Private Nation, Public Funds: The Case of the Foreign Education Providers (Regulation of Entry and Operation) 2010 Bill

September 9, 2011

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By Nandini Chandra

It is quite remarkable that the word “national” finds just one mention in the Standing Committee Report on the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of entry and operation) Bill 2010 (henceforth SCR) just tabled in the Parliament on 2 August 2011. One would imagine that the word could be the cornerstone of deliberation for such a bill, stressing regulation and moderation of foreign education providers (henceforth FEPs). In an earlier draft of the bill in 2007, there is reference to “the cultural and linguistic sensibilities of the people of India”. The FEPs are urged to “not offer a course of study which has a context adversely affecting the sovereignty and integrity of India”. However, this entire section is deleted from the amended bill. We know about this deletion because the SCR makes a note about it and recommends that it be restored. And yet, it too fights shy of using national arguments to bring in tighter quality control. Why has the national suddenly lost its relevance?

Instead, the bill repeatedly refers to the Indian educational institutions as local or domestic. The SCR brings in the word native as well. While discussing the shortage of trained high quality faculty in higher education, it voices the concern that middle or low brow FEPs entering the country might want to poach on the talented faculty of the “native institution whether government or private”. The preference for native and domestic as opposed to national becomes even more perplexing when we scrutinize the one significant invocation of the term. This occurs in the section delineating the constitution of the Advisory Committee Board. To give away the not so surprise ending, the mention of this board comes in the concluding pages (sub-section 2 of section 9) where we learn that the Board has the permission to unravel the whole plot of regulation established to streamline the FEPs so far. It has discretionary powers that will enable it to free the reputed FEPs from the thralldom of outdated Nehruvian restrictions. The restrictions are namely the maintenance of a corpus fund of Rs 50 crores (USD 11 million), an absurd ban on repatriation of the surplus income (why else would FEPs enter the Indian market if not to make a profit?) as well as the penalty clauses for violating the norms as set in the various statutory bodies. In other words, the advisory board can grant SEZ status to the FEPs!

The Board is to be made up of five members: three distinguished academics “who may be/may have been at any time National Research Professors (NRP)” and two others, presumably non-academics. The additional gloss provided on “national research professor” is very curious, especially since it is the only instance when the word “national” is used. According to the definition, the NRP’s “stature is such that they are neither amenable to any pressure from any quarter nor can be influenced by Government. They have been included so as to restrict the discretion of the Government in nominating persons to the Board. The other two members also are eminent persons holding statutory positions and cannot be said to be fully under Government control”. In a strange twist, the meaning of national stature is construed as ‘being free from government influence’. The government in a government report is projected as deeply suspect, or at least alienated from the national.

What are the grounds for the government doubting its own credibility? Obviously this level of self-doubt can only arise from some fundamental shift in structure. The new conjugality involving collaborations between the state and the industry, between the “native” bourgeoisie and the foreign universities is so rampant that we often forget that it lacks the basic legal framework to back it. The round of bills passed, pending and waiting to be introduced in the past 5 or 6 years pertains to matters of accreditation and recognition in one way or the other. These bills like the Right to Education bill, the Foreign educational institutions (regulation of entry and operation), the Accreditation bill, the Educational Tribunal bill, and the draft NCHER bill 2010 among many are all about rationalizing a system of corporate control over areas that are demarcated as service zones, such as health and education, removing the hurdles to privatization. It is ironic that the legitimization of corporate encroachment into areas of the commons should seek to distance itself from national merit.

In this context, the use of the word native for Indian may be seen as expressing a new balance of power between the state and corporate capital. In an earlier dispensation, the government representatives, whether it was the civic administration or the judiciary were all recognized as part of a national economy and native would have been reserved for identities that were aligned to more ethno-vernacular orbits such as caste, language and religion. While the new insistence may be designed to project the triumph of a new political hegemony, which relies on autochthonous categories such as dalit and tribal, the truth is that it is the global economic regime, which has a vested interest in slotting people in terms of their fragmented regional and local identities. In the last two decades, we have seen the national with its baggage of secular modernity emerging as one of the most abused categories. I am not referring here to the nationalist inflection of the national, which of course has been appropriated historically and en block by rightwing fascist parties. I feel it is important to distinguish national from nationalist in so far the nation is still the only economic structure at least theoretically capable of standing up to WTO/GATT diktats of deregulation and disinvestment in public units.

