January 15, 2023

Pincer Attack: The Communal Corporate Raid on Higher Education

Nilotpal Basu

BEFORE the dust has settled over the brazen attempt by the UGC to anchor a campaign titled ‘India: The Mother of Democracy’ a second salvo has been fired. UGC seeks to set out a Hindutva narrative of the Indian past over the last 5,000 years. As espoused by the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar, it reduces the complex genesis of India of interface and assimilation of many diverse traditions. In attempting to establish that India has been the mother of democracy, the narrative actually aims to assert that the vedic principles, a euphemism for Brahmanical social hierarchy led varnashram, was the inspiration for 5000 years of democracy, since the vedic times.  It is nothing short of attempting to redefine the Indian identity which has been shaped by the anti-colonial freedom struggle against British rule. It is a clear attempt to provide the ideological sustenance for rejection of the principles of democracy, secularism, social justice and equality and federalism which forms the core of our republican constitution.

The new salvo comes in the form of a draft norms initiated by the UGC for facilitating foreign universities and educational institutions to set up campuses which allow them autonomy in determining fees, teacher recruitment, examination procedures and other aspects of management of higher education. The very same UGC chairperson Jagdish Kumar who set out the ‘mother of democracy’ campaign informed a press conference that, “the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020 has envisioned that top universities in the world will be facilitated to operate in India. For this, a legislative framework facilitating such entry will be put in place, and such universities will be given special dispensation regarding regulatory, governance and content norms on par with other autonomous institutions of India.”

Higher Education has been viewed as a driving factor of upward mobility and is crucial for fostering economic growth, fair income redistribution, elimination of poverty and eradication of social and economic inequality. It is also the principal instrument to inculcate rational and modern thinking to prepare future citizens in taking up contemporary challenges in the comity of nations.

However, recent trends in higher education particularly, since the onset of the Modi government has shown a pronounced downslide. The data from the Human Development Report of the United Nations brings out that average years of schooling in India are not only far less than the developed countries, but even lesser than countries like China and Vietnam. The World Economic Forum shows that the gender gaps are particularly apparent in employment, health, education and political representation. Several emerging economies have performed much better in this regard. It is quite apparent that apart from developed nations, a number of developing countries have been heavily investing in the higher education sector aimed at creating a knowledge-based economy. UNESCO Science Report 2021 shows a similar lack of government interest in research and higher education compared to other countries. Countries with lesser GDPs show signs of understanding and promoting the need for quality research internationally. Despite its humongous population of young people, India is producing 253 researchers per million compared to 5331 in Japan, 888 in Brazil and 1475 in Iran.

India has 1043 universities, 42,343 colleges and 11,779 standalone institutions. Of these 396 universities are privately managed 420 universities are located in rural areas. 78.6 per cent of colleges are privately managed, 65.2 per cent are private unaided and 13.4 percent are private aided. As opposed to 3.06 crore students in undergraduate programmes only 11.2 per cent are enrolled in post graduate programmes.

The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education (18-23 years) in 2019-2020 was found to be 27.1 per cent, far less than the world average of 40 per cent (UNESCO).

The dropout rates among Indian students are rising sharply with pronounced levels among Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. The NSSO data also reveals that financial constraints account for 24.3 per cent to exit while 30.2 per cent of female students are forced to take up domestic work. 36.9 per cent of men back out as they are engaged in economic work and 13.2 per cent of young women are forced to marry leaving education.

Given the current trends, the cost of education is growing sharply forcing students from poorer backgrounds to join private institutes and take loans subjecting them to a debt burden at a young age. The labour market is not providing employment opportunities or job security. With the neoliberal policies in India going full steam, privatisation and commercialisation of higher education is intense resulting in fee hikes at exorbitant levels. The fee hikes are witnessed not only in private institutions but even the public institutions. Apart from the growing educational loans and student debt, there is a sharply declining graph of grant of fellowships for research and the government itself has recorded this in its replies to the parliament. The dwindling public investment has also led to contractualisation of teaching staff leading to abysmal levels of salaries which are often less than the minimum wage for workers, not to speak of any social security.

It is in this backdrop of such a pathetic state of higher education, the NEP appears to be mocking – “promote increased access, equity, and inclusion through a range of measures including greater opportunities for outstanding public education”. The NEP 2020 also assures that autonomy of public institutions would be backed by adequate public funding. While admitting that public expenditure on education in India was nowhere close to 6 per cent of GDP which has been reaffirmed in every policy goal in the run-up to the current 2020 policy. Therefore, the NEP grandiose policy intent of substantial increase in public investment by the central and state governments to achieve the 6 per cent of GDP level at the earliest is pure fiction! NEP further underlined the emphasis on the enhanced level of public funding because it was “extremely critical for achieving the high quality and equitable public education system that is truly needed for India’s future economic, social, cultural, intellectual progress and growth”. Therefore, it is extremely necessary to examine the latest UGC initiative in the light of these ailments that hamstring higher education.


