Vol. XL No. 33 August 14, 2016

Neoliberal Assault on Knowledge: Education Reduced to ‘Skill Acquisition’

Madhu Prasad

THE formal adoption of the neo-liberal reforms programme by the Government of India (GOI) in 1991 had a far more pervasive impact on the education system and policy than is usually recognised. The commercialisation and marketisation of education put it outside the grasp of the majority of India’s population, 78 percent of whom were living on less than twenty rupees per day (Arjun Sengupta Committee report), and altered the concepts of knowledge, education and its curricular content.

The democratic deficit was the most obvious feature of the National Policy of Education (NPE 86-92). It introduced non-formal education (NFE), as a low-cost alternative to be treated as ‘equivalent to schooling’ for the working poor, the marginalised and children in “difficult circumstances”. When the Supreme Court in its 1993 judgement (Unnikrishnan vs the State of Andhra Pradesh) stated that the constitutional Directive Principle 45 should be read in conjunction with Article 21, it established that the right to education flowed from the fundamental right to life thereby converting “the obligation created by the article (45) into an enforceable right”. This required the 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002, which was tailor-made to coincide with neo-liberal dictates to reduce public spending on education. Two significant limitations to the “enforceable right” restricted it to children between 6 to 14 years of age and provided for education only “as the State may, by law, determine”. The limitations allowed a retreat from the original constitutional responsibility and denied millions of children access to quality education. The RTE Act 2009 legalised the inequity.

A genuine right to education law would have encompassed completely free and compulsory Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and, following the adoption of the 10+2 system, extended up to Class XII thus covering all children from 0 to 18 years.


It must be emphasised that this is no Left-wing revolutionary demand. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, in industrialising nations the responsibility for providing education had been taken up by modern States that arose with the rise and consolidation of capitalism to fulfill the productive and ‘democratic’ needs of Capital for a better educated and ‘free’ labour force. Engels had upheld the rationale of the demand during a speech delivered at Elberfeld in February 1845: The “general education of all children without exception at the expense of the State – an education which is equal for all and continues until the individual is capable of emerging as an independent member of society...would be only an act of justice...for clearly, every man has the right to the fullest development of his abilities and society wrongs individuals twice over when it makes ignorance a necessary consequence of poverty.” (Marx–Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, p 253)

Emphasising that no country had successfully ended child labour without first making education compulsory, American political theorist Myron Weiner also noted that Asian States which made education compulsory – Japan in 1872, the two Koreas, Taiwan and China after Second World War – were all poor when they undertook the task. Their development was founded on successfully taking up “the legal obligation of the State to provide an adequate number of schools, appropriately situated and to ensure that no child fails to attend school.” Modern States regard education as a legal duty, not merely as a right: “parents are required to send their children to school, children are required to attend school and the State is required to enforce compulsory education.” The State is bound to protect children from the compulsions on impoverished parents and from would-be exploiters. (“India’s Case against Compulsory Education”, Seminar, 413 (January), p 83-86)

Independent India’s first Education Commission (1964-66), the DS Kothari Commission, examined the failure to achieve the constitutional goal of education for all up to the age of 14 years by 1960. It recommended far-reaching structural changes for setting up a national system of free and compulsory education through schools of comparable quality. This could not be left to private institutions like the elite schools “transplanted in India by British administrators and we have clung to it so long because it happened to be in tune with the traditional hierarchical structure of our society. Whatever its place in past history maybe, such a system has no valid place in the new democratic and socialistic society we desire to create.” (1.38)


The report strongly advocated the establishment of state-funded common neighbourhood schools with a socially, culturally and economically diverse student body as the authentic institution of a pedagogically sound and egalitarian national system of educationwhich would “provide ‘good’ education to all children because sharing life with the common people is, in our opinion, an essential ingredient of good education.” (10.19). Echoing its logic, The Report of the Committee of Members of Parliament on Education (1967) asserted that “the unhealthy social segregation that now takes place between the schools for the rich and those for the poor should be ended; and the primary schools should be the common schools of the nation by making it obligatory on all children, irrespective of caste, creed, community, religion, economic conditions or social status, to attend the primary school in their neighbourhood. This sharing of life among the children of all social strata will strengthen the sense of being one nation which is an essential ingredient of good education” (Government of India 1967: p 2). This principle has recently been reiterated in a landmark judgement of the Allahabad High Court (August 18, 2015).


