December, 2015 saw the Nairobi ministerial conference of the WTO. Now, most people have breathed a sigh of relief that, the issue of education did not come up in the discussions and for now, the ‘offers’ for ‘market access’ in the sub-sector of higher education Indian government had submitted to WTO in August 2005, have taken a back seat. By having made such an offer, the Government of India had indicated its preparedness to allow ‘education businesses from all over the world – 160 member nations of the WTO – to establish colleges, universities, and other professional institutions as operational commercial ventures. It would have spelt disaster for the Indian education system if the discussion on the issue of education as a tradable service would have taken place. It would have meant that, the higher education system in our country would have been controlled by world trade and investment rules rather than by considerations of our national fabric. The decisions regarding the higher education system would have been taken by an external agency and not the government, which is accountable to the people of our country. But, for now this crisis seems to have been put on hold.
But, all is not well. Even if for the time being, the education system seems to have evaded the attack from external powers, it faces continued attack on the home front. Continuous systematic attacks are being made to commercialize education and also make it exclusive. Private groups of companies have begun opening up educational institutions all over the country. Now, these institutions are looking to sell education as a commodity and if education were to become a commodity, they would want to be making profits off of selling this commodity. Thus, if profits are to be kept in mind, the education they are offering will certainly not be accessible to all, especially in a country like ours where people find it hard to arrange for two square meals every day. So, slowly education will imparted not on the basis of one’s mettle but rather how deep their pockets are. In recent times, it has also been seen that, various educational institutions have hiked their fees. In October, 2015 the NITs announced that they would be increasing their fees by a whopping 300%. This decision came after the NITs became a public-funded institution like the IISERs and the IIMs. In the New Year, the Bombay high court has allowed schools to hike their fees by 15% for the academic year of 2016-17. In October, 2015 SFI organized a movement following the decision of the Kalyani University to hike the fees. The movement saw success as the VC was forced to roll back this decision. The Maharashtra government had also decided to increase the registration fees for setting up minority institutions.
As is evident, acquiring a decent education in our country is slowly becoming a contest of how much money one can shell out. Apart from education becoming exclusive to the affluent, another implication also comes of the commercialization of education. This is the commoditization of the products of commoditized education, i.e. those who are receiving such an education. These individuals will be self-absorbed and also will be aiming for profits with no regard for others around them and also society at large. Thus, the commercialization of education robs education of its ethical, sensitive and thought-provoking facets. The products of such an education will be lacking the experiences of excitement of thought, creativity and grandeur of ideas. Thus, commoditization of education ceases to promote creative thought and creates money-minded mechanical individuals. The essence of an education is lost; there may be a certain amount of skill but no knowledge. Such an education is of no use for the advancement of our society.
In 2014, the Modi government ascended into office with much pomp and gaiety. The people voted for the BJP in such large numbers that in many many years, a single party majority was a reality. The reason for such a landslide victory was of course Modi’ s ‘Achhe Din’ campaign and his back story of rise from being a mere chai-wala to the leader of our nation. But, within a year, the BJP government has shown where its loyalties lie. Yes, ‘achhe din’ are here but not for us or your neighbours but rather, the ladies and gentlemen living in unimaginable grandeur and ensuring every imaginable luxury for themselves and their children. To compensate for the tax reductions the government offered to these contemporary monarchs, they decide to cut the budget allocation in the education sector by more than Rs.13, 000 crores. In a country which is still largely illiterate, most of these cuts were made for programs linked top school education.
One of the novel ideas that the government came up with was, to withdraw subsidy on LPG cylinders used to cook mid-day meals in schools. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has instructed state governments to buy cooking gas at the ongoing market rate. The Centre's allocation for Mid Day Meal Scheme was Rs 13,000 crores, which has been brought down to Rs 9,000 crores in the current financial year. Given the situation, it has become almost impossible for this program to run. And this is going to have dangerous social implications. One of the major reasons of attendance of schools in rural areas is because the schools offered at least one square meal to the child. So, the parents sent their children to school. But, if this were to stop as is looking likely, these young children will be taken out of school and put to work. The issue of implementation of the mid-day meal scheme over the years is debatable but, at least the children were being offered the semblance of a nutritious meal and a primary education.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a flagship program of the central government aimed at universalising elementary education by increasing enrolment and checking school drop-out rate, is also facing difficulties due to sharp budget cuts by the BJP government. The MHRD had asked for Rs 50,000 crores to run SSA, but in the 2015 budget it was allocated Rs 22,000 crores, which itself was nearly Rs 6,000 crores less than the previous year's allocation. The budget also scrapped an MHRD scheme to build 6,000 model schools across India, including 2,500 in partnership with private entities.
The Centre's decision to stop funding for construction work under SSA makes setting up of new schools almost impossible for the states. Also in existing school buildings, infrastructural developments like construction of additional classrooms, separate toilets for girls and boys, and extension of drinking water connections would become difficult. The worst sufferer will be the school-going children in rural areas.
Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) was introduced in 2009 with the objective of providing equitable access to quality secondary education by removing socio-economic barriers including those of gender and disability. The last budget saw the allocation for this program undergo a cut of 28.7 per cent to come down to Rs 3,565 crores from Rs 5,000 crores in the last financial year.
Earlier, the Centre used to bear 75 per cent of the financial responsibilities while the remaining 25 per cent was on the state. However, for the northeastern states, the Centre used to bear 90 per cent of the funding. But now the Modi government has brought down the Centre's share to 65 per cent of the total expenditure. It is known that the responsibility of school education has always been lying generally with the states. But in spite of that, the very idea behind introducing central projects on school education like SSA and RMSA was to curb the regional disparities that were prominent across the country. But, with the budget cuts and the decision to change the proportion of financial responsibilities being shared between the state and the centre, the central government is making attempts to shy away from its responsibilities.
In the light of the above discussion, it is the duty of the Students’ Federation of India to resist such attacks on our education system and to ensure that education in our country is made accessible to all. Thus, keeping in mind our future challenges and struggles, the demand for stopping the commercialization of education has been taken up as one of the three calls for the 15th All India Conference of the SFI commencing in Sikar, Rajasthan from 22nd January, 2016. The discussions at the conference will decide the way forward for battling this attack.