Education - The Threat of Unfreedom : Nilotpal Basu

OF late, news headlines have been hogged by the continuing struggle by the students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).  The students’ protest was in opposition to imposition of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute and three other members in the governing council.  The outrage has, of course, gone far beyond this exalted institute and shared by large number of film professionals and the creative community.   From all reports, Gajendra Chauhan’s only bonafide is based on his BJP progeny and a film praising Narendra Modi, apart from his role as Yudhishtira in the Mahabharata mega serial.  These credentials are woefully inadequate to step in as chairman of FTII once occupied by maestros of celluloid art.  Not that, past appointments in central institutes have not reflected ruling dispensation’s inclinations; but seldom has the choice been so brazen attracting the magnitude of opposition that it has provoked.

However, FTII appointment is not stand alone.  There have been other complaints of interference and suspect choices to head academic and research bodies.  ICHR, NBT are few instances not to speak about several central university vice chancellors.  Similar controversies have cropped up over attempted changes in governance of IITs and IIMs.  Institutional autonomy, key element of governance of higher education is increasingly under attack by the government and, more importantly, the whims and fancies of the RSS itself.

But away from public gaze, another momentous change is threatening to overrun the sphere of higher education.  This onslaught threatens the very sovereign powers of the government and the parliament to decide policy, enact legislations and initiate concrete executive actions to salvage national interest.

THE THREAT OF WTO TAKEOVER

The Indian government had submitted ‘offers’ for ‘market access’ in the sub-sector of higher education to WTO in August 2005. This was part of the Doha round of GATT negotiations starting in 2001.  By having made that offer, the GoI had indicated its preparedness to allow ‘education business’ from all over the world – 160 member nations of the WTO – to establish colleges, universities, and other professional institutions as operational commercial ventures.

Though this process had started a decade back, of late, it has gathered urgency. Meanwhile, the Doha round had got stuck on a number of contentious issues; but now with special meeting of the general council of WTO held in Geneva in November 2014, the process has been infused with new dynamism. Now, decision to overcome earlier resistance by the least developed and the developing countries to conclude the round in the tenth ministerial conference to be held from December 15-18, 2015 in Nairobi has been firmed up. Obviously, this is extending the existing entrenchment of WTO; largely driven by interests of developed countries’ corporates in most sectors of economy and trade.

What does this mean for us?  The GATT agreement integrates the three multilaterals – (i) general agreement on trade and tariff including that on agriculture (ii) trade related intellectual property rights and (iii) general agreement on trade in services.
Education will be implicitly considered a tradable service and will be under the jurisdiction of GAT’s council (council for trade in services). Though it may sound obnoxious but education, as service, will be at par with those regulating night clubs and other recreational activities (!) under similar rules with minor variations of domestic regulations!

Gandhi and Tagore are passé! Legacy of educational institutions springing up across the country as integral part of our freedom struggle can be conveniently thrown as relics of the Jurassic past!  That the process of higher education, is rooted in the larger civilisational and cultural process and a powerful instrument for realising the self esteem of the nation and people is being conveniently abandoned. 

But emotions aside, the implications of WTO supervision would mean reducing the student into a consumer in categorically legal terms.  As late as 1998, the Indian parliament unanimously recognised education as a fundamental right, and that too, under a dispensation led by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA. Therefore, this will be a clean break from that making higher education and students lab rats for the global market, a euphemism for the profit seeking corporates. The principles of social justice, democracy, pluralism, secularism and constitutional premise which had so far prevailed to subordinate exclusive profit making will also become a thing of the past.

The Indian laws regarding higher education will also be subject to annual reviews by accredited bodies formed under Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM), a recognised legal instrument under WTO. The TPRM would be free to change, amend and reverse national policies and legislations framed by the parliament.

Therefore, fundamentally the current engagement between the government and students, teachers and other stakeholders will become largely irrelevant as a large part of the decision making would be subject to supervision and intervention by the GATS-WTO process.

THE PREPARATION HAS BEEN ON

Threat of WTO encroachment in higher education is not a development in isolation; neither is it abrupt.

Since early 90s, onset of the neo-liberal economic reforms, education in India has been influenced by a similar philosophical direction.  But in past few years, they underline a clear pattern and direction.  This was featured by an aggressive drive towards commercialisation, privatisation and centralisation.

The reasons are not difficult to understand.  Recently, the ministry of human resource development has released a consultation paper towards the formulation of a new education policy.

