Business of education

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

The growing hunger for education has been accompanied by a decline in per capita public spending and, consequently, rapid privatisation, making it impossible to create a progressive and democratic education system.

It can be plausibly argued that the problems of education in our country are sui generis, determined by processes internal to India rather than by global forces. After all, the minor successes (such as the institutes of excellence in various areas and the emergence of a trained workforce of around 100 million) and more spectacular failures in education essentially reflect domestic configurations of political economy. These failures include the continuing inability to provide even elementary schooling to a substantial proportion of our children; the poor quality and intellectually deadening effect of much of the existing education system at all levels; the inability of many public education institutions to relate either to the needs of development or to the job market.

However, despite the home-grown nature of many of our problems in education, it would be a mistake to ignore the effect of global forces, since globalisation has impacted upon and intertwined with local and national structures to create problems of greater complexity and often entirely new dilemmas. So, it is useful to try and understand which features of the current world order have direct and indirect effects on the process of education in India today.

It is obvious, to start with, that the world economy is characterised by imperialist domination not only in the form of the United States as the sole superpower, but through the ascendancy of international finance. This dominance, in turn, implies a tendency to international deflation and curbs on fiscal expansion which inhibit structural increases in public spending as well as adequate countercyclical measures. This has obvious implications in terms of constraints on public spending in areas such as education.

Further, this has created a global unemployment equilibrium, which means that most economies in the world are operating well below potential and with surplus labour. There is inadequate employment generation even in supposedly "booming" economies, and the small pockets of employment growth - in particular sectors or in certain regions - have insufficient linkages with the rest of the economy to prevent the increase in open or disguised unemployment.

To this must be added the agrarian crisis, which is marked across the developing world. The reduced viability of cultivation and the decline of productive income opportunities in rural areas have caused not only reductions in rural living standards but also a more desperate need among rural people for non-agricultural employment.

As a result of the overall context of deflation, internationally capital is searching for new avenues and new markets. Sometimes, these sources of expansion are found by creating new commodities, as in the case of intellectual property rights, but they are also to be had through the process of privatisation of goods and services that were previously publicly provided, such as water. Education, increasingly, is also seen as a worthwhile avenue of private investment in most developing countries.

Global integration has led to changes in the pattern of international investment and production, with emphasis on relocative investment and outsourcing both within and across borders. While this was already marked in the manufacturing sector, recently there has been a growth of such outsourcing activity in the services sector as well, reflecting technological changes which allow more services to be traded across borders. So, the newer job opportunities in the developing world tend to be those that meet the requirements of internationally mobile capital in most sectors, even while domestic agriculture and manufacturing face difficulties and employment deceleration.

These changes are accentuated by the major demographic shift that is occurring in the world, with the aging of most of the industrial world as against the still dominantly young societies in the developing world. This has implications not only for current and future outsourcing but also for short-term economic migration to fill labour supply gaps in more developed countries. Such migration has become the most important source of foreign exchange for many developing countries, as well as an important cause of material betterment for millions of individuals and their families from the global South. In India, for example, remittances from migrant workers have been the single largest source of foreign exchange for more than two decades, more than all forms of capital inflow put together.

All these features have important effects upon labour markets and upon the education process in developing societies, including India. One important social effect is a significant increase in what may be called "the spirit of competition", in particular of notions of individual success and mobility based on performing better or achieving more than others. This also involves a broad public recognition that education is possibly the most effective route to individual mobility, leading to a tremendous - and unfulfilled - hunger for education in all classes of society, including among the poor.

But this growing hunger for education has been accompanied by a decline in public spending on education per capita and a consequent, fairly rapid, privatisation of education. This has come about not only because of inadequate state expenditure in the face of growing demand, and the downgrading of many educational institutions and their services by privileging "informal" forms of schooling, but also because the hunger for education has made it an extremely profitable private sector activity.

So we have the proliferation of private investment at all levels of education, from pre-primary playschools to diploma-purveyors of varying seriousness to institutions providing the highest degrees, all based on profit motive. These institutions, motivated dominantly by financial profit maximisation, are typically still not adequately regulated or monitored. So, the possibility of private "teaching shops" becoming arenas for exploitation of hapless students and parents can be quite high.

Of course, not all private institutions are necessarily problematic, and some do indeed provide quality education, but there is no doubt that private profiteering in education can create serious problems of quality and end up creating inequalities of access because of the higher fees charged. Such problems are not confined to domestic players: even the entry of foreign players can reflect the cynical use of established or not-so-established "brand names" to attract students in a purely profit-making exercise.

The other point of course is that private players respond to market demand, and try to ensure that the products of their education will find employment. This increasingly means that they respond in creating skills that are currently or are expected to be in short supply in the developed world. The filling of labour supply gaps in global capitalism, rather than specifically in India, is more and more seen as the most effective and profitable form of education.

So, there are several emerging issues and new dilemmas that confront those who want to create a progressive and democratic education system in India. The first is the basic question of provision, which itself also raises the prior question of resource mobilisation for such activities. How can public policy address the issues of the evident hunger for education across all sections of society in a democratic, creative, and socially useful way, without allowing private profiteering to exploit the poor, and without compromising on quality in public institutions?

Of course, the way in which this question is dealt with in turn depends upon the motivation of the education system itself. Is it to create a concerned and informed citizenry? Or to meet the expected future needs of economic and social development in the country? Or simply to meet the labour requirements of international capitalism? Can a balance be achieved between these aims?

This is important because the current emphasis on producing particular technical skills also ignores one of the most important functions of education, which is its critical role in encouraging creativity and criticism in society. A focus on purely technical or absorptive skills can lead to a downgrading of the process of encouraging analytical capacities, or creating questioning attitudes and socially necessary dissidence. Since educational institutions form the very soul of a society and typically create the space for both creativity and social introspection, downplaying these important features of education can have a deadening effect upon society.

Then there is the issue of class, caste and gender bias in education, in addition to the communal biases which have received much attention in recent times. These biases reflect themselves not only in access to education, but also in terms of subject matter, syllabi and orientation. They are obviously not new, but it could be argued that the class bias in particular has been accentuated in recent times because of the inequalising nature of growth processes and the functioning of job markets.

Finally, of course, the broader question of policy must be dealt with - indeed it could be argued that this is the most important question, which must be addressed at the start. Education policy is only part of a wider social and economic strategy and must be socially embedded. So it is impossible to have a vision for education without first having a plan or vision for the society as a whole. Yet the current direction of our society is to move away from all plans, whether for the economy or for any other social process. A truly democratic perspective for education must be part of a broader social vision. And in this, of course, it is necessary to incorporate the knowledge that most people working in this field have - that at its best it can be a source of continuing joy for all involved.

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