Achieving universal access to education was recognised as not just a question of reaching a numerical target. It could not be divorced from its democratic content and purpose. However, Indian capital had aligned with sections of the feudal landowning elite and accommodated with brahmanical ideology which sanctioned harshly exploitative caste divisions among the toiling masses. This allowed both classes to gain economically and politically but it was at the expense of the ruin of the majority of peasants, artisans, tribals, and working people. Having failed to break out of the vicious cycle of inequality, the goal of universalising school education could never be achieved. The education system inevitably sank into deep crisis which was aggravated each time a policy decision further narrowed access with multi-track discriminatory arrangements (alternate schools, multi-grade teaching, education guarantee centres, use of contractual and para-teachers, the RTE Act 2009).

The present regime’s proposed National Policy of Education 2016 (NEP 2016) promises to accelerate this process. Amendments to the already flawed RTE 2009 will allow for ‘alternate’ schools which do not ‘require’ the basic infrastructural and pedagogical norms laid down in the Act, limit the no-detention policy to lower primary (class V) and vocationalise the elementary curriculum in targeted areas. Dove-tailed into the Skill Development Programme and the amended child labour law which now permits under14 year-olds to work in ‘family enterprises’, this ‘education’ policy will reinforce caste distinctions and ensure that the majority of India’s children from oppressed and marginalised sections will be condemned to a childhood of labour.

This outcome is not accidental. It follows from the neo-liberal policies of marketisation of education as a ‘private good’, and of knowledge as a tradable ‘commodity’ or ‘service’ that have been pursued by successive governments for more than two decades. Since the 1970’s ‘neo-liberalism’ has emerged as the ‘solution’ favoured by international finance capital to recover from the severity of its recurring economic crises. Public funds are diverted through Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to allow “opening up” of the entire range of human activities to penetration by private capital. This imposes a heavy burden on the most vulnerable sections of society and has a very negative impact on education, health, employment and job security, food security, housing and provision of public utilities. Production and consumption by the masses are kept under tight control through “austerity measures” and the modern ‘welfare’ state of the 20th century is transformed. Peoples control over their own lives shrinks as corporations take-over decision-making in the name of “efficiency” and “professional management”.

However, unlike knowledge, commodities are produced primarily for exchange for profit rather than for any intrinsic value. In highly developed systems of commodity production like capitalism all market exchanges are affected by scarcities, monopolies, manipulated tastes and more or less accidental variations in supply and demand. Thus the ‘commodification of knowledge’ would appear to be a contradiction in terms unless knowledge is degraded to the ‘acquisition of skills’ required for ‘services’ that are available in the market.

The entire terminology of the NEP 2016 is devised within the framework of skill acquisition. “Competencies” and “outcomes” are units to be monitored, measured, graded and readied for the market. The purpose of education is the grooming of ‘human resource’ to create a work-force that will enter the market-place as and when supply and demand movements are favourable. When they are unfavourable, during periods of recession and slow growth as they are now, this work-force will become capital’s essential buffer, the “reserve army of labour” that keeps wages low, jobs contractual, and workers afraid to unionise and fight for their legitimate democratic rights.


The failure to universalise elementary and secondary education was used to propagate the idea of higher education as an ‘elite’ privilege and a ‘non-merit good’ undeserving of public subsidies. From 1998, institutions of higher education (IHE) were advised to “raise their own resources by raising the fee levels, encouraging private donations and by generating revenues through consultancy and other activities.” The millennium year 2000 was a water-shed year for the higher education sector in India. The Ambani-Birla Report, entitled A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education, was authored by prominent industrialists and produced by then prime minister Vajpayee’s Council on Trade and Industry! It explicitly stated that privatisation and commercialisation were the chief instruments for reform in higher education and that the ‘user-pays’ principle would ensure profits for investors. With its companion Model Act (2003) prepared by UGC, it demanded restructuring of higher education on the model of market-oriented enterprises promoting corporate values. Shelved because of strong opposition from academicians and teachers and students unions, its basic features continue to provide the framework within which higher education policies are conceived and sought to be legislated today.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) made their entry into the arena of higher education. Prof Nigvekar, then UGC chairperson, articulated GOI’s position that education had become “a tradeable product and knowledge has become commodified”. In countries like India, GATS regulations will negatively impact educational access, impose one model of private, commercial and import-oriented education, weaken national systems due to foreign competition and effect domestic regulation and authority. Yet, despite growing opposition, an offer made in 2005 to put higher education on the WTO-GATS table as a tradable service was not withdrawn at the recent Tenth Ministerial Conference held in December 2015 at Nairobi.