It observes: “The approach paper to the 12th plan mentions that about 18 percent of all government’s education spending or about 1.12 percent of GDP is spent on higher education today.  This should be raised to 25 percent and 1.5 percent respectively. An increase of 0.38 percent of GDP means an additional allocation of about Rs 25,000 crores to higher education for the centre and states taken together.”  However, the paper is conspicuously silent on the fact that in the last budget, the government has reduced   its outlay and the situation is no better for the states, which are, in any case, cash scrapped. What is 5,000 crores, an amount annually for the centre and the states taken together?

With customary lip service the paper comments: “It has been repeatedly reiterated that we spend at least 6 percent GDP on education”. It has veered into the clichéd discourse on balanced sharing of fund requirements and repeating the existing status.  While it has not been able to altogether deny: “There is no justification to expect the higher education institutions to significantly rely upon student fees” and “Strong higher education systems are developed in advanced regions of the world with the liberal funding by the state and equally liberal funding by the society at large” – There is no indication to actually reverse the policy paradigm since the early 90s.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE THRUST?

In fact, the direction has been to gradually expand space for the private sector and ‘for profit’ model dominating higher education.  The first spate of this expansion was in the sphere of professional and technical institutions.  Subsequently, this has extended to areas of general higher education.

Obviously, the success of these institutions had depended on the sole ground of their profitability.  Two inevitable consequences have followed. Inadequate infrastructure, substandard and ill-paid faculty virtually reducing the institutions to degree selling machines; or else it has been so overpriced as to severely affect affordability, making them irrelevant in addressing the gross enrolment ratio (GER) requirements.  But even that is now in jeopardy.  With industrial slowdown and virtually de-industrialisation setting in, huge capacities remain unutilised.  This is also drag on public investment committed in many of this as preferred model of PPP ensured profits were only for the private player.

In fact, this was a major thrust in the 12th Five Year Plan where a ten-fold increase in public investment was envisaged over the previous one; however, this was not on standalone basis, but as corpus for further ten-fold inducement of private sector.

In order to boost this thrust towards ‘for profit’ education and agenda of commercialisation, privatisation, and centralisation has become a major priority.  The largely decentralised development of education envisaged in the Constitution with it being in the State list has now been completely reversed.  The half a dozen proposed legislations during the final phase of the UPA-2 government were, in the main, aiming to promote privatisation and centralisation to facilitate the integration and homogenisation of  higher education market.  Globally, education business is the second largest sector and the fastest growing. India is touted to be a major piece of this global education market place.

Notwithstanding the fact that the legislative efforts of the UPA-2 could not fructify many contemplated elements were smuggled into the executive order of Rashtriya Uchcha Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA).

This conversion into market model assumes new urgency.  It started with FYUP model in Delhi University to convert undergraduate courses into semesterised module mode.  The idea was to make modules as basic units of equivalence.

Experience had shown that so long as public funded institutions and courses remained, the ‘private’ could not thrive. Thousands over thousands of private engineering college seats in across the states remain vacant.

At present, there are 45 central universities, 321 state universities, 129 deemed universities and 187 private universities. These segregated small entities pose a challenge to consolidation of private capital; therefore, standardising them is the way to do it.  The module mode and the introduction of Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) aim to obliterate the actual distinction between public and private which prevails on the ground.

But for this private sector does not have a chance; it cannot compete on quality or profitability. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the commodification of public funded education has to be realised with contractualisation of teaching faculty and destroying the necessary infrastructure through severe under-funding.

The bottom-line higher education market in India has to be made service ready for the global education conglomerates. Therefore, the WTO regime will be welcome to education space where knowledge will be substituted by skill, public by private ‘for profit’, national with foreign, criticality with conformism. There is no doubt that the end result will be that sovereignty will be bartered for unfreedom.

THE WAY AHEAD

What makes a possible WTO regime distinct from the general trend of neo-liberal policies in education so far? The clue may be available from the treatment that the Indian government got in a case where subsidies meant for incentivising manufacturers of solar and wind power units for a major expansion of non-conventional power by 2022.  The US manufacturers had dragged India to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism and got the order that this subsidy programme has to be scrapped.  Ironically, this was part of Narendra Modi’s catch phrase `Make in India’ programme.

There can be no distinction between the private and the public; neither between the national and the foreign.  That is the quintessence of WTO definition of ‘national treatment’.

So, the only way ahead could be resistance, a united resistance of student, teachers, non-teaching employees and all other sectors of the Indian society for whom education is vital as an instrument for self, as well as, national development.  Once the government fails to withdraw its offer, India becomes part of the WTO agreement on education as part of the GATS.  The Indian government and the parliament lose its relevance in framing legislations which can be superseded by WTO’s enforcement of the agreement.  The government and the parliament become insular to public pressure and accountability.  Democracy and freedom that cost us so many lives and immense sacrifice pales into oblivion!  Surely, that is not the future we can embrace.