Foreign universities bill is a bill to sell education out by degrees

March 22, 2010

by Anil Sadgopal (Source : DNA)

On receiving a green signal from the Union Cabinet for the Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, 2010, the Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal announced: “This is a milestone which will enhance choices, increase competition and benchmark quality.” This raises four questions.

First, is this Bill really a milestone? The nation was looking forward to the declaration of an agenda for the improvement in the higher education system comprising almost 18,000 colleges and more than 500 universities. On the contrary, the recent Union Budget reveals, taking into account the inflationary cost, a downward trend in allocations for Higher and Technical Education.

Out of an outlay of Rs46,500 crore in the XI Plan for Higher Education, only Rs8,300 crore have been released so far, though three years of the Plan are over. This deliberate under-funding of higher education, along with that of school education, is part of the World Bank diktats being pursued for the past 20 years when the educational expenditure fell from 4 per cent of GDP in 1990 to 3.5 per cent of GDP in recent years despite the levying of 3 per cent educational cess. This has led to a widening cumulative gap of a few hundred thousand crores of rupees in public investment in education — a sure prescription for all-pervading
commercialisation of education. Had Sibal declared a time-bound multi-dimensional agenda for reversing this anti-education stance, he might have reasons to acclaim it as a milestone.

Will our kids benefit?

Second question. Whose choices will this Bill enhance? Only about 20 per cent of the relevant age group children are able to go beyond Class XII, the vast majority of them coming from sub-standard schools. The farcical Right to Education Act, 2009 is designed to legitimise inequality in the school system and deny access to a vast majority to even secondary education. To be sure, only the affluent would be able to afford the exorbitant fee structures of the profit-making foreign universities. Yet Wall Street is upbeat about the market prospects. Obviously, the market pundits are not counting on this affluent minority alone. They have Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in mind. What does that imply? From NDA to the UPA governments, the policy of shifting public funds to the corporate capital has been promoted under the banner of PPP. Apart from extending both direct and hidden subsidies, including free or subsidised lands, the government is offering generous
tax exemptions to private institutions and even tax incentives to the parents who send their children to high fee-charging institutions. Misusing the rhetoric of inclusive education, corporate leaders are exhorting the State to increase ‘scholarships’ and ‘cheap loans’ to the weaker sections so that they can avail of the expensive foreign universities. Somebody needs to ask the government: if it is willing to suffer such massive revenue losses and incur public expenditure to promote commoditisation of education, why not then directly support and expand higher and technical education in the public sector itself?

But then the objective of under-funding public institutions followed by PPP is precisely to enhance the choices of global capital, not the people. Hence the rejoicing on Wall Street!

A question of quality

Third question. Will the Bill improve quality through competition? As per market thumb rule, competition is a meaningful tool for quality improvement only if there is a level playing field. We have seen how the state policies have been designed to demolish both school and higher education in the public sector, except for a handful of elite institutions. Sam Pitroda, Chairperson of the Knowledge Commission, recently told a conference that “At least 90 per cent of Indian universities are providing below-par education” but he went on to laud the government for “opening 14 universities of innovation and 400 new colleges”! It is in this enigmatic ruling class framework that opening up of the Indian market for a handful of profit-making foreign universities is seen as providing competition for quality improvement.
In the wake of independence, India built up a range of high quality higher education and research institutions in the public sector. Apart from the IITs and IIMs, these included AIIMS, Regional Engineering Colleges, JNU, Delhi University, Indian Institute of Science, TIFR, BARC, ISRO, Centre of Cellular & Molecular Biology and IUCAA — just to name a few. Did these develop out of a spirit of competition, or from the Constitutional commitment to build a public-funded education system? Even in the US, the vast system of high quality state-funded universities (University of California being an outstanding example) continue to tell us that the public sector in education does not require competition as a tool of quality improvement. The motivation has invariably been social and national development. Even the icons of private institutions in the US like Harvard, Princeton, Caltech and MIT were motivated primarily by philanthropy, rather than profit.

This brings us to the most crucial question. What kind of quality will the foreign universities benchmark for India? Even The Economic Times in its editorial (17 March) was constrained to acknowledge, “The reality is that ‘for-profit’ describes hardly any of the world’s best institutions of higher learning… Only second-rate outfits not allergic to some accounting innovation that allows them to circumvent this ban [on repatriating profits] are likely to invest in Indian campuses.”

When would we have the moral courage to question the socio-political character of knowledge in the universities of North America and Europe? If everything was hunky-dory with that system, why did it face economic recession twice in less than a century? Isn’t the phenomenon represented by the Union Carbide-led Bhopal disaster, Monsanto’s GM crops and commoditisation of natural resources, culture and even our emotions also an outcome of the same neo-liberal economy of which education is a sub-set? It is time that the Indian Parliament stops examining the Foreign Universities Bill through the global market spectacles and returns to the socio-political vision as enshrined in the Constitution.

(Anil Sadgopal is former member, Central Advisory Board of Education)