Exclusion in Education
SIXTY per cent of India’s population is very young, below 25 years of age. This young India has no memory of the pre-liberalisation era during which state policy was broadly oriented towards the welfare of the people. Post-1991, a calibrated change in public consciousness was made to take place through commercialisation of public needs and corporatisation of governance. Media and technology have played a strategic role in this transformation. As a result, the intrusion of the private and informal sector into domains that were hitherto associated with public interest and social equity appears validated, to many, as commonsensical. Education and healthcare are two such key areas that have witnessed the rapid erosion of public stakes and the aggressive takeover by big businesses.
It may hence appear ironical that public-funded educational institutions, especially universities that impart liberal education, have witnessed some of the most widespread and intense unrests in recent times. The left and democratic sections have channelled the anger against policies and authorities into organised struggles, and the struggles themselves have derived their force and impetus from the experience of exclusion articulated by women, dalits, adivasis, students belonging to rural and urban impoverished classes, teachers working on ad hoc or contract basis for long years, and research scholars who form, within the academia, the precariat.
The experience of exclusion is not limited to the increasingly precarious presence of these sections within educational institutions. It also extends to their exclusion from decision-making processes and denial of their right of representation in statutory bodies. This aspect of exclusion is also shared by the established unions of teachers and students, which are never consulted while deciding on a wide array of matters ranging from new courses and programmes, mode of teaching-learning, restructuring of syllabi and examinations (academic reforms) to the revision of fees, service rules, code of conduct, facilities, access to infrastructure and changes in the routine processes relating to the resolution of disputes and grievances (administrative reforms).
Exclusion has become a running theme in policy-making since the first NDA government at the Centre tried to roll out a Birla-Ambani Model of Privatisation in 2002. While the attempted legislation based on the model (the Model Act) failed and had to be withdrawn, successive governments at the Centre have tried to implement its provisions through the regulatory bodies that control the public funding of education. Broadly, the model can be summarised through the following points:
1. Financial autonomy to public-funded educational institutions for the purpose of encouraging such institutions to generate internal sources of revenue and raise fees
2. Inclusion of industry and private sector as major stakeholder at all levels of decision-making
3. Public-private partnerships/collaborations
4. Mandatory accreditation of institutions
5. Employability as a measurable outcome of courses and programmes
6. Intensive use of information and communication technology (ICT) in academic and administrative processes
7. Phased reduction in grant-based funding
8. Inter-institutional mobility of students and teachers
9. Fixed-term contractual employment of faculty and staff and lateral entry of faculty
10. Replacement of liberal curricula in the Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities with applications-based modules and vocational courses
11. Corporate governance and depoliticisation measures through reduction/elimination of elected members in statutory bodies, weakening of unions, etc.
An aggressive and centralised approach to implement this model was adopted after 2005 when, in the Doha round of WTO negotiations, the UPA government decided to commit higher education as a tradable service to the GATTS regime. A series of Indo-US Higher Education Summits (under the stewardship of then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and then Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal) were used to negotiate further terms and firm up the neoliberal policy direction with sprint measures or “reforms”.
To win public approval for these neoliberal reforms, the government used the media to create a buzz about the failure of public-funded Indian universities to achieve competitive ranks in the QS World University Ranking System. Industry bodies such as CII and conglomerates like NASSCOM complemented the negative propaganda by alleging that universities and colleges relied on an outdated system of education that did not generate employability. Vice-Chancellors of prominent central universities such as Delhi University were roped in to echo these views and implement several reforms. Not a single policy document released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) mentioned the need to balance the concern for quality with equity and access to education. Between 2008 and 2014, institutions adopted an attitude of open hostility towards elected bodies of teachers and students that were asking tough questions about the sustainability of these reforms. This phase saw militant struggles against the centrally-imposed semester system with modularised courses and an experimental credit-based four-year undergraduate programme, cuts in grants and a continuous freeze on the routine recruitment of teachers, faulty or inadequate implementation of the reservation policy, and the introduction of fixed-term contractual employment of karamcharis and administrative staff. The government responded by encouraging authorities to adopt the most draconian measures to intimidate teachers and students and divide unions by openly adopting a ‘carrot and stick’ policy towards activists.
