Policy Offensive on Higher Education

Soon after the re-election of the Manmohan Singh government, the corporate media offered a slew of policy recommendations for its second tenure. Foremost among these have been impatient demands for the privatization and commercialization of higher education.

Leading the pack was Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta, who declared the ideological offensive with this observation: “In his first innings as a politician, Dr Manmohan Singh liberated our economy. In his second, as prime minister, he brought about a paradigm shift in … our foreign policy… Our guess, and wish, is that he now does to our higher education what he did to our economy and foreign policy in 1991 and 2008, respectively.”

If Manmohanomics ‘liberated’ our economy from its accountability to the country and its people and shackled it to the US-led Fund Bank diktats, neoliberal theorists now wait with unconcealed glee for him to ‘set our campuses free’ (to borrow a phrase from the title of an article by Ila Patnaik in the Indian Express) this time. What does the ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ demanded by these neoliberal ideologues really mean? Freedom to hold students union elections? Freedom for students to conduct democratic activity? Autonomy to pursue research of one’s own choosing? Far from it; ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ are actually neoliberal shorthand for ‘freedom’ of the state from it accountability to higher education, which will instead be tied directly to the market. It is freedom for the market and the specifically the profiteers to decide syllabi, research, faculty, students – and all this is bound to mean the worst un-freedom for the teachers, students and researchers, and for the spirit of university education itself.

“set the campuses free,” Ila Patnaik recommends “autonomy of universities (including on budget); reduced core funding combined with more competitive research grants; a flexible salary structure; end of government interference in recruitment of staff and students.” These phrases need to be “translated” to understand their actual import. “Autonomy, including on budget” implies the autonomy to hike fees and use University spaces for commercial purposes. “Reduced core funding” means the Government need not fund higher education anymore. Instead, Patnaik argues that “Defence, space and atomic energy contracts are also ideal sources of meritocratic research funding, because these customers care about results and will not throw money towards a process of political patronage.” This is an incredible claim! Defence, space, atomic energy, and private corporations too are much more closely linked to political patronage that, say, the UGC. The UGC cannot refuse to fund research that may be inconvenient for the government: the private corporate sector and defence establishment will obviously only fund research that suits its own needs: not just “professional” needs but political needs too. For instance, will the above fund research that might prove atomic energy to be too costly, dangerous, and unsuited to Indian energy needs? Or research that proves the damages inflicted by neoliberal economic policy? Obviously not. Such “meritocratic” research funding will never find merit in anything that does not worship the market and neoliberal masters – and it is therefore far more deadly to any real autonomy, freedom and excellence than any UGC ever could be. Patnaik’s plea for an end to government “interference” in selection of faculty and students is a euphemism for an end of reservation policy – another top favourite on the “meritocratic” agenda, of course.

Interestingly, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has been quick to utilise major controversies over deemed universities, capitation fees, and racist attacks on Indian students in Australia, to push for his agenda of private universities and foreign universities. At present, universities can only be established under a central Act or a state Act. But section 3 of the UGC Act allows institutions to achieve recognition as “deemed to be university.” Deemed universities have become notorious as fraudulent enterprises cheating students to sell sub-standard education at a steep price, especially with the HRD Ministry allowing such institutions to drop the ‘deemed’ tag and masquerade as full-fledged UGC-recognised Universities. An editorial in a leading daily (TOI, 11 June 2009) which conducted a ‘sting operation’ that exposed capitation fees being taken by two ‘deemed universities’ in Tamilnadu, made its agenda clear. Deemed universities, it claimed, were the only universities to enjoy the much-desired ‘autonomy’ – “to set their budgets, design curricula the way they like and to determine student intake.” It approved of Sibal’s plan to correct the “misuse” of this autonomy – by “restructuring the higher education system to allow private players to set up universities right off the bat.” Such a move, it argued, “could end the licence raj in education, particularly if the government reconsiders its notion that education must never be a profitable enterprise.”

Such logic is mystifying. If anything, the fate of the ‘deemed’ universities ought to serve as a nightmare preview of the fate university education is bound to suffer if left to the mercies of the market. If the UGC failed to regulate the mushrooming forest of ‘deemed’ universities, how can it be argued that a forest of private universities which are ‘freed’ of the need to go via the ‘deemed’ route, will be any less exploitative? Capitation fees, poor quality at high cost – these are part of the structural logic of privatized ‘education for profit.’

It is reported that among the first files that Kapil Sibal requested on becoming HRD Minister was the one that dealt with the entry of foreign education providers into India. The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations, Maintenance of Quality and Prevention of Commercialisation) Bill had been approved by Cabinet in February 2007, but pressure from the Left parties and apprehension of students’ protests had led the HRD Ministry to keep the Bill on hold. Even then, as Science and Technology Minister, Sibal had gone out of his way to support the Foreign Education Bill. Another piece of legislation previously withdrawn in apprehension of protests, which is likely to reappear in a new avatar is the Private Universities (Establishment and Regulation) Bill, 1995 which was withdrawn in 2007.

The corporate and neoliberal clamour for private and foreign universities tries to cloak itself in legitimacy by claiming concern for India’s vast sea of students and youth, hungry for education. Shekhar Gupta’s article, for instance, holds forth passionately against the “criminal undersupply of education,” reflected in the desperate competition for scanty seats in engineering and medical colleges, and the scenario where even students with high marks can’t get into the college of their choice. We quite agree that this undersupply of education is criminal. But we expect and demand that the Government correct this criminal policy by vastly increasing investment in education. Instead, Shekhar Gupta and his ilk blame the undersupply on the ‘outdated’ resistance to outright liberalization, claiming that the free entry of private and foreign universities will solve the problem.

Their argument also relies on bad-mouthing public education institutions and existing universities – favourite punching bags being social science universities like the JNU. Gupta’s tirade is a typical example: “What brand name can Indian social sciences and the liberal arts boast of? They, in fact, have a bigger problem than lack of resources: lack of intellectual freedom, diversity of thought and opinion. The few social science centres that we have, therefore, produce clones. Usually these are clones of professors steeped in the heady ideologies of the ’70s incapable or unwilling to notice that the “revolution” has passed them by. JNU is a perfect example.” For Gupta, of course, the only proof of intellectual ‘freedom’ is the brave willingness to be a ‘clone’ of US neoliberal philosophy, even in the face of the cataclysmic collapse of the world economy as a result of this philosophy and the worldwide revival of interest in those very ‘heady’ ideologies of Marxism which Gupta debunks! Gupta’s paper is so slavish in its US-worship, that it even carried a piece penned by a US policy analyst, claiming that it was the US which was the real winner of the Indian Lok Sabha election results!

What neoliberal ideologues cannot stomach is the fact that it is Indian government-funded Universities which have produced any and every intellectual ‘brand names’ we might boast of: from Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen to a range of internationally renowned historians and economists. Not only that – countries like the US and UK which today counsel India to privatise education, built up their educational foundations on several decades of solid state funding!

Sibal’s Ministry has invoked the racist attacks in Australia to offer to bring foreign universities to India. Will private and foreign universities give us the ‘quality’ education we need? The answer can be found by looking at the functioning of hospitals in the private sector. Steeply priced, they certainly do not offer any relief for the poor who are most desperate for health care. There have been innumerable cases of medical misdiagnosis, neglect, and exploitation in the myriad private ‘nursing homes’ and clinics that have mushroomed. And as for ‘quality’ – these institutions have yet to produce a single surgeon or medical researcher of quality; they instead steal the best practitioners from the very public-sector hospitals that they vilify for ‘poor quality’! ‘Former head of department at AIIMS’ is the title that many doctors at Apollo etc boast – while the hospitals on which the poor continue to depend are depleted of their best assets. In education, too, the foreign education providers will not bring their ‘quality’ faculty from abroad: they will rely for prestige and quality on imports from the public Universities, thereby weakening the institutions on which poor students who cannot afford high fees will continue to depend.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA, points out that in the experience of other countries, foreign providers are usually not ‘top’ universities, “but are rather institutions at the middle or bottom of the hierarchy in their home countries. Some have financial or enrolment problems at home and want to solve them with offshore ventures. And some are “bottom-feeders” who will provide a substandard educational product in India… International experience shows that the “market” is slow to detect low quality — and there seems to be a clientele for poor quality in any case.” The experience of countries like Israel, he says, proved that an ‘open door’ policy let in more substandard “for-profit” pests than prestigious guests. “Only when the host country pays the full cost, such as in the Gulf countries, do foreign universities establish full facilities and expensive programmes such as the Cornell University Medical School in Qatar.” While countries like Israel eventually discarded the ‘open door’ policy as a bad experiment, “the losers, of course, were the students who paid high prices for bad quality.”

While the ‘National Knowledge Commission’ continuing from the last tenure of the Manmohan Government aggressively pushed for privatisation and commercialization of higher education, the Committee headed by eminent educationist Prof. Yashpal made very different recommendations for reform in education. The Yashpal Committee report declared unequivocally that “an institution working with the motive of private profit does not have the right to be called a university.” Kapil Sibal, being hailed by the neoliberal enthusiasts as the “first ‘modern’ HRD minister in two decades” and whose agenda of neoliberal reform, the enthusiasts rejoice, enjoys the backing of Rahul Gandhi, is all set to ignore the opinion of India’s most reputed educationists in favour of the clamour of corporations for a share of the huge education pie. The student movement must urgently combat these policy offensives in higher education, linking it up with the resistance to the ‘Right to Education Bill’ in the field of primary education, which is a move to do away with even the constitutional commitment to right to education.

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