earlier semesters, students had an option to use SAC fees, but in this situation, we don't have any option to utilize the sac fees on our side. These are 2 different scenarios.

Dean(SW) - Whatever you are speaking is for this semester. But as referred by the registrar, sir, we are currently looking at the bigger picture, i.e., construction and renovation, which cannot be stopped for this current semester. 

After a lot of such queries from a lot of students, Hon’ble Registrar said:

We can waive a portion of the SAC fees. We will discuss this in the upcoming Deans and Heads meeting. But, then it can not be guaranteed that 800 rupees will be given to students that were proposed.

Outcome: SAC fees has been reduced to an amount of Rs 500 from an earlier amount of Rs 2000 for the semester of Autumn 2020-21 by the administration considering the current pandemic situation. At the same time, the proposal for paying Rs. 800 as data pack recharge for students has been revoked.


MTECH 1st year students

Context - Many of the students of Mtech 1st year students are yet to receive their stipend.

Dean(AC) - This is the first time we have admitted students in Mtech without the submission of proper documents like Original Migration Certificate, Transfer Certificate, Conduct Certificate. To prevent the delay in students' admission, we have provisionally admitted them to the college by means of the scanned copy of certificates. No physical verification has been done until now. Until and unless this is confirmed, we cannot start the process of fellowship. Once all the official admission modalities are completed, they will be paid accordingly.

Miscellaneous Section

Sankalp Hota(Student) - We have not been provided with MATLAB and Grammarly licenses, which are essential for our projects, classwork, and assignments.

Dean(AC) - We are well aware of this problem. Computer Center HOD is on this work. There are various modalities regarding these purchases and it takes some time. Regularly the purchase role gets modified, and accordingly, we abide by it. Earlier, we procured it easily within a short span, as these were considered proprietary items. But unfortunately, this year, these items are not being considered proprietary items due to the changed policy. So we have to use the process of tendering to obtain it. But the process is on, and we will soon get a solution.

Suman Acharya (Student): We have not appeared for end semester exams the last semester, and there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the conduction of this semester’s exams. We are not availing of the library facilities too, but still, we are paying for it. Although we are availing e-books facility, I don't think the entire sum of library fees goes into this. So why should we pay the exam fee and library fee?

Dean(AC) - Yes, there have been no exams recently, and the expenses for conducting examinations have been saved. Even though you are not availing of the library, still the library is open every day. Our expenditure on the subscription of ebooks is much more as compared to the hard copy books. At the end of the day, we aren't able to save anything. We aren't also charging extra for library fees based on usage. Certain heads like examination, library, and electricity are flocked together. We are also incurring extra charges like maintenance of LA -II and MS Teams Licence. Basically, we have saved some money but have had extra expenses as well.

Shrantik Dey(Student): We expected a stipend on qualifying for the GATE examination. We have uploaded the documents to the NITRIS portal, and when will we be expecting the stipend?

Dean(AC) - The NITRIS portal will only be activated only when the student has registered for biometric attendance. Considering the situation, we are quite unsure regarding the return of the student. But it rests assured that once the students come back to the campus, they will be provided with their due stipends. But still, we are finding an alternate method for it.

Amit Bikram Bansal(Student): As per the Ministry of Education's new guidelines, PG students will sign a technological term for lab experiments and be allowed to come to respective institutions. Considering the preparation of other exams and job issues, can you clarify when we will return to the Campus?

Dean(AC)- The Government has allowed the return of PhD and PG students. Owing to returning students' security and health issues, we will be allowing 40 students to come back batch by batchWe have set some priority orders for returning students. 

Dean(SW)-We had a task force committee set up for this so that students can easily come back to campus without any hassle following all safety protocols. There is also money involved in it. There will be a monetary amount of 1000 rupees to be charged considering per person testing. We will be arranging other things like kits and other things. Currently, we will be using the Chief Warden’s fund for this proposal. 

Akshat Jaiswal(Student): In the final year, the dual degree students have to pay 62500 rupees for tuition fees, although the dual degree students and Mtech Students have the same subjects. Other IITs and NITs have the same tuition fees for both Mtech and dual degree, but which is not the case in our institution.

Dean(AC) - We have been following this plan for a long time. But if this is a new concept which everyone is following, we will look into this and give the proposal to the Board of Directors.

This marked the end of the much-awaited Open House discussion. It spanned for a duration of 2 hrs 30 mins and overall, it portrayed a remarkable image of NIT Rourkela with both the students and administration listening to each other patiently and showing the importance of discourse in such institutions.

Team Monday Morning is grateful to the authorities and students for coming together to have a discourse on the issue. We hope that the outcomes thereafter reasonably cater to the larger and urgent interests of the institute and the students.

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