People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

April 01, 2007

Business In Education Perilous


R Arun Kumar


Now the ASSOCHAM wants SEZ for Universities! No wonder, they mean Special Economic Zones and not Special Education Zones (either of them are problematic). Welcome to the brand new world of education! Here lies the treasure that needs to be unearthed-not knowledge but profits and super profits. Assocham has pitched in support of the commerce department by organising seminars and conducting studies to come out with the same set of proposals. Alas, if not the ruling classes who else will strengthen their political arm in times of dire need! 
The Assocham demands the government to (i) Urgently deregulate the over regulated higher and technical education (ii) scrap the license raj to permit Indian industry to build excellent management and engineering institutions to bridge the demand supply gap and create quality education (iii) Commercial orientation of educational offerings should be tried, as philanthropic approach alone cannot deliver both quality and quantity on the scale demanded in India. 


Jumping From Pan Into Hearth


The arguments against commercialisation of education as NIEPA succinctly states are “It is recognised that most of the private educational institutions operating with profit as their primary motive, do not lay sufficient emphasis on producing citizens with moral, ethical, scientific and basic human sensitivity. They prepare essentially, humans who may be technically competent, (though not always even that) but are bereft of human sensitivity. Commercialisation of education, if not arrested, could well become a part of a process of sell-out of the country’s interests, negating the interests of a large segment of our population particularly that segment which has been unprivileged and has had little voice.


Commodification of education, research and knowledge does not serve long run interests of the nation. For example, commodification of education may lead to excessive emphasis on skill, employment and corporate oriented education. In research, applied aspect will acquire importance at the cost of basic sciences and thus a vast pool of traditional knowledge acquired through centuries may suffer. Further, commercialisation may even create imbalance such as excessive importance to education catering to IT related sector at the cost of education required to meet the needs of vast range of other productive sectors”. Assocham would have done a great service to the nation if an attempt were made to find the reasons for the failure of the philanthropic approach. Advocating commercialisation is like asking one to jump from the pan into the hearth.


According to the Assocham it is “India’s increasingly more burdensome regulatory regime (that) has obfuscated maintenance of standards of quality.” We should remember the fact that 90 percent of the technological institutions in our country are in the private sector and most of them churn out sub-standard graduates. “In the absence of a strong quality assurance mechanism, most private engineering education institutions also do not provide the necessary faculty, teaching materials, information access, or infrastructure needed for quality education in spite of fees, willingly paid, which are often very high…In many institutions, physical facilities are largely outmoded. Probably no more than 20 percent of the institutions - both public and private - have the barest minimum of laboratory facilities necessary to meet the current demands. Communication lines to most institutions are also extremely limited and of poor quality for computer or library linkages. Libraries are unable to subscribe to current literature”. This is what the World Bank had to say about the state of technical education in the private sector in our country. Deregulating even this weak quality assurance system would be indeed perilous.


Perilous Moves


The Assocham also states that the government should open its doors wide open for the foreign education providers. It says “attracting world-class institutions…making India an educational destination…(ensuring) favourable FEP (Foreign Education Providers) regime” should be the priorities of the government. Let us see what the World Bank has got to say on allowing foreign education providers into the country. “It (globalization of higher education) can lead to unregulated and poor quality higher education, with the worldwide marketing of fraudulent degrees or other so-called higher education credentials a clear example. Franchise universities have also been problematic; where the parent university meets quality standards set in the home country but offers a substandard education through its franchised programs in other countries. The sponsoring institution, mainly in the United States or Europe, often has a “prestige name” and is motivated by pecuniary gain, not by spreading academic excellence to developing countries”. (Higher Education Peril and Promise UNESCO, World Bank Report) Even when the World Bank is talking in these lines, it is shameless for anyone to argue for foreign education providers as a means to provide quality higher education. It is akin to thinking that the British have ruled our country not for draining our wealth but ‘civilising us’ and introduced their education system only to ‘educate’ Indians. 


The Assocham wants us to believe that foreign educational providers would increase Gross Enrolment Ratios. Any trader worth his salt knows that trade is for profit and not charity. Even the initial discussions as part of plurilateral talks according to the consultation paper prepared by the Commerce department and put up for discussion reveals that the foreign education providers do not want any restrictions imposed on them. “The requests received include…removal of present market access limitations such as fees, do not lead to charging capitation fees or profiteering etc”. Our experience with private players in education that are bound by the Supreme Court judgement of conducting education as a charitable activity and a ban on collection of capitation fee is very bad. There are many institutions that are finding ways and means to flout these ‘restrictions’ -if at all they can be called as such-and collect lakhs and lakhs of rupees as fees. Following the requests made by the eager foreign education providers and now the Assocham, if these were further relaxed, the situation would be easy to comprehend. They would not bother about increasing the GER but only on reaping profits. As the Assocham itself states we should not forget that “Global trade in higher education is large; it is estimated at more than US $30 billion per annum”.


