Stop the Anti-People “Reforms” in Higher Education : Sunand, Shaswati Mazumdar

AN article in the previous issue of People’s Democracy had highlighted the agenda of “reforms” being systematically imposed on public funded higher education (‘Warning bells for India's Public Higher Education’, June 21, 2015). This agenda, started by the UPA government and being ever more aggressively pursued since the Modi regime took over, threatens to destroy public funded higher education and chain it irrevocably to the interests of for-profit private players, domestic and foreign. It is an integral part of the larger neo-liberal “reforms” agenda threatening the livelihood and hopes of a better life for the vast masses of working people of this country and one that is supported by the entire ruling class to serve its interests. The urgency of the situation demands all efforts to build a nationwide movement of resistance on a war footing. 

 POLITICAL ECONOMY OF ACADEMIC REFORMS

If we look at the kind of policy changes which higher education has witnessed in the last two decades then there emerges a continuity even when governments have changed, which only reinforces the consensus of the ruling class to liberalise. The Birla-Ambani Committee, the National Knowledge Commission, the Yashpal Committee Report and the latest guidelines on Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) and skill-based courses are all part of one single thread. The same logic also underlies the higher education policies of various state governments. What is this all about? In a nutshell, it is a consensus to systematically ruin public funded higher education institutions, so as to further increase the market share of the private sector. It needs to be noted that already the enrolment in the private sector (68 percent) far exceeds the public sector (32 percent).

As mentioned in the previous article, the Indian government had made an offer during the Doha Round of Trade Negotiations under the WTO way back in August 2005 to provide ‘Market Access’ to the ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’. The offer could not be translated into ‘commitments’ for the last 10 years since various conditions had to be satisfied first. Laws had to be changed to make higher education into a tradable service in the international market and to guarantee that the government would not be able to subsidise public-funded institutions at the cost of for-profit providers. It is towards this end that several bills to change the structures and regulation of higher education institutions were brought before parliament during the UPA regime. Resistance by the CPI(M) and other Left and democratic parties thwarted the passing of these bills, so the government resorted to piecemeal introduction of “academic reforms” without any discussion in parliament.

This method was particularly useful in the field of higher education, where most people – teachers, students, parents and the general public – were disarmed by the rhetoric of improving the quality of education and could not see the links between labour “reforms”, land acquisition “reforms” and “reforms” in higher education. Many have realised only from their experience that quality itself is under attack, as are equity and access. The semester system, the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) in Delhi University (which was meant to be subsequently extended to other institutions), the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) with credit transfer and skill-based courses, the Community College programme, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), the RUSA, the common Central Universities Bill (2013) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) – these (and many more) are all pieces of the puzzle that have to be put together so that the offer made by the government in 2005 to provide ‘Market Access’ to the ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’ can be made into a commitment.

This is what is planned during the WTO trade negotiations beginning this July and concluding in December this year in the Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Agreeing to WTO rules would necessarily mean that the Indian government will have to offer a ‘level playing field’ to private and foreign players, and not discriminate between public and private institutions. A look at the American system (which is the model being imposed worldwide) makes clear what this implies: private education providers will not only make profits from high fees but will be allowed to compete (without discrimination) with public funded institutions for government grants! This diabolical plan to transfer public revenues to private and foreign education providers will force public institutions to commercialise or reduce them to substandard institutions offering online courses. It will mean the end of public funded higher education as we know it and of all hopes of extending its benefits to the millions of youngsters clamouring for an education that would liberate them from poverty and misery. Unless we can stop it!

 

BUILD NATIONWIDE POPULAR RESISTANCE

Compelled by this diabolic agenda, four national students’ organisations – All India Democratic Students’ Organisation (AIDSO), All India Students’ Association (AISA), All India Students’ Federation (AISF) and Students’ Federation of India (SFI) – have come together to launch a joint struggle at the national level against the policies of commercialisation, centralisation and communalisation of education. They have decided to make all efforts to draw other students’ organisations and groups at the state, district and campus levels into this movement. As a first step to organise these efforts on a nationwide scale, a national convention will be held in July.

