People's Democracy

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


No. 36

September 09, 2012


The Student Movement, Higher Education

and the End of Neo-Liberal Triumphalism


C P Chandrashekar


(Below we publish excerpts from the inaugural address to the 14th all India conference of SFI delivered by C P Chandrashekar on September 4, 2012 in Madurai)


THIS 14th all India conference of the Students Federation of India is being held at a critical time in recent history. Over the last five years a deep crisis has overcome the metropolitan core of modern capitalism, and not just its poorer periphery. Never before since the Great Depression has the economic and political viability of capitalism been as much under challenge as it is today. And the legitimacy of modern capitalism as a system that can deliver a socially and historically acceptable minimum standard of life for much of its inhabitants is once again in question.


A single set of numbers, among many, is adequate to convince anyone of this reality. Though the figures are not strictly comparable, unemployment in the leading capitalist country, the United States, is (after adjusting for “discouraged workers”, or those who have stopped looking for a job) today at around a fifth of the labour force and close to the 25 per cent figure it touched at the height of the Great Depression. The problem is that this affects the young who find themselves unable to find or keep a job when they enter the labour force. In the 1930s, when fascism overwhelmed Germany and threatened freedom in the rest of the world, youth unemployment in Germany touched the 50 per cent level — one in every two young persons was unemployed. Now youth unemployment in countries like Greece and Spain has crossed the 50 per cent mark. Moreover much of this is chronic unemployment, where individuals are kept out of the labour force for long periods of time.


Needless to say, the real life implications of such an outcome need not only result in a shift to the worst forms of conservatism. It also provided the grounds for the advance of progressive ideas and the struggle for a humane alternative to capitalism, which given its inevitable core features is what we call socialism. That possibility is already visible in the disparate and as yet inadequately organised and channelled protests in different parts of the world. Participants in these protest movements are overwhelmingly young, and very often students. Over the last year and a half, university students have proven to be among the most politically active segments of the population in countries as far apart as Chile and Egypt. Not only have they participated in protests, sit-ins and marches, they have also attempted to bring change into their universities.




An abiding feature of these protests is that they have brought the student community up against the neo-liberal ideology that is seen as having made the crisis as severe as it was and is. This is because that ideology affects the student community quite directly. For example, one consequence of neo-liberal policies is that the education that is seen as necessary to be even considered for employment in an uncertain job market is being privatised, priced, made expensive and denuded of quality. Governments, including our own, are finding ingenious ways of shedding themselves of the responsibility that they should rightfully take on of preparing future generations for a better and more productive life. Hefty hikes in tuition fees and rising cost of living is leaving young people burdened with debt when they enter a labour force with little hope of employment. What was earlier considered an American disease is now a global contagion.


The other important reason why unemployment is more than insufferable is the evidence that not everybody in the system is a loser. Rather, while the majority lose, a small minority thrive. In the aftermath of the crisis the share of total income going to the top 1 per cent of US households rose to 19.8 per cent in 2010. This is about the highest since the 1920s. There has been a long-term regressive redistribution of income as well. According to Alan Kreuger, adviser to President Obama: “the shift in income inequality over the last three decades has been the equivalent of moving $1.1 trillion of income from the (bottom) 99 per cent to the top 1 per cent every single year.”


These regressive changes under capitalism have been underway since the 1980s.  Prior to that, we know that faced with it own loss of legitimacy after the Great Depression and the two World Wars of the twentieth century, by the challenge posed by the success of socialism in the Soviet Union, and by the inspiring effect that the definitive and clinching role that the Soviet people played in the defeat of fascism, capitalism entered an unusual and quite exceptional phase for close to two-and-a-half decades. These were the years referred to as the Golden Age of post War capitalism, with enlarged public spending and a welfare state. After a long time capitalism seemed to be a system that could ensure reasonable growth with low unemployment and low inflation. These were also years when far more students enrolled themselves in higher educational institutions looking to benefit from the new opportunities the system offered. In short, this was the period in which capitalism delivered the best it can offer. To the extent that this was at least partly true during those years, it also meant that capital and its functionaries benefited less than they had done in the past from the incomes generated by the system.


It is clear from hindsight that these classes “deprived” of their undue share were merely biding their time given the weakness of the system during the interwar and war years. Starting from the 1970s they began pushing for a redistribution of income to be ensured through a fundamental transformation of the role of the State. It is that project of the capitalist elite that has been loosely termed neo-liberalism.