Formation of JFME
From 2014 onwards, the Narendra Modi government has utilised its considerable majority in the Lok Sabha and its traction with BJP-ruled states to implement the policy of exclusion and privatisation in a far more aggressive manner. While it has continued to curtail public spending in all levels of education, it particularly targeted higher education because the liberal curricula in Humanities, Social Sciences and Pure Sciences are also seen to foster critical thinking that is inimical to the ideology of communal hatred and social obscurantism officially sanctioned and spread by the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The Finance Ministry has unrolled a slew of measures directed towards the centralisation of all financial decisions in public-funded higher educational institutions and established the Higher Education Funding Authority (HEFA) to replace the UGC’s grant-based funding functions with a loan-based funding with funds raised through financial institutions in the capital markets. The MHRD has worked in tandem with the RSS to dismantle the research infrastructure and environment in universities. The RSS has been active in its attempts to subvert the reservation policy and exclude the socially backward classes, dalits and adivasis from jobs in the academia. With the help of the corporate media, the Modi government has also waged a war against the democratic and liberal ethos of universities such as JNU by conducting witch-hunts against students and teachers who are vocally questioning state policy and the state-sponsored growth of fascist Hindutva organisations.
The MHRD and regulatory agencies of the Union government are also pushing the agenda of communalisation in education and aiding violent expressions of communal ideas on university campuses. This is being done to sow the seeds of division within the academic community and sabotage united expressions of opposition against its policies. Cultural intolerance is being actively bred through institutionally-supported seminars and academic functions that express majoritarian agendas and supremacist bias or attack the cultures and rights of minorities. Obscurantist courses are being introduced without democratic consultation, in the name of Vedic civilisation. The Union government currently views rationality, objectivity and scientific temper as its enemies; hence it is brazenly attacking established academic principles and undermining progressive values in education.
In the hostile public environment created to deliberately divide the people and neutralise struggles for social justice, equity and common access to higher education, the left and democratic forces, sections facing the brunt of exclusion and unions have felt the need to come together and consolidate their efforts to build an effective nationwide resistance against commercialisation, privatisation and communalisation of education. The outcome of this need is the Joint Forum for Movement on Education (JFME), formed in August 2018. The initiative to form the JFME was undertaken after thoroughly assessing the necessity and objective possibilities of a sustained mass movement in the education sector.
According to the JFME, education has played a critical role in the limited socio-economic mobility that has been observed among the people, after India’s independence. In the context of increasing inequality and the widening gap between people’s aspirations and economic opportunities, it becomes important to strengthen the public-funded system, rather than dismantling it in favour of private players. The public-funded system cannot be strengthened without substantial increases in budgetary allocations for all levels of education and without ensuring public accountability and transparency in decision-making. While policy pundits and the government are currently apathetic to both needs, the lack of a vibrant and informed public discourse on the educational needs of the people feeds into and sustains this apathy. The JFME meetings repeatedly noted that due to their own vested interest in privatisation, mainstream bourgeois political parties and the corporate media have largely ignored the need to highlight issues pertaining to the erosion of public trust in education. Hence, the only alternative to this apathy is an effective campaign for public awareness that can only be undertaken by those who have suffered from the consequences of the skewed policies. The JFME has envisaged its own role as a catalyst for bringing together disparate sections and movements in the education sector, and under one common umbrella, direct the united efforts towards a genuine mass-political awareness of the crisis in public-funded education.
Success in the JFME’s efforts can be gauged from the fact that its “Save Education, Save Nation” People’s Rally (held on February 19) drew a participation of over 50,000 people. This participation went way beyond activists or common students, teachers and non-teaching employees. Parents, common people, especially the youth, and representatives from dalit and adivasi organisations also participated in the rally. Unlike previous instances, certain sections of the corporate media also felt compelled to carry reports of the rally. However, such events have a limited impact on public consciousness, especially at a time when the ruling party is expected to prepare a political groundswell of support for its electoral fortunes by polarising the public on issues related to national security and identity. Hence, the JFME’s effectiveness lies in the continuous lateral mobilisation of public opinion through smaller, but innovative, campaigns.
While opportunities for the use of mainstream national media appear to be scant in the current atmosphere of conflict and warmongering, the JFME has the option of dispersing its efforts across states, organising smaller initiatives through its constituent units and using social media and regional media effectively in keeping its concerns alive in the public domain. Additionally, the smaller initiatives must also focus on the immediate consequences of the government’s anti-people moves in education, like the ongoing crisis in the reservation roster for faculty appointments in public-funded universities and colleges. The JFME’s role, in this regard, must be a combination of agitational and educational programmes.
The JFME must also reach out to the broadest spectrum of political opposition in the country with an alternative policy framework in education. This must be done keeping in mind the fact that prominent voices in the government, especially the prime minister, continue to maintain a rhetorical stress on the hollow dream of a “demographic dividend” to appeal to young aspirational voters. It must also call the prime minister’s bluff by continuing to highlight the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, especially in relation to those policies and decisions that directly impact the educational opportunities and institutional access of the youth in small towns and rural areas. For this, the JFME must, in the coming days, spread beyond metropolitan cities and urban centres to reach out to, and enlist the support of, the rural populace. This can only be accomplished by identifying opportunities and creating state-wise agenda through continuous coordination meetings.