People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
October 21, 2007
Nourishing The Sick Child
R Arun Kumar
IT took so long a time for the government to accept that both the children are sick. We are talking about the acceptance of the HRD minister about the ‘sick higher education’. For long we have been arguing that both the children are malnourished and need to be given sufficient and healthy diet. Many have disagreed with it and stated that one child (higher education) is eating away a major share of the food intended for both and thus it has to be starved to feed the other (elementary education). The government always had said that it couldn’t cater to the demands and needs of higher education and that they can be better looked after by the private partners. In this background it is really heartening to hear the minister state that higher education is a sick child and now the time has come to give it ‘it’s due’.
However we cannot go over board just on hearing this one statement of the minister. It is certainly one step ahead to agree that the child is ‘sick’. But much depends on the diagnosis of the sickness and the treatment and nourishment that you intend to give to the sick child. Many a times the problem with the government and its agencies is crucially on this aspect, as they fail in their diagnosis and thus in their treatment.
The UPA government dependent on the vital support of the Left parties is forced to increase its spending on the social sector. The prime minister in a recent full meeting of the Planning Commission had declared that the government will increase the allocations to education by four times in the Eleventh Plan period. This was intended to increase the access to higher education and ensure that the Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) reaches to at least 15 percent by 2012. A whole lot of new higher education institutes are planned to be established during this plan period to achieve this growth in enrolment. In the prime minister’s own words “There is now general agreement on setting up 16 central universities in states which do not have a university, 14 central universities in other states, 8 IITs, 7 IIMs and 5 Indian Institutes of Science, Education & Researches”. All these are certainly positive initiatives. The only hitch is the accompanying riders and this is what makes the treatment faulty.
The prime minister in that very speech had said, “The scope for private participation in these universities should therefore be systematically explored. We should also seriously look at the proposal for fee increases to reasonable levels in a graduated manner accompanied by a scheme of extensive scholarships and loans…”
The prime minister is affectively stating that private players should involve themselves in the central institutes and only then can quality be assured. Two, he is arguing for an increase in the fees collected from the students with a parallel support system of scholarships and loans to ensure that nobody is denied access to higher education. The fallacy of these two propositions is proved by our own experience in the decade after the nineties that saw a great expansion in the education sector. This expansion took place mainly in the private sector. In fifteen years between 1990-91 and 2005-06, 12,316 new colleges were started. In the same manner, the number of universities till 1990-91 was 185 and this has increased to 369 by 2005. The highest number of universities established in this period was in the private sector under the guise of ‘deemed universities’. Their number increased from 29 to 109, which is an increase by a whopping 276 percent.
This huge expansion in the education sector did not bring about any substantial change in the number of youth in higher education in the age group of 17-23 years. It still remains at an abysmal level of 9 percent. On the other hand, we have ‘92 per cent of the eligible age-group population attending higher educational institutions in USA, 52 per cent in UK and 45 per cent in Japan’ The percentage of students attending higher education in the relevant age group in our country cannot be compared with the developed countries quoted above, but more importantly, is even less than the average of various lower middle-income countries in the world (the world average is 23 percent).
With the increasing privatisation of education, the profile of students studying in the education institutions too is seeing a drastic change. Only 6-8 percent of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, OBC and Muslim students are in higher education and this is far below their per cent of population and also the seats reserved for those under the scheme of reservations. The number of students studying from the rural areas is also seeing a fall. The reasons for these are not far to fathom. As a study points out, “increased role of market jeopardises the participation of meritorious students from economically disadvantageous groups, women and minorities”. Worldwide experience also points out to the fact that no country was able to achieve a progress in the enrolment in higher education depending on the private participation.
The only way to ensure reasonable enrolment rates in higher education is to increase the government spending on education. This is the experience of even the messiah of the neo-liberal policies, the US. The United States is spending 4.1 percent of its GDP on primary and secondary education and at the higher education level 2.9 percent i.e. a total of 7 percent of its GDP on education. In India, only 3.68 percent of the GDP is spent on education.
As a percentage of the GDP, the government expenditure on higher education was 0.46 in 1990-91 which decreased to 0.37 in 2003-04. It is shocking to note that expenditure per student has declined from Rs. 7,676 in 1990-91 to Rs. 5,522 in 2002-03. This amounted to a decline by about 28 percent in just twelve years. This means that there were steep cuts in budget for libraries, laboratories, faculty improvement programmes and scholarships etc., adversely affecting the quality of education.