Neo-liberalism involves the use of the rhetoric of market fundamentalism, in which the market is presented as the most efficient mechanism for the functioning of the economic system to justify the unfettered functioning of private capital, both domestic and foreign. The role of the State as an agency for promoting growth with employment and for ensuring universal provision of various basic services, including health and education, and for protecting and improving the status of various disadvantaged groups is delegitimised and diluted. Segments of the State apparatus are converted into sites for primitive accumulation and revenues accruing to the State are curtailed because of reduced taxation of and increased transfers to the rich.


Riding on one bubble or the other, whether it be in the stock market or the housing markets, capitalism seemed to be in a position to convert fictitious capital in the form of liquidity infused by central banks to finance a credit-financed demand boom. It was when this unbridled creation of credit assets and the associated proliferation of risk showed itself to be unsustainable, that the process had to unravel leading to the crisis that triggered the Great Recession. What we are witnessing today is end of the era of neo-liberal triumphalism.




The higher educational facilities in India are grossly inadequate. For example, the proportion of the population in the 18-23 age group accessing higher education stood averaged just 15 per cent across the country in 2009-10 (figures from the Ministry for Human Resources). What is more the ratio varied hugely across states from 9 per cent in Assam to 47.9 per cent in Delhi. The figure for marginalised and underprivileged sections like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was 11.1 and 10.3 per cent respectively. In terms of availability of educational facilities, there were many states where there were less than 5 colleges for every 100,000 population in the 18-23 age group, and a large  number where that figure stood at less than 10.


However, this shortage exists despite some expansion in higher educational facilities.  Between 1990-91 and 2007-08 the number of colleges in the country rose from 4900 to 13400, the number of professional institutions from 900 to 6900 and the number of universities from 180 to 410 (Economic Survey). Part of the reason is because of private investment in education. The shift towards more private provision is reflected at all stages in education – but if anything, the move has been even sharper in higher education, and mostly concentrated in the past few years. In 2000-01 the share of government and private aided higher educational institutions stood at 33 and 42 per cent respectively, while that of unaided institutions stood at 25 per cent. These figures had changed to 25, 32 and 43 per cent respectively by 2005-06. Enrolment has been increasing steadily in higher education in the past two decades from 3.4 million in 1984-85 to 13.64 million in 2008-09 (UGC 2011). However if we look at the institutional affiliation of students, the share of government and private aided institutions in enrollment fell from 41 and 37 per cent respectively to 36 and 33 per cent, whereas that of unaided private institutions rose from 22 to 31 per cent. Even in 2009, there were about 17.3 million students enrolled in various streams of higher education in India (MHRD 2011).


These are if anything underestimates of the current situation, since these numbers are likely to have excluded a large number of private institutions that do not offer certification reflecting recognition of their “degrees” by the government. However, there are a number of private institutions that have indeed been established with recognition. Over the five years ending March 2011, 81 private universities had been set up through various state Acts passed by the respective state legislatures across the country. Moreover, the UGC had legitimised some private investment in education by giving them deemed university status. As of 2011, there were 130 ‘Deemed to be Universities’ in the country, both public and private. Based on the recommendations of the Radhakrishnan Commission a provision was included under section 3 in the University Grants Commission Act of 1956 that institutions which have unique and distinct character of their own could be deemed to be a university and enjoy the concomitant privileges without losing their distinctive character. Originally, this option was to be exercised only in the case of "institutions which for historical reasons or for any other circumstances are not universities, yet are doing work of high standard in specialised academic fields comparable to a university and the granting of the status of university would enable them to further contribute to the cause of higher education which would mutually enrich the institution and the university system." In the 35 years between 1956 and 1990, only 29 institutions were granted the deemed university status.


However, the provision has been put to use more often in recent times to advance the neo-liberal agenda, with even private institutions being deemed as universities. Further, since 2000, deemed university status has been granted even to de novo institutions, with no proven record. In the 15 years after 1990, 63 institutions were declared deemed universities. Since then another 40 or so institutions have been notified as deemed universities. Many of these are institutions which provide professional education or training of a vocational kind. What is more, certain state governments have been liberal in encouraging the establishment of private “universities”. Twenty-four of the 81 private universities established through state Acts had been set up in the State of Rajasthan alone.


(To be continued)