It is obvious that growing deficit in public investment for higher education and finding adequate non-profit resources for addressing the requirements of the education is wreaking havoc. However, NEP 2020 despite admitting that there is a severe dearth of public investment in education, it has continued to continue full throttle with privatisation of public funded institutions. The for-profit higher education has aggravated exclusion and access to higher education for economically weaker sections, particularly sections like ST, SC and women suffering on a much bigger scale. As a result of these retrograde policy directions, it has accentuated privatisation as well leading to growing student debt and hike in fees. Not just the private for-profit corporate institutions have become more out of bounce, but the general pattern of hiked fees has also gone up by leaps and bounds in public institutions as well. The lack of public funding has also aggravated deficiencies in physical infrastructure like hostels, libraries and laboratories. The cut back on expenditure for public education has adversely affected conditions for the teachers as well. Large-scale contractualisation has led to erosion of dignified salaries and social security with debilitating effects on the quality of teaching. It has also resulted in the drying up of research activities and fellowships.

In addressing the real challenges to higher education, the search for private investment went unabated.  In 2018, the government promoted ‘institutions of eminence’ scheme for improving the brand value of such corporate led initiatives. An eloquent statement on such obnoxious activities was according of institute of eminence status to the Jio institute. The Reliance industries projected an investment of 9,500 crores, a share over 25 per cent of central government’s higher education budget for 2018.  It announced that it wants to have a sizable presence in humanities, medical science, engineering, law and performing arts, research collaboration with top global universities and startup research packages, besides faculty from 500 global universities. Reliance’s plan document released by the HRD ministry claimed “Jio institute’s vision is to be the youngest among global top 100 universities” and further, “admissions to the university will be merit based”. However, any google search or independent query into the subsequent developments on this grand plan fails to elicit any result.

The Modi government’s penchant for corporate led private education has been on view in the post pandemic hot pursuit of online education. This in scant disregard for the ground level reality with vulnerable sections of students and communities who remain disempowered for the wherewithal to access, with non-existent smart machines and paltry levels of data signals in vast areas of the country. It will be a truism to point out that online education is cent per cent corporate and profit driven.

The trouble is that if the challenges are sought to be addressed not through hook and only by crook, this result should not come as a surprise.


The current plan by UGC for facilitating foreign universities to set up campuses in India by virtually waiving them from all regulatory oversight and allowing autonomy on fee structures, admission policies, teacher recruitment, examinations system, curriculum content, same approach of grandstanding by trying to cash in the bank value of ivy league institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard etc., is a textbook demonstration of Shakespearian ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.

The plan seems to be a non-starter from the outset. If the degrees awarded by these Indian campuses of such institutions have to attain the same level of teaching, pedagogy and other essential prerequisites, investments will have to be of a similar level. Again, it is not really the regulatory oversight which impedes the deployment of these. Those who have authored this new policy are not even aware as to the current crisis of non-profit funding in the British or the American universities. Even with a per capita GDP level which is many times more, these British and US universities are finding it extremely difficult to keep going. The question of debt burden and the exorbitant cost of education is forcing major agitations in these campuses.

Therefore, to expect that they will set up Indian campuses with investment at a level which they find impossible to mobilise for their home institutions is purely fictional. These exercises are mere kite flying to divert attention from the embarrassingly pathetic state of higher education in the country today. Therefore, this propaganda offensive of foreign university campuses in India is actually going, hand-in-hand with the Hindutva offensive of rewriting our civilizational history and reshaping of our democratic and secular identity with one which is characterised by religious affiliation.

A SFI digital poster on social media was sharp in its sarcasm – “Harvard in Haryana, Oxford in Odisha”. The twin initiative by the UGC has to be met by the mobilisation of the broadest possible sections who are interested in the well being of Indian higher education – students, teachers, academics, parents. That can be achieved not just by critiquing and exposing the untenability of fictional enclaves which are supposedly to be set up by top global universities. Unless exposing the outrageous nature of these claims, on both counts are accompanied with renewed emphasis on mobilising all sections for addressing the challenges of higher education by the government both at the central and the state levels, these propaganda exercises are going to lead us through the surest way to disaster.