Another important reason for the failure of the private institutes to increase the enrolment ratio in our country is that they collect exorbitant fees and are established as ‘self-financing institutes’. The nature of private institutes in our country is entirely different from that of the other countries. “Private universities elsewhere, for instance in USA mobilise the resources of about 30 to 40 per cent of the recurring cost of education from students. Remaining 60 to 70 of the recurring cost are generated from endowments, alumni and other sources (Ziderman and Albatch, 1995). On the contrary, fee in these private enterprises in India are exorbitant, as they fully depend upon student payments. Indeed, these institutions make huge profits, some times recover more than their recurring costs (full of recurring cost plus part of the capital cost)”. The lesson we have to learn is: even in a country like US where the private institutes do not collect the entire costs incurred by them as fees; it is the government’s active role that resulted in the high enrolment ratios in higher education.
It is in this context that we have to locate the prime minister’s advice of increasing the fees collected in government run higher education institutions. Many studies have pointed out that any increase in the fee levels will adversely impact the enrolment in higher education. “Very steep increase in fees might compel a good number of students from low and middle income families and women not to go for higher education…” Even the CABE report of the government had commented that the levels of fees collected in our country is among the highest in the world and should not be further increased. There are many instances in the country where the students are forced to drop out of higher education because of their inability to pay the fees. It is surprising to find the government is always thinking of fees in relation to the costs incurred rather than from the economic conditions of the people. Even a Committee appointed by one of the government agencies had suggested that the fee should be decided taking into consideration the economic condition of the people staying in the area where the educational institution is located.
All these recommendations that would help in increasing the enrolment ratios are ignored and the government is intent on increasing the fee. Recently an internal magazine of the Cambridge University states that many girls were forced to prostitution to earn money to pay their fees that was recently increased ignoring popular opposition. All these experiences points to the fact that fee hike is detrimental to the society. The establishment of many new higher educational institutions as promised by our prime minister will be of no use if the fee becomes unaffordable to the majority of the population of our country.
The promise of increase in scholarships falls hollow because of the experience in the past decades. Public expenditure on scholarships in higher education decreased from Rs.15.35 crores (in 1993-94 prices) in 1990-91 to Rs.13.49 crores in 2003-04. This expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure on higher education was just 0.49 in 1990-91 and 0.32 in 2003-04. Similarly, public expenditure on scholarships in technical education too had decreased. This expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure on technical education was just 0.45 in 1990-91 and 0.23 in 2003-04. This steep decline in the budgets for scholarships in higher education is one of the reasons for the low enrolment ratios among the SCs and STs in spite of the reservations eroding the concept of equity in education.
Even the concept of student loans cannot ensure higher enrolment in higher education. This concept of giving loans to students is prevalent in about eighty countries in the world and the experience is very bad. Even the CABE report of the government argues against this concept stating that it is shifting the responsibility of higher education from the public domain to private domain-from the state to the students and their parents. Moreover loans will be given to those students who pursue only those courses that can guarantee their repayment to the banks or the lenders. This means that market determines the courses that need to be pursued rather than the needs of the society or the interests of the individuals. Even in advanced countries where the percentage of students absorbed by the ‘job-market’ after higher education is higher, the students are facing lots of hardships in repaying these loans. Many girls in Britain are forced to sell their ovaries, lap-dance and forced into prostitution to repay their loans. This being the case, we can be sure that the scheme is not at all conducive to our country and will not yield the desired results (if the desired result of course is to increase the enrolment in higher education).
Unfortunately, the government instead of taking up the responsibility of providing higher education and ensuring that it is available to all the needy is succumbing to the imperialist pressures to adhere to the WTO commitments and GATS negotiations. The decision to increase the fees in government institutes and universities, promoting private participation in education, reducing state subsidy to education and encouraging student loans are all efforts to satisfy the GATS conditions and facilitate the foreign education providers (FEP). The most shameful part of all this is the presence of US officials in a meeting of Vice-Chancellors organised by the UGC. This is nothing short of gross interference in the internal affairs of our country. This is the price that we have to pay for entering into a ‘strategic partnership’ with the US - an unwarranted and uninvited intervention into our classrooms, research laboratories, seminars, strategic planning meetings - a blow to our intellectual self-reliance.
If we persist with this treatment we will be in a situation where the sick child will become even sicker and that might be harmful for the future of our country. The doctor has got the treatment for the sick child completely wrong.