August 16, 2015

Higher Education of India on the Way to Nairobi for GATS

Vikram Singh

EDUCATION plays a very important role in development of a nation and in bringing social change. History has proved it time and again when we see the role of leaders coming from educational institutions in the freedom movement and also social reform movements. It is education which develops analytic power in an individual. For this matter, higher education has its unique place in social development. Universities and colleges are not only the centres where skilled workers, doctors, engineers, educationalists, politicians, etc. are produced but also where human beings with rational thinking are trained. These are centres where people learn to question the policies as well as the social set-up. But in recent times, there is an attack on this very role of higher education. Role of education is being limited to mere training and these centres of higher education are being considered as the centres of mere training the human physical skills. In this era of globalisation, social perception about education is also changing. Once a tool for social change and human liberation from exploitation, education is now considered a commercial good for profit. Once a responsibility of the state, it is now becoming a commodity in the market. All this is not happening spontaneously but being done deliberately by the ruling class.

Presently, education is seen as a vast area of profit-making, especially in India, which has one of the largest numbers of potential consumers (students). There is large scale commodification and commercialisation of education in India. It started with the new education policy of 1986 and in all these years, we have seen private players opening private institutes and looting students. But in recent times with more rapid liberal policies, the education sector is one of the most discussed sectors for foreign players also. This is because of immense potential of capital involved in it.

The education industry is considered the second largest sector with a potential of the US$ 2 trillions (health care being the first). Some 150.6 million students have enrolled in higher education globally with an annual growth of more than 6 per cent. The higher education sector is the most rapidly growing sector employing about 3.5 million people and the total addressable global offspring market is approximately US$300 billions. India is considered as the third largest education system in the world in terms of enrolment, and the largest by total number of academic institutions. It is one of the largest target markets in the higher education sector with about 234 million individuals in the 15-24 age groups (FICCI, 2011). The higher education sector of India is considered as the ‘sunrise sector’ for investment as it is a market worth US$15 billions.

As in other trades, the imperialist forces also want to control this market throughout the world including India. Private players in this era of imperialism have done all efforts to maximise their profits in all the fields and have targeted the third world countries particularly. Now they are eyeing the sector of education. They see education as a ‘frontier market’ in the emerging economies. As in other trades, imperialism is using international organisations, treaties and agreements for this purpose. It is needless to mention that these institutions are dominated by imperialist forces lead by the US and function like their puppets. The World Trade Organization is one of these organisations intended for this task.

WTO has three main multilateral agreements. These are General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT-1994), Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Education is one of the services listed in under GATS. Ironically education is listed in GATS along with entertainment services, recreation clubs and night pubs under the governance of same rules with minor variations. This shows that education in placed under GATS for mere market business purpose, leaving aside its importance for national development and its role in development of human being.

In the preamble of the GATS it is established its core aim is to promote trade liberalisation of all kind of services. Specifically, the GATS consider the liberalisation of twelve services sectors, including educational services. When a country offers its education sector for GATS it commits to liberalise its policies for operation of foreign players in education. Host country has to give ‘national treatment’ to these ‘exotic institutions’. ‘National Treatment’ means accepting that foreign companies benefit from treatment ‘not less favourable’ than that given to domestic companies. It means that host country cannot discriminate between foreign service providers (foreign education provider) and domestic institutions in term of subsidies, qualifications, licences, standards etc. It means host country will be providing a conducive environment and level playing field for the foreign education provider which will result into more rampant commercialisation and privatization of education.  This will directly affect the reach of common public for education by increasing the cost of education.

India has submitted its ‘offers’ for ‘Market Access’ in ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’ to GATS in August 2005 as part of the Doha Round Trade Negotiations. India has made an offer but has not committed for the same because these trade negotiations could not be concluded in the last 10 years. But successive central governments in India are already working towards these commitments and advocating for foreign investments in education. Various committees advocated for investment from the foreign players in view of lack of funds with governments. In simple terms, the government is withdrawing its responsibility of education provider and facilitating entry of private institutions in wake of scarcity of funds. Currently, the central government is spending just one per cent of the GDP on higher education and the government advocates that it needs private sector to play an active role. The National Knowledge Commission has predicted that India needs an investment of about US$ 190 billions to achieve the GER target of 30 per cent by 2020. They advised to meet this huge amount through FDI as the government is lacking the resources.

