March 30, 2014


Prabhat Patnaik

One of the most deleterious consequences of neo-liberalism is in the sphere of education, but it is less studied than its more direct economic effects. I shall confine myself here to the sphere of higher education. Some detailed studies have recently come out on the effects of the neo-liberal dispensation on higher education in the United States; and these are of interest to us since whatever is happening in the U.S. is also happening in India at present. Neo-liberalism’s consequences are indeed quite universal. One of the most remarkable features of the U.S. higher educational scene at present is a change in the composition of the faculty, away from permanent or tenured faculty members towards what are called “adjunct faculty”, who have no tenure, who are not even on a “tenure-track”, who are only hired for teaching particular courses in particular semesters, who have no “benefits” by way of entitlements to pension or health coverage, and who are paid a pittance. How low-paid they are can be gauged from the following. Though salaries vary across universities, a newly-appointed junior faculty member in a U.S. university would get roughly around $50000 per annum and would teach, say, around 5 semester-length courses during the year, which works out to $10000 per course. An “adjunct” faculty member however does not get more than $3500 per course for teaching the same courses, i.e. is paid one-third for the same work, which is a violation of the basic principle of “equal pay for equal work”. But that is not all. The poverty line for a family of four was fixed officially in the United States at $23050 per annum in 2012, which should work out, taking inflation into account, to around $25000 in round figures at present. An “adjunct” faculty member, if she or he constitutes a single earner, would therefore need to teach at least seven courses per year even to come up to the official poverty-line. This would involve an almost-impossible strain on the person. In addition, given the massive reserve army of unemployed academics in the U.S. at present, among whom such “adjunct” faculty positions are rationed, such a person would not even get seven courses to teach, i.e. would not even make it to the poverty line as a single earner. And yet in the U.S. at present as many as 1 million out of a total of 1.5 million faculty-members, i.e. two-thirds of all faculty-members, are “adjunct” faculty! An exactly similar story has unfolded in India in recent years. Given the fiscal constraints upon state governments, arising from the plethora of neo-liberal fiscal “reforms”, and fiscal concessions to capitalists, state universities, which constitute the bulk of the public institutions of higher education in the country, have come to rely increasingly upon “temporary” teachers. These “temporary” teachers, like their American counterparts, are paid a pittance with no “benefits” whatsoever, in gross violation of the principle of “equal work for equal pay”. And in many universities the available funds do not allow even such “temporary” hiring on an adequate scale, so that the students are literally left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly this pathetic state of higher education in public institutions has led to a mushrooming of private institutions. These are not private institutions in the sense of private philanthropic institutions which have had a long history both in this country and abroad; they are private profit-making institutions, which are in the business of education for making money. They clearly contravene a Supreme Court directive that education cannot be a profit-making activity, but the pretext on which they often do so (if they are ever asked for a pretext which is rare) is that the profits they make are ploughed back to the institution itself. This is an argument which is both theoretically unacceptable (a non-dividend-paying firm after all does not cease to be profit-making) and empirically unverifiable (since their accounts are rarely ever gone through with a tooth-comb). But, even leaving aside this aspect, i.e. whether these institutions contravene the Supreme Court directive, the faculty members in these institutions are subject to heavy work-loads and enjoy very little rights; and the students are charged exorbitant fees. These institutions in short “sell” “education” as a commodity; the students “buy” this commodity which is produced with the use of the labour-power of the faculty, together with the means of production provided by the institution. Not surprisingly, such an institution increasingly comes to resemble a corporate entity. In fact even some prestigious public institutions that are being set up of late under the neo-liberal dispensation do not shy away from actually referring to their executive heads (Vice Chancellors in common parlance) as CEOs. Thus the “model” under neo-liberalism is an institution of higher education where the faculty can no longer engage in any critical thought. Exactly the same holds for students as well. Given the exorbitant fees which the students have to pay, either from their parents’ pockets or by borrowing from financial institutions, their over-riding objective is to get a job whereby they can cease being a burden on the parents or pay off the loan. For this they have to do well in examinations. And this usually requires them to regurgitate as comprehensively as possible the academic matter they have ingested during their course-work. The scope for any critical thinking, or indeed any thinking at all, scarcely exists in this milieu. We thus have on the one side a whole bunch of public institutions staffed with faculty members whose position is no different from that of “indentured servants” and who are paid a pittance; they are so engrossed in the business of making ends meet that they are effectively shut out of any creative critical thought. On the other side we have a bunch of private institutions which are so engaged in producing a commodity called “education” under factory-like discipline that they leave no room for any creative critical thought. As for the remaining public institutions like central universities, they are being so hemmed in by “grading systems”, by coercion on the faculty to publish in “establishment” journals (which invariably are averse to any creative critical ideas), and to raise “project funds” (which again encourages commoditization at the expense of creative critical thought), that whatever possibilities for critical creativity exist in them get snuffed out. In short, neo-liberal capitalism, all over the world including in our own country, seeks to destroy critical thought. “Neo-liberalism” spells the end of the so-called “liberal” university. The significance of this must not be underestimated. Capitalism historically had not explicitly sought to annex the academic sphere, to bring it under its own control, the way it is doing now. There was in other words an “openness”, a certain autonomy of the academic world. One must not of course exaggerate this autonomy: after all, the universities were meant to turn out students who had to enter the job market and hence had to be trained for it; and imparting such training constituted the bulk of the work of the universities. Nonetheless at the fringes of this basic task of “training”, there remained some scope for “education” that inculcated among the students a questioning critical attitude and humane sensibilities. These fringes were sometimes large, such as during the late sixties and the Vietnam war, and at other times narrow. But neo-liberal capitalism’s attempt is to do away with these fringes altogether, to do away with the residual “openness” (which ironically was always held up as a virtue of “capitalism”), to bring about a “closure” of academic discourse that does not tolerate any critical ideas about the system itself. Neo-liberal capitalism in short is acquiring a “totalitarian” character in the original sense of the term, in which those who propagated the concept meant it, which seeks to snuff out any intellectual questioning of its hegemony. This is not necessarily done consciously. Capitalism, not being a planned system, cannot be credited with consciously planning such an insulation of its hegemony from possible challenges. It is more a result of the process of commoditization that is immanent in capitalism and that gets a big fillip under neo-liberal capitalism. All spheres of life are invaded by this process of commoditization. And this includes the academic sphere, which has hitherto been a cradle of critical thought, of intellectual resistance against the juggernaut of capitalism, and of protest against its inhumane depredations. The destruction of critical thought in societies like ours has a further significance. These societies have long been under the sway of feudalism, upon which the newly-emerging capitalism has been superimposed without dealing any telling blows against it. But even though the bourgeoisie itself has compromised with the caste-based feudal system, the ideas propagated by bourgeois revolutions, ideas of “liberty”, “equality”, and “fraternity” which are fundamentally antithetical to the ideology of the caste-based feudal system, make their way willy-nilly into our social and political life. They are nurtured above all in the intellectual universe of which the universities are the most important institutions. The commoditization of higher education that destroys critical thinking, and discourages all commitment to ideas other than the idea of self-promotion in the market place, enfeebles therefore the struggle not only against the sway of neo-liberal capitalism, but against all forms of oppression including caste and patriarchal oppression.