Higher Education

Education as commodity

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Students from various colleges staging a demonstration outside the UGC office in New Delhi on October 26. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The Indian government’s policy to treat education as a commodity rather than as a social need sparks students’ agitation in Delhi with support from several States.

The process of opening up India’s higher education sector to private capital under the framework of the World Trade Organisation-General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO-GATS) is under way and the rollback of the University Grants Commission (UGC) fellowships, other than those awarded to National Eligibility Test (NET) qualified persons, is just one of several policy decisions that seek to convert education into a tradable service. Since 2006, the fellowships for persons who have not qualified for NET or Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) awards have been Rs.5,000 for Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and Rs.8,000 for PhD in Central universities. Students have been demanding that the scholarships be increased to Rs.8,000 and Rs.12,000 respectively. An expert committee was constituted to frame the guidelines and consider an enhancement of the fellowships. The UGC’s October 7 meeting considered the committee’s report, but instead of enhancing the scholarship, the members resolved to discontinue it altogether, without citing any reasons. They, however, clarified that students who were already getting non-NET fellowships would continue to receive it as per the existing guidelines. This effectively meant that the fellowships would be discontinued for new entrants into the university system from the next academic session.

Students took to the streets and gathered outside the UGC office to stage a protest against the decision. Students from Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and other colleges in Delhi painted #OccupyUGC graffiti (on the lines of the Occupy Movement in the United States, which was sparked by a debt crisis facing students) on the walls of the nearby ITO metro station and the ground in front of the UGC building. Their fears that the discontinuation of the fellowships would discourage students from marginalised sections—such as women, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Other Backward Classes and minority communities who sustain their long years of research with the meagre sum—from pursuing higher education are not totally unfounded. If scholarships are replaced with education loans, a student debt crisis with high dropout and unemployment rates cannot be far behind, as is the case elsewhere.

Union Human Resource Minister Smriti Irani tweeted that the fellowship would not be discontinued. The All India Students’ Association, which is leading the protests, took exception to the fact that the Minister met only representatives of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) student wing, and said that the protests would continue until the UGC revoked the decision in writing. After a round of talks between student representatives and the UGC failed, UGC Chairman Ved Prakash told student representatives: “Why don’t you work hard and get the JRF instead?”

The students have intensified their protests despite two police crackdowns, large-scale detention and lathi charge. As the students announced their indefinite presence outside the UGC office, camping behind three lines of barricades erected by the police, makeshift sleeping arrangements sprang up as they spent the nights, huddled around bonfires to beat the Delhi chill. Revolutionary music and poetry kept the fervour of the agitation alive, with Professor Nandita Narrain, president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge (We will watch) and the historian Prof. Janaki Nair of the JNU holding an open class on the theme “When Higher Education was Engendered”. Speaking about the changes proposed in the higher education system, Janaki Nair said: “All of us are affected by it, it is not only the students who are gathered here or those who get non-NET fellowships or those who get JRF. When I was asked to conduct an open class, it occurred to me that very soon we may all be out in the open and under the trees because the last thing this government wants is critical thinking.”

The student leaders Lenin, Rahul Sonpimple, Sucheta De and Shehla Rashid Shora, to name a few, expressed their dismay over the policy to treat education as a commodity rather than as a social need.

Prof. Nivedita Menon and Ayesha Kidwai of the JNU, Amit Sengupta of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Anil Chamadia of Mass Media asked the UGC and the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry to come out with a notification nullifying the UGC’s decision on fellowships. They demanded that the fellowship be expanded to all State universities, that it have no exclusionary criteria such as means or merit, and that the amount be increased. The movement got an impetus when former UGC member Yogendra Yadav said: “I’ll join you. It’s better to sit outside the UGC than inside.” Students from Kolkata, Gujarat, Mizoram and Hyderabad have joined the movement and echoed the demands of their Delhi counterparts.

Meanwhile, the UGC’s Deputy Secretary stated in a signed letter that a five-member review committee would look into the matter and submit its report to the Ministry by December. Many educationists are questioning the timing of this deadline and the withdrawal of the fellowships, for the deadline given for the review committee to submit its report coincides with the WTO’s Ministerial Conference in Nairobi. As Commerce Ministers from 162 countries discuss the contours of global trade between December 15 and 18, observers say, India will prepare the ground to give up its education sector to market forces. In more ways than one, the students’ agitation is a clarion call to protest against some of the unjust policies that are being laid down to pave the way for negotiations at the high table of the WTO-GATS later. What is this framework and what are the implications of the education sector becoming a part of it? All the documents of the WTO-GATS use a terminology that seeks to turn the field from a social to a commercial one: students are defined as consumers, a professor as an employee, colleges and universities as service providers, and education as a tradable commodity. So, like a consumer in the market buys soap, a student shall buy education.

Dr Vikas Gupta of Delhi University said the shortfall in the allocation of public funds for the education sector in the 2015 Union Budget was not a coincidence. The education budget was reduced from Rs.82,771 crore to Rs.69,074 crore and the budget for higher education was reduced by Rs.3,900 crore from the planned allocation. “It is happening because there is a clear understanding that education should be opened up as a tradable commodity,” he said.

In order to further understand the situation, one must look into how the WTO came into being and what its primary objectives are. As the Second World War ended, a rules-based economic order was envisaged leading to the creation of bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which became the WTO in 1995. Countries were categorised as developed, developing and least developed, and the power dynamic flowed in that sequence, with developed countries having more control in global economic governance. Up to 1995, GATT was confined to the trading of goods between member countries, but with the advent of globalisation and as corporate capital sought to expand its reach, services were also included in the general agreement, and GATS was created. At the same time, a new mechanism, Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to control knowledge through patents, was created. When one by one entitlements such as water, health, transportation and electricity became commodities under GATS, it became evident that education could meet the same treatment.

Prof. Anil Sadgopal, member, Presidium of the All India Forum for Right To Education (AIFRTE), said this whole business started when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by A.B. Vajpayee was in power. In a speech at the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Murli Manohar Joshi, who was HRD Minister in the Vajpayee government, said: Higher education benefits only an individual and not society, so an individual should pay for it: therefore, higher education should be seen as a non-merit good instead of being seen as a public good!

In 2000, an Ambani-Birla report presented in the Economic Affairs Council of the Prime Minister had a detailed framework and recommendations. It said that higher and professional education should be left to the private sector and the government’s role should be confined to funding and acting as guarantor to students’ loans.

Sadgopal said the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) during its first term in 2005 went one step further and made an offer of including higher education under GATS. Contrary to the belief that member countries are bound by GATS, they are free to decide which of the services they want to be included under GATS. So, India has the option of not offering higher education for coverage under GATS guidelines. Of the 162 member countries of the WTO, the governments of only 40 or so have offered higher education to be included as a service. The European Union and the African Union are among those who are against opening up their education sectors to GATS despite there being pressure on them to do so. India has the option to accept certain provisions and refuse some, but the Government of India has accepted them in toto and not sought any exemption. China, on the other hand, has a long list of exemptions, and its offer of higher education to GATS does not mean that its government will give up its control over higher education to market forces.

Although India has made an offer of higher education to WTO-GATS, it will not become a commitment until the deadlock over the Doha Development Agenda, which was launched in 2001, is resolved. Developed nations and developing nations have been unable to build a consensus on key issues of the Doha Round such as farmer subsidies and food security programmes, stalling the negotiation process. But the pressure on emerging economies, such as India, is tremendous and there are indications that the long impasse of 15 years may finally end in December, automatically converting all pending offers to irrevocable commitments.

Controversial provisions

Several provisions under GATS are controversial. Under its national treatment rule, every government has to ensure a level playing field for all service providers, national or international, which means that either the UGC has to uniformly give grants to all universities or scrap future aid completely. State-funded universities, such as Delhi University or Pune University, will be forced to convert regular courses into self-financing courses at market rates. This process has already started in some way or the other. At the two-day Chintan Shivir held in Dehradun, the Ministry of Science & Technology directed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and other organisations to self-finance projects and turn them into for-profit ventures. Some officials reportedly expressed surprise that representatives of Vigyan Bharti, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, were part of the discussions.

Under the domestic regulation provision of GATS, no government can make any scheme, law or programme to the detriment of private trade in education. There is a Council of Trade & Services (CTS) and Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM) under GATS, bodies to keep a tab on the state policies of all countries. Ramesh Patnaik, organising secretary of AIFRTE, said: “The HRD Minister would be more accountable to TPRM officials in comparison to the people of India. So, the HRD Ministry is turning every stone to pass the Higher Education Bills. This ‘domestic regulation’ by the WTO and its organs can lead to infringement on sovereignty of the member countries, more particularly developing and underdeveloped countries.” UPA-II brought in six Bills, including the Foreign Education Bill, concerning education. They have lapsed. A Bill to replace different domains of higher education, such as the UGC, the Medical Council of India and the All India Council for Technical Education, with a National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) as an independent regulatory authority (IRA) may be revived, with the BJP government having declared in its election manifesto its commitment to establish a Higher Education Commission. According to the AIFRTE: “These IRAs are established to divest the representative governments of their power and accountability of decision-making. The IRAs already established for different services as well as those proposed to be established in the field of education will be ‘independent’ of public pressure and thus be free to ‘regulate’ the respective sectors in favour of domestic and foreign capital.”

Several civil society leaders and educationists are protesting against the decision to “give up” the sector. Led by the AIFRTE, which has been repeatedly warning about the dangers of turning education into a commodity, these leaders plan to organise a resistance camp in Delhi from December 7 to 14. “Throughout November, decentralised programmes will be organised in different States followed by the December camp. Also, we are seeking an appointment with the President to submit memorandums signed by lakhs of people across the country,” said Lokesh Malti Prakash of the AIFRTE. Sadgopal cautioned that the WTO-GATS regime could undo the social justice enshrined in the Constitution if not stalled.