What makes it even more disgusting is the fact that the all these suggestions are made amidst a spate of reports against the foreign education providers. A recent survey in India showed that of 144 foreign providers advertising tertiary education programs in the newspapers, 46 were neither recognised nor accredited in their countries of origin (Powar and Bhalla 2001, quoted by World Bank). The foreign education providers that have come to our country are not top-graded institutes but second or third grade institutes. According to noted academic and educational administrator and director of IIT Kanpur, M. Anandakrishnan, in an interview he has given to Frontline “their motive is only commercial; they have not established any campuses of their own in this country. These institutions have only tied up with private Indian institutions for commercial motives and, that too, not with the best institutions in this country”. He laments about the sad state of affairs in our country saying, “India is one country where anybody can come and advertise all kinds of degrees. In fact, there have been plenty of offers from what the Americans call the "diploma and degree mills". By this they mean that these are not legal entities and their degrees are worthless”. He states that many such fraudulent institutions are prosecuted in other countries for cheating students while in India they are allowed to reap super-profits cashing on our ignorance and the benevolence of our government. 


As we have already seen top grade institutes will not come to start their branches in third world countries. Our government may act benevolently but education traders do not. The suggestions of Assocham will further aggravate the situation. It states that we can save, “foreign exchange outflow of Rs. 50,000 crores per annum as nearly 1,20,000 students leave it (India) every year for overseas”. The ‘quality education’ in demand will not be satisfied with the second and third grade institutions that are operating their courses here. If the demand for a foreign education is because such a degree is necessary to access jobs outside the country, then provision of such degrees need not be a priority for the government. 


User Fees- Bad Experience All Over the World


The Assocham suggests, “There is a case for augmenting user fees from those who can afford”. The World Bank contradicts, “Countries that have introduced or raised user fees at the tertiary level are at risk of experiencing an increase in access disparities…”It is just not the case of developing countries but that of even developed countries. There are many incidents reported in the newspapers of England about students who are forced to prostitution, lap dancing and even selling their ova to pay the fees. 


The experience in US is also no different. A report on higher education in the US titled Measuring Up 2006 National Report Card On Higher Education talks about the adverse impact the increasing tuition fee is having on the higher education in US. “The absence of state influence on these decisions (fixing tuition fees etc) has inevitably led to higher, often precipitous, tuition increases. Market forces and public policy might be said to have colluded to undermine college affordability… Over these years, median family income increased by 127 percent while college tuition and fees increased by 375 percent…Financial burden to pay for college has increased for almost all families … but increased more for middle- and low-income families. Compared with 1992, families in the lowest quintile need an additional 16 percent of their income to pay for the increased costs at a public four-year college in 2005...Only the wealthiest of American families are exempted from declining college affordability.”


Even the experience of student loans is bad. To quote from the same report about the US experience “Large debt burdens may discourage some students from accumulating more debt to pursue advanced study… The most common response to increases in the cost of college by students and families is increased borrowing—more students incur debt and the amount they borrow increases each year… The majority of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with debt: 62 percent of public institution graduates and 73 percent of those from private nonprofit institutions…and many low-income students choose not to enroll in college rather than incur debt”. 


All this proves that increasing fees or providing student loans will not increase enrolment ratio but in turn will have an adverse impact. On this CABE sub-committee report says “reforms in student fees have to be related to the living conditions of the students, as substantial increases in fees will push away students belonging to poorer socio-economic strata from higher education institutions…student loans shift the responsibility of higher education from social domain (state responsibility) to household domain and within households from parents to the children-from present to the future. The philosophy of loans treats higher education as a highly individualised commodity, as against its well-acknowledged public good nature…Loan programme cannot be viewed as an efficient solution to the problem of finances in the short, medium or even long term”.


The Assocham wants “passage of a legislation enabling easy setting up of private universities.” Even the World Bank in spite its recommendations for opening up the education market, cautions against excessive dependence on private players. “Markets require profit and this can crowd out important educational duties and opportunities. Basic sciences and the humanities, for example, are essential for national development. They are likely to be under funded…” Private universities would not develop courses for the Indian society but will only be interested in selling degrees of those courses that will fetch them profits. Quality too would suffer and they would be detrimental to national interests. 


In the changed political realities of our country after the 2004 general elections it is an attempt by the ruling classes to ‘manage to build a consensus’ as the World Banks wants. “Until the beginning of the 1990s, little attention was paid to the political economy of tertiary education reforms, on the assumption that a technically sound reform program and agreement with top government officials were all that was needed for change to succeed. But when it came to actual implementation, political reality often proved stronger than the technocratic vision. In many countries various interest groups have resisted proposed reform programs. Launching and implementing tertiary education reforms has been more successful when decision makers have managed to build a consensus among the various constituents of the tertiary education community”. 


Using the existing consensus on the problems faced by the Indian education sector it wants to extend this consensus to the solution of these problems too. While the managerial solution to the problem is further liberalising higher education the popular suggestion is strengthening of public education. As the report of one of the CABE sub-committees has pointed out, an increase in the number of students in our higher education can be achieved only through the initiative of the state and its active participation. Unless the government implements its commitment made in the NCMP of spending at least 6% of the GDP on education this cannot be ensured. It is time for the popular movements to build struggles for strengthening public education and build a consensus for their agenda and defeat the implementation of the WTO agenda.