Commercialisation of education provides autonomy to capital by opening up a market for investment as knowledge is now a key component in economic development but its impact on the academic community is decidedly anti-democratic and has grave consequences for the very conception of education as a public good. The privately-borne high cost of education shrinks the range and influence of subjects and courses that are not directly linked to the demands of national and international capital markets which generate the maximum jobs and the biggest salaries. Neo-liberalism has altered the focus of syllabi from values of critical-thinking to “skills” such as “teamwork,” “communication” and “leadership.” The language and ethic of the corporate world sends out the wrong message that education must equip individuals with marketable skills, and that the ultimate goal is “productivity”. Unfortunately, influenced by policy makers and the media, even students, parents, and society at large have begun to accept education as a “private good” so that both ‘providers’ and ‘consumers’ adopt a market perspective by viewing education as a means to recoup investments made either in providing or in acquiring it.

All over the world, disciplines and areas of research that are foundational to innovative systems of knowledge depend significantly on State funding and philanthropic support. Replacing this with profit-oriented enterprise means that these disciplines suffer deterioration and the critical and transformational purpose of educational institutions declines. As they become more financially autonomous but less socially accountable ‘producers of graduates and research outputs’, the most important objective of these ‘entrepreneurial institutions’ is to generate profits.

Education serves a broad public purpose as it critically conceptualises values and goals for national development and for strengthening civil society. Both are necessary components of Indian society’s unfinished agenda of democratic transformation. The impact of neo-liberal policy on educational institutions in general, but particularly on IHE’s, threatens their very existence as environments fostering the process of “educating oneself”. The ‘excellence’ of education is measured by exorbitant fees because market logic dictates that those who pay more, get more; those who pay less, should expect less and those who lack resources should simply be brushed aside.

“To limit knowledge to what will actually be put into practice...is the deliberate reduction of one’s being to the condition of a cog in the techno-economic machine.” (Michel Henry, Barbarism, 2012, p121). Market orientation encourages certain qualities in individuals but may be indifferent, or even opposed to the general development and articulation of critical faculties. With today’s ‘common-sense’ reflecting the neo-liberal redefinition of the individual, no longer a productive social being or citizen but an economically autonomous fiction, the ‘consumer’, this obvious truth can become blurred.


On campuses across the country, protests against privatisation, curbing democratic rights of students and faculty, and in support of social justice have been called “anti-national” by the present regime. But here we are confronted with opposing concepts of nation and nationhood. The first, generated through collective struggle, finds expression in the civil liberties and equal rights protected by the constitution. These liberties and rights are enabling conditions for an on-going politics of democratically negotiated nationalism.

The opposing Hindutva concept is a communal-patriarchal construct, an ideological imposition that seeks to discipline the ‘other’ by communalisation, marginalization and dispossession. Symbolised as Bharat Mata, the nation is identified as a woman in need of defense. Her Hindu ‘sons’ have the ‘duty’ to defend her. Within this Hindu majoritarian conception, ‘others’ are second class citizens restricted by the Will of a self-appointed governing class, the ‘Hindus’. But ‘Hindus’ themselves are defined as those who exemplify the ideology of the Sangh Parivar! The ‘nationalism’ of the Sangh Parivar is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-constitutional.

On July 27, 2016 HRD minister Javadekar held a closed-door six-hour long meeting with the RSS and its affiliates including ABVP to discuss how NEP 2016 could “instill nationalism, pride and ancient Indian values in modern education.” Conformism and a slavish mentality bred by indoctrination in a particular ideology is sought to be cultivated through the curriculum with no space for critical reasoning and rigorous examination to arrive at truths or search for alternate avenues of knowledge. This is exactly the conception of knowledge promoted by votaries of the instrumentalist view of commercialised education. The degree holder has to be packaged in a way that conforms to the requirements of the market. The training which is ‘valued’ makes workers fiercely competitive in relation to fellow workers, but docile in dealings with superiors.

The communalisation of education, like the commercialisation and commoditisation of education generates an anti-democratic socio-political environment in which neo-liberal capitalism flourishes. Strong fascistic tendencies surface in governments that aggressively advocate neo-liberal economic policies.