"I cannot express in words how happy I felt when I got the email saying I had got admission to the Pennsylvania State University's PhD programme," Priyanka Mali told The Quint.
Mali, who hails from a village in Maharashtra's Sangli district, was looking forward to leaving for the United States for higher studies this year, however the delay in Maharashtra government's scholarship for Other Backward Classes (OBC) students who wish to study abroad, means that she is currently staring at uncertainty.
Mali isn't alone. The state government published the list of recipients in mid-October, which was quite late for admission to North American and European universities where the academic year usually starts in September.
Bhakti Gujar, another recipient, received no communication that she had been selected for the scholarship. She got to know only when the government officials set up a WhatsApp group in early November and added all the recipients to that group. It was too late. Gujar, who had an offer letter from Belgium's Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for a master's in Sustainable Food System Engineering, Technology and Business, lost her seat as she didn't get a deferral from the university. She will have to go through the application process all over again this year.
Cabinet Decision to Increase Seats From 10 to 50 Caused Delay: Government
Maharashtra government instituted the annual scholarship for OBC students, for postgraduate studies abroad, in 2018. The original government resolution (GR) stipulated only 10 beneficiaries but this number was increased to 50 from this year by the new Eknath Shinde-led Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party government.
The scholarship, administered by the government's Other Backward Bahujan Welfare Department, is given to OBC students (including Denotified Tribes and Nomadic Tribes students) who have secured admission to postgraduate diploma, master's or PhD programme in a university with Times Higher Education and QS ranking of 200 or higher. Out of the total recipients, at least 30% of the grantees are supposed to be women.
Nand Kumar, additional chief secretary in the Other Backward Bahujan Welfare Department, told The Quint, "Policy was only for 10 students. Cabinet decision was required to increase it to 50. That took time this year. All other years will be normal (sic)."
The delay in announcement of the recipients has meant that most students had to either let go of their admission or seek deferment from the universities.
Vaishnavi Bagade had an offer letter from the University of Warwick for MSc in Social Inequalities and Research Methods. She sought a year's deferment from the university due to the delay in scholarship, which the university has granted her.
Bagade has completed a master's from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, however since her course was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, she wants to go for another MA.
"I hail from a rural part of Pune district. Losing out on a year is a big deal for me. People in my village don't care much about women's education. What will I do if the family says get married?" she complained to The Quint.
Bagade isn't sure if the Maharashtra government will keep the offer of scholarship the next year and doesn't want to take any chances. She is exploring other options and has applied for Commonwealth and other scholarships.
Arati Kade is a recipient of the scholarship from the last year's batch. She is currently pursuing her PhD from the University of Amsterdam. Kade chose to opt for the union government's National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) instead of state government scholarship because she received the NOS in time for her to complete the admission procedure before the university's academic session began. She heard about her selection for the Maharashtra government scholarship when she had already completed her paperwork and was about to leave for Amsterdam.
Students Question Government's Decision to Set a Cap on Scholarship Amount
Ashirwad Wakade, an awardee from this year's batch, pointed to another issue. Though the government has increased the number of beneficiaries from 10 to 50, it has inserted a new condition regarding the scholarship amount. As per this rule, a student will get up to 30 lakh rupees for the master's and 40 lakh rupees for PhD per year. Wakade told The Quint that this amount is not enough to cover tuition fees, travel, rent, food and other costs, especially in countries like the US and UK.
Rishi Raut, who had to defer their admission to University College London, seconded Wakade. Raut said that there shouldn't be a cap on the stipend and it should rather be tied to the tuition fee, living costs and other expenses.
Raut also wants the application process to become more transgender persons-friendly. Currently, the applicants can choose only male or female as their gender on the application form; there is no third option.
"The government should make the admission process simpler and announce the results early. Students should get the sponsorship letter two and a half months before the classes begin so that they can apply for visa well in time. Further, the government should increase the number of seats as 50 seats are not enough for the whole of Maharashtra," they told The Quint.