Chennai, India – Harshali Nagrale is a first-generation student from India’s Dalit community, formerly referred to as “the untouchables” who have faced systemic persecution by so-called upper-caste Hindus for ages.
Having done extensive work in public policy and the education of marginalised communities, the 25-year-old now wanted to get a more specialised education in the field at a foreign university.
While she secured admission into a masters programme in elections, campaigns and democracy at London’s prestigious Royal Holloway College, she hit a roadblock.
There was no way the daughter of a retired mill worker and a homemaker mother could afford the $54,000 fee.
Nagrale’s attempts to get scholarships set up by the Indian government as well as some foreign organisations were unsuccessful.
That is when she decided to try an unconventional method that has delivered results for underprivileged students like her in recent times.
Nagrale set up a fundraising campaign on an online platform called Milaap, detailing her work and course details she wanted to join, and asked its community for financial support.
“I am the first woman to complete her graduation from my village and family,” reads her appeal on the crowdfunding platform.
“I am a first generation lawyer and it is indeed a proud moment for me to be offered this course at this prestigious university.”
The move worked. Nagrale received an overwhelming response from Dalit students studying abroad, community groups and activists.
She was able to raise 67 percent of her target amount and is now working on her visa formalities. She said she will fund the rest of her living expenses through part-time jobs in the UK.
Option for less-privileged aspirants
In recent days, hashtags such as #SumittoOxford and #sendAbhishektoCambridge have been trending on Indian social media, as more than a dozen aspirants like Nagrale seek donations for higher education at prominent Western universities.
In the past, some deserving students from poor families have been helped by the government, philanthropists and NGOs, but these scholarships are limited and extremely competitive.
Also, Indian banks do not provide student loans unless those seeking financial support provide collateral.
Earlier, a portion of support came from the universities a student was aiming to join in the form of fellowships and endowments. But the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has seen a decline in Western universities offering help to foreign students.
In such a scenario, crowdfunding has become an option, mainly for students coming from less-privileged families, or those who lost an earning member of the family.
As more people have begun to seek help, many activists and organisations belonging to marginalised communities back their campaigns by retweeting their pleas or help them to find donors.
The activists said they supported such students since they believe education is the only means by which they could become empowered and improve their lives, or the lives of their communities.
Studying community-related issues
Many students who are crowdfunding for their education in Western universities say they intend to study courses related to the struggles of their communities.
Archana Rupwate, a 34-year-old Dalit lawyer based in the western metropolis of Mumbai, works on issues related to human rights and criminal justice.
She secured admission at Viadrina University in Frankfurt, Germany, for a Masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. But being a farmer’s daughter, her only option was to seek help from strangers.
“Though I got admission offers from several reputed universities, I didn’t get a full scholarship,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So one of my friends and an ex-colleague suggested that since I have already done so much work in the field of human rights, I should try crowdfunding.”
Rupwate set up a fundraising campaign on another crowdfunding platform called Ketto, and said she managed to raise 80 percent of her requirements in “merely eight days”.
“I think most people who admired my work donated – my clients and Dalit friends who are settled globally and have achieved something in their lives and really want other students from the community to achieve their dreams,” she said.
Maknoon Wani, a 23-year-old student from Indian-administered Kashmir, says he wants to study the effects of the internet and social media in fuelling religious or ethnic hatred in society, and found a suitable masters course at Oxford, for which he now needs financial help.
“The internet shutdown in our region in 2019 and 2020 bothered me a lot. My father suffered losses as he could not operate his retail business while I could not attend online classes in my final year of college,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone.
“I have got the admission but I don’t have the requisite funds, so I decided to set up a fundraiser on Milaap,” he said.
But Wani has not been able to raise the target amount of $58,000, yet.
“I can’t defer the admission. I am really motivated to do the course and really hope I can make it,” he said.
Spike in people seeking funds
Indian crowdfunding platforms including Milaap and Ketto say the number of campaigns on their websites launched by people seeking help for higher education has risen significantly in recent years.
Milaap’s co-founder Mayukh Choudhury told Al Jazeera his website hosted more than 11,000 fundraisers related to education in 2020, an increase from 7,000 a year earlier. He said education was the second highest category for which campaigns are set up after medical emergencies.
“While non-profit organisations and communities raising funds to support education of underprivileged children are common, many young individuals also seek support for crowdfunding to pursue higher education,” Choudhury said.
On June 3, Dalit musician and activist Sumeet Samos crowdfunded a staggering $50,000 in less than a day for his education at Oxford.
“The fundraiser, posted on our crowdfunding platform, saw an overwhelming response,” said Choudhury, adding that all campaigns on his website were “verified by a dedicated team” and after approving relevant documents.
“In cases of raising funds to cover tuition fees, relevant documents from the institutions such as call letter, acceptance letter and other relevant documents are shared on the campaign page,” he said.
Namrata Pandey, a New Delhi-based education consultant, says crowdfunding still cannot cover the entire costs of education and living expenses abroad.
“Many universities, especially in the US, fund students from marginalised communities if they are academically brilliant, talented and bring in a perspective that is unusual,” she said.
‘Failure of government programmes’
However, not every person who sets up a fundraiser manages to get the required funds. Quite often, what makes the cutting edge is activism, a network of friends and well-wishers and a proven track record of work in the chosen field.
Though fundraisers might seem like an easy way to raise money for education, putting your life story online for the world to see might come at a cost.
The ethics of crowdfunding for educational expenses have also been questioned. Many feel such an expensive education should not be pursued by people coming from marginalised communities, and question whether such costly degrees are worth it.
Some seeking funds have also suffered from a social media backlash, with users calling them “beggars”, “selfish” and even accusing them of hiding facts about themselves or their families.
Recently, Ansab Amir, a graduate from the Aligarh Muslim University in the northern Uttar Pradesh state, asked for funds after he secured admission for a masters programme in journalism at London’s Goldsmiths University.
But the 22-year-old aspiring journalist decided to end his fundraiser on Milaap and return the money collected to donors because he and his family “had been subjected to abuse, harassment and threats and [my] mental health was damaged by all this”.
Dalit activist and writer Cynthia Stephen says most government scholarships are designed to give an impression of helping the marginalised communities, but the students rarely manage to get them.
“Denying a student from a marginalised community the opportunity to come up is denying them human dignity and their constitutional right,” she told Al Jazeera, calling crowdfunding for higher education “a good trend”.
“But it is also a measure of the failure of government programmes in supporting the marginalised communities.”