In India, foreign investment in the education sector is permitted up to 100 per cent. There was investment of foreign capital in the education sector in India of Rs 4,961.8 crore (US$960 millions) between April 2000 and July 2014 (Fact Sheet on Foreign Direct Investment, Ministry of Commerce, Government of India). This amount in comparison to vast education market potential of India is a matter of grave concern for the advocates of FDI. According to them, the restrictions imposed by sectoral regulators on foreign investment have served as major impediments on foreign capital inflow. On the other hand, foreign investors have adopted alternative routes to enter the Indian higher education sector to operate in unregulated domain. A case in point is the concept of ‘twinning’ or entering into joint ventures and academic collaboration with Indian universities, without any commitment of capital. There are approximately 631 foreign education providers operating in India. Of these, 440 were functioning from their home countries, five opened their own campuses in India, 60 had programmatic collaboration with local institutions, 49 were operating under twinning arrangements, and 77 had arrangements other than twinning or programmatic collaboration according to the Association of Indian Universities.

Indian Government is preparing its education sector for the commitment of GATS. The erstwhile UPA was working to clear these hurdles through various (six) Bills on higher education including the Higher Education and Research Bill, which advocated the complete abolition of UGC, MCI, AICTE, NCTE, BCI etc. These are necessary for ‘not less favourable’ treatment to foreign investors and to remove the obstacles of strict regulatory mechanism. But all efforts of the UPA II failed in Rajya Sabha and these Bills were never passed. Then the government took other backdoor roots bypassing Parliament. A number of initiatives have already been taken for achieving this objective. Most of these are operating under the umbrella of the much propagated campaign RUSA.

RUSA is aimed at overall change in the structure of higher education, undermining UGC and promoting public-private partnership. Choice Based Credit System is a major tool to provide equal play grounds for foreign players through academic reforms. Common syllabus also increases the uniformity facilitating equal grounds for an exotic institution. These reforms provide equal treatment for foreign education provider but at the same time have adverse impacts on the academic front. With poor teacher-student ratio, weak infrastructure of Indian higher education all these reforms further reduced the standard of teaching learning process. There are less opportunities of real classroom teacher-student interaction. It further reduces the deep understanding of subject among students and is less effective inculcating in them rational thinking. There is a continuous emphasis on the market oriented courses which will get half/poorly paid jobs for students without expertise in any subject. When, depending on market these courses have to be changed from time to time, so neither permanent infrastructure nor faculty is required.

All these aspects of present changes in higher education led by Delhi Universities have been discussed in recent articles by various persons. There is all-round opposition to these policies by teachers, students, academicians and various intellectuals. Now the big question is that why is government in such a hurry to push these reforms?

The answer lies in the fresh discussions on the commitments to GATS. In fact, these processes began in Geneva in November, 2014 in a special meeting of the General Council of WTO where it was planned to suppress long resistance of developing countries to the agenda of Doha Round Negotiations. To finalise these efforts there will be a Ministerial Conference at Nairobi, Kenya from December 15 to 18, 2015. This meet will cover trade in goods, including agriculture and services such as education, health, drinking water, public distribution system and all other entitlements of the people.

Our government is doing its homework before the Nairobi meet to fulfil the agenda of imperialist forces by ruining the higher education system of India. If the Indian government does not withdraw its ‘offers’ given to WTO in Higher Education Sector well in advance of the Conference, these would automatically become irrevocable ‘commitments’ on the part of the nation, with far-reaching implications.

In principle, we are not opposed to foreign universities coming to India but on the basis of educational and cultural relations between the countries in order to exchange and spread knowledge. We are in favour of sharing and cooperation in the field of knowledge and education for human development. But, that is not the case at all under WTO agreements. Under GATS, the foreign universities will be coming to India to make profits only. These will further deepen the crises of higher education of India as it is already over commercialised. India is one of the countries that figure in bottom in regard to public expenditure on higher education at $406 per student, which is even less than the developing countries like Malaysia ($11,790), Brazil ($3,986), Indonesia ($666) and the Philippines ($625). Our higher education system is over-commercialised. According to CII-Deloitte ASHE 2013, 64 per cent of the total number of higher education institutions in the country is private. In this scenario, pushing the anti-people agenda just to please imperialist bosses in Nairobi will have grave and lethal impacts on health of the Indian higher education system.

Unlike IMF and World Bank, there is little freedom for member states in WTO as it is not based on voting rights in proportion to the subscriptions made by member countries. So within WTO, there is a freedom to make offer at its will to commit to trade in particular services. This means there is scope for revisions in offers through various rounds of negotiations. Unfortunately, our government is not ready to use these provisions and withdraw its offer for higher education under GATS.

In this scenario, there is need to build a strong public pressure through mass mobilisations. There is need to build broader unity across all sections of society. But the student movement has to take a lead in this struggle. It is the prime responsibility of student movement to respond to the occasion and wage militant struggle on campuses across the country. (END)