Neoliberals Devastate Indian Higher Education

By N. Gunasekaran

President Barack Obama has recently expressed concerns over “deteriorating investment climate in India,” since it limited or prohibited the foreign investment that was necessary to create jobs in both countries. Although the opening up of Indian economy for the foreign corporate investments is vigorously pursued by India’s ruling elites, the US corporate lobby is pressing for complete takeover of sectors like retail trade. In the education sector, the Indian government is trying its best to open up higher education.

The goal of providing quality education for poor is the major casualty in the neoliberal paradigm. Under neoliberalism, plans to privatize education have been implemented across the Asian continent. Instead of a process of teaching and learning for nation-building, education has become an ever-growing service industry for the big corporations and a business for profit-making. As usual, attacks on the public education system are carried on through fee hikes, layoffs and budget cuts, under the pretext of the financial crisis.

The countries in most of Asia are pursuing the privatization of education and the states are steadily withdrawing from the responsibility of making educational opportunities universal. Many forms of non-state provision of education, such as profit-driven private institutions, providing education through public-private partnerships, etc., are followed in many Asian countries. A large number of academicians, journalists, intellectuals and philanthropists have been actively propagating the advantages of privatization of education. They are spreading the idea that “increased efficiency,” “competition,” “choice” and “world-class university” could all be achieved only through the private sector. The mainstream corporate media have been a vehicle for this kind of “manufacturing consent” for privatization. The corporate sector has now been reaping enormous profits from their investments in education.

In India, the government has been pushing through many laws and bills to allow self-financed courses, exorbitant fees and “user” charges for basic requirements like water and electricity, and promote foreign and private educational institutes. Several bills for higher education like the Foreign Universities Bill, the Private Universities Bill and the Educational Tribunals Bill, etc., would pave the way for unregulated commercialization in higher education. And, bills like the “Education Tribunals Bill” would take away the rights of the students and teachers. Now, eight bills including the Education tribunals bill, higher education and research bill, the prohibition of unfair practices in technical, medical institutions and universities bill, the foreign education bill, the national accreditation regulatory authority bill are among those pending in Parliament.

The corporate and foreign educational shops are exempted from existing Indian laws. In sum, these bills would accelerate the process of the complete takeover of Indian higher education by corporations, depriving the access of higher educational opportunities for poor.

Human Resource Minister Kapil Sibal is seeking the support of the opposition parties for their passage in the coming session of Parliament. Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012 was already introduced in Parliament. The bill aims at allowing “the innovation universities to aspire for attaining the pinnacle of knowledge in a particular area by innovation in design and producing research by bridging linkages between research institutions and industry.” A large part of the bill talked of setting up of new private universities and only a small section was referring to public-funded universities. The government has already expressed the desire to set up 14 “world-class universities” in the country.

Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla are the leading industrialists of monopoly corporate groups in India. They noted in their report on “A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education” that the education was a very profitable market and argued for full cost recovery from students and immediate privatization of several segments of higher education. India’s political classes have also been echoing this idea. The main opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have always been acting as neoliberal adherents. So, the government hoped that the passage of bills in the parliament would be a smooth process.

But outside the parliament, the government has to face stiff resistance. The Left is up in arms against these bills. The Left student and teachers’ unions are campaigning against the policy decisions of the government that have led to aggressive commoditization of higher education, while severely affecting access, equity and social justice in higher education.

The progressive academic community is also struggling to defend their rights as well as the existing public education system. Recently the lawyers in all over India went on a nation-wide protest responding to the call of the apex lawyer’s body Bar Council of India against the proposed bills which tries to “regulate” legal education. According to lawyers, passing of these bills would hinder autonomous practicing of the council at both national and state levels and permit foreign lawyers to practice in India, which would threaten the position of Indian lawyers. In all Asian countries, there is a growing realization among the people that the mass collective action is the only viable course to defeat the attacks of the governments on higher education. In the context of unprecedented demand for higher education, both in general as well as in professional courses, there is no other option for the people.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012

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