The unprecedented policy offensive has also brought realisation of the urgent need for teachers’ unity. In a historic event, more than a thousand university and college teachers participated recently in a dharna at the UGC jointly led by the AIFUCTO and FEDCUTA, representing teachers from all state and central universities. They came together to protest against the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of higher education and the attack on teachers' service conditions: systematic denial of regular appointments, promotions and pension. It is important to underline the centrality of the teacher in the agenda of undermining public funded higher education. The non-filling of posts has gone on so long now that lakhs of teachers are today working on a contractual basis, often with abysmally low pay, without basic rights and fearful of protesting. The API scheme of quantifying the unquantifiable – teachers' work – is not only a scheme designed to deny promotion, it has severely affected the quality of both research and teaching. Along with all other government employees, recruits to the teaching profession since 2004 have been denied any pension, which was one of the first targets of the liberalisation agenda. The era of “reforms” has also subjected the teacher, along with non-teaching employees and students, to increasingly autocratic administrations. Teachers who have so far been an essential part of academic decision-making, have to be humiliated, harassed and silenced so that they do not protest when anti-academic and anti-people measures are imposed on institutions.

The joint AIFUCTO-FEDCUTA protest also demanded the withdrawal of CBCS and the Central Universities Bill, 2013. With their clauses to make uniform structures and syllabi, they disregard this country's great diversity, undermine the autonomy of universities and threaten destruction of the quality of education offered. As long as basic needs like infrastructure and permanent faculty are ignored, ‘choice’ and ‘mobility’ will remain empty rhetoric aimed in reality at subordinating the public funded higher education sector to the private sector. The provision of Credit Transfer and Joint Degree Programmes between universities, at a time when public funded institutions are reeling under overcrowded class rooms and acute shortage of teachers, is designed to promote the interests of private institutions, domestic as well as foreign and thereby sharply widen economic and educational disparities. The inordinate hurry with which the CBCS is being pushed can only be understood as part of the drive towards the Nairobi conference in December this year and the agenda of formally bringing higher education under the WTO/GATS regime. The AIFUCTO and FEDCUTA have declared their determination to cement teachers' unity further and carry forward their united struggle in defence of public funded higher education.

The lessons of the struggles of the last decade underline the fact that any popular resistance determined to thwart this agenda has to encompass students, teachers, aspiring youngsters still denied access to higher education and parents. United struggles by students and teachers are a prerequisite of building such a popular resistance. All efforts need to be made to develop organisational forms towards this objective.

 

WHY EFFECTIVE RESISTANCE CANNOT BE LIMITED TO COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES

The mission document of Rashtriya Uchhtar Shiksha Abhiyaan (RUSA) – which is intrinsically linked to the current spate of 'reforms' in higher education – begins with a declaration that this scheme will seek to carry forward the gains made through the implementation of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan (RMSA) and the Right to Education Bill. This basically points to the period of academic reforms during the 10 years of UPA rule. Empirical data not only defies these tall claims, but instead points to worsening inequalities in education.

The Right to Education Act has proved to be a means of siphoning off public funds to private schools and allowing private school managements to hike fees. In the last five years since this Act has come into operation, the commercialisation and privatisation of school education across the country has intensified. It has institutionalised the multi-layered school education system and increased the already existing inequalities.

The privatisation of school education stands at more than 25 percent and is nearly double the world average of 14 percent.The mounting cost of education in recent years has eaten into a major part of the household budget. An Assocham survey showed that 65 percent of parents spend more than half their take-home pay on their children's education, extra co-curricular activities placing significant burden on their family budget. According to government data, average private expenditure on secondary education in private schools is as high as Rs 893 per month as compared to only Rs 275 per month in government schools, primarily due to difference in high tuition fees in private institutions. A report by the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi shows that the probability of a child from a household in the top wealth quartile going to school is 11 percentage points higher than that of a child from the bottom wealth quartile. An increase of Rs 190 in the cost of primary schooling, (measured by cost of tuition, examination, other fees, books and stationery) reduces the likelihood of going to school by 3 percentage points.

What do these figures indicate? They clearly indicate a situation in which access even to  primary education is being gradually denied to children from working class families and from socio-economically deprived sections. In such a scenario, what would the proposed changes in higher education lead to? The education system acting as a means of reproduction of class differentiation is nothing new, but the public education system at least provided some cushion to the children from working class families. The current policy trajectory seeks to erode the last remaining vestiges of public education. The struggle against these policy offensives hence cannot be fought by limiting ourselves only to the current stakeholders in the education system. In a context when linkages between education and employment are stronger than ever, when, as never before, hopes of emancipation from want and misery are tied to hopes of access to a good education, the movement has to reach out to the sections that are currently out of the ambit of education system. This translates into the need to build platforms that are not only limited to those within the university system – students, teachers and non-teaching staff – but to go on to make neighbourhood based collectives in defence of public education encompassing the organisations of workers, youth and women.