The national moreover is the only frame of arbitration as far as the disenfranchised masses and working classes are concerned. The progressive bills and ruling for reservations, land rights, protection from discrimination, and the right to work can only emerge from a nationally sanctioned constitutional writ rather than any international tribunal. The UN and other human rights bodies may lay down policy guidelines, but they cannot adjudicate over the political demands of people, constitutional or otherwise. In fact, all revolutionary movements, irrespective of their international anti-imperialist outlook, tend to assume a national profile. The call for an end to the neoliberal capitalist regime might gain more legitimacy with the activities of the world social forum or other coalitions of communist organisations, but the actual work of class struggle has to be carried out within a national framework. The World Bank is acutely aware of this threat posed by the continued salience of the national in so far as it is an arbitrator of the access to common resources of the people, and the plan is to destroy any legitimacy that the national might still retain. According to Timothy Brennan, the nation’s role has largely been reduced to a managerial one, as “jurisdictional acts of enclosure designed to perpetuate class privileges over specified regions”. At the same time, the nation he asserts is also “the site within which the working poor can make limited claims on power, and have at least some opportunity to affect the way they are ruled”.

For instance, the World Band taskforce report titled ‘Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise’ (2000) recommended the reduction of government spending on higher education and transfer of administration and control of higher education institutions from government to private hands – all in the name of autonomy. Subsequently, the Birla-Ambani Committee report, the Model Act, the National Knowledge Commission and even the Yashpal Committee report have corroborated the PPP (public private partnership) model as the blueprint for national growth.

However given the trajectory of private schools and hospitals that have been subsidized along PPP lines, it is amply clear that this is not about partnership, and more a simple expropriation of public funds. The private side of the partnership never delivers, after getting land at a pittance or on tax-free basis. Customs duty concessions also applies to medical equipment in corporate run hospitals under the guise of providing 30 percent of the beds to the poor, which never happens. They do not want to be even minimally accountable, and hence routinely turn away poor students and patients to whom they are legally mandated to give free service. It is the lust for freedom from even this minimal responsibility, which is now driving the corporates and private sector to latch on to bills like the FEP.

The FEPs are given a privileged status in comparison to the domestic private educational institutions. The domestic private enterprises find in this a great opportunity to either demand the same privileges or bring the FEPs under the scanner of the various statutory bodies that are presumably cramping their style. Either way, they hope to benefit from the new bill by inserting themselves within the same legal framework of the FEPs who enjoy a special status by virtue of the GATT, stipulating unfettered FDI in the education market in 2000.

The bill makes it clear that the regulation and monitoring of the FEPs is negotiable, and there are all kinds of superannuated bodies to ensure that the fetters remain merely symbolic. Conversely, we have seen in the case of private technical colleges, students graduating from unrecognized colleges have equally good career prospects since the very same industrial corporations run these institutions. They get rankings from publications such as the Business Digest, Financial Express etc. Also, it is not rare to find that members of various statutory and assessment bodies hold positions in the management board of private (both authorized and unauthorized) institutions. The heads of the Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar and Sunrise University, Alwar, among others are members of the Council of Indian Universities. It is not hard to see how both have received recognition from the UGC. The wiki entry on the former reveals that the university provides both AC and non-AC accommodation to justify its differential fee structure; students cannot go out without their parents’ permission and are required to be in uniform during the weekdays. Surely this cannot be the basis for a triple A ranking! The five star campuses with swimming pool etc., according to one source, are a way of ensuring that the starting costs are not wasted when the building can be easily renovated into a hotel or shopping centre if the university goes bust!

Thus, even as statutory bodies like the SCR argue for more stringent checks on the FEPs, we cannot take them at their word. There are ways in which the regime of quality control and accreditation itself aids the Indian bourgeoisie. Moreover, they do not have to all be fly-by-night operators to qualify as dubious educators. For instance, the SCR has asked for the clause permitting exemptions to be deleted (subsection 1 of section 9), sanely arguing that more checks and regulations can only enhance the credentials of the best institutions and prove their commitment to the cause of higher education in India. In fact, the SCR insists that once these FEPs have met with approval, they be subjected to the same benchmarks as their Indian counterparts. What it does not mention is the fact that this is not a stand-alone bill facilitating the nativization of the foreign immigrants, but one in a series of cunningly interconnected bills, which unleash a host of superannuated statutory and independent bodies in the name of rationalizing the system. The reason one can ask for the clause of special status and exemptions from regulations to be removed from the current bill is because the attendant bills will make sure that the FEPs are kept happy. All these other bills are under the purview of the same standing committee and the same chairperson (Oscar Fernandes). The SCR is being very disingenuous in acknowledging that the clause seeking exemptions for a select class of FEPs is a glitch and needs to be removed. Under the Educational Tribunal Bill 2010, for instance, all grievances and issues related to higher education will have to be sorted out at the level of the Tribunal. Students, staff and teachers will no longer have any access to courts. Consider a student of the Lovely Professional University with no freedom of mobility or dress, let alone political rights. How will she appeal against this fascist regime?

Because these bills only pertain to FEPs, it is very important to establish parity between foreign and Indian education providers. How is the Indian private entrepreneur brought into the fabric of a bill meant for FEPs? This is done by deliberately giving a false picture of the current academic market. The Indian private education providers are repeatedly misrepresented as philanthropic, as operating through trusts, societies and not for profit NGOs. But the reality is very different. These are for profit corporations. In tandem with their avowed commercial interests, the courses and programmes they offer in their institutions are exclusively technical and managerial, designed for high fees and quick returns. In the definition given by the MHRD however, privatization is delinked from commercialization. What they perhaps mean is that the laundering of black money by the Jindals, the Modis and the Goenkas in the service of higher education is an act of altruism. The SCR, tends to add to the misrepresentation, unwilling to call its bluff. For instance, in order to defend its own claim that education is a service domain, unharmed by privatization, it resorts to making special pleas for more protected zones hoping to distract us from the general zone of education. The medical degree is invoked as especially sacrosanct, immune from the profit motive. It then advises that the corpus fund amount for foreign medical schools be raised.

Similarly, the bill lays great emphasis on the need for FEPs to ensure that there is no repatriation of surplus, and any profit made is reinvested to benefit the branch campus alone. This assumes naively that as long as the profits are kept on Indian soil, it does not amount to commercialization. The SCR, which is totally in agreement with this projection of anti-commercialization of the Indian higher education sector goes one step further and suggests that 25 percent of the surplus may be allowed for repatriation. Otherwise, the FEPs which are particularly profit motivated due to their foreign structure (it actually says this) would be compelled to indulge in illegal practices like speculation in the real estate market. The thrust of these sketchy comparisons is to endorse the Indian private players’ entitlement to some protective measures, given their greater entitlement.

This line of differentiating the Indian from the foreign on moral grounds is not pushed too much though for fear that it will trigger a residual conflict of interest between the national and the foreign seen as imperialist. For instance, when the SCR discusses the issue of sovereignty; it deliberately assumes an abstract global perspective, which has no connection to the specific cultural history of India. For example, the SCR mandates that FEPs should not be allowed to teach religion or any sensitive cultural topic since religion is immediately equated with fundamentalism. This could well be picked from the US or a European nation’s policy advisory. But the department is not swayed by any protectionist appeal on behalf of the so called national bourgeoisie, however delinked from anti-imperialist insinuations. It turns down suggestions to put a cap on foreign faculty hire or foreign student enrollment. Instead it recommends the international feel of a mixed classroom for better learning.

These minor quibbles between the Department of Higher Education, MHRD and the SCR are meant to create a feeling that the shift in register from public to private is a gradual and deliberated move, not an easy corporate takeover. Towards creating this evidence of application of mind and scrutiny, the MHRD spreads an elaborate web of lies. The FEPs are supposed to inspire innovation and excellence in research, which assumes a focus on post-graduate and doctoral studies. Studies reveal that the FEPs are not at all keen to touch the postgraduate market, which constitutes the bulk of the Indian student enrollment overseas. They are only interested in the untapped undergraduate degree market. This also betrays the other great prediction of the MHRD that the entry of the FEPs is going to bring down the number of Indian students who go abroad and cut down the foreign exchange outflow by 75 percent.

Again, it only envisages the best foreign institutions entering the market and this is seen as ensuring the prevention of commercialization, assuming that the best institutions are not driven by profit. Finally, its reason for ushering in FEPs is that it will provide much needed growth in GER (gross enrollment ratio) without which India cannot be considered an economically viable destination. India’s current GER is 12.5, which is very low compared to other developing countries and compared to 22 for China. The target ratio is 20 by the year 2015 to provide for the rapidly growing market. This crucial statistical detail is meant to project the fact that as a nation we are suffering enormous undersupply in qualified professionals and skilled technical labour. On the other side are figures from the same document, which project a skewed growth in certain technical and managerial courses, an oversupply in market friendly courses. It is not at all clear how the FEPs are going to fulfill the GOI’s expectation of offering only those courses, which will redress this skewed growth. Does it expect the FEPs to cater to non-market friendly courses alone?

As of now, of the 641 FEPs that are running collaborative courses and twinning programmes in the country—most of them with the Indian private universities—are in the highly lucrative field of hotel, business and tourism management. Observers such as Philip Altbach, Professor and Director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College have repeatedly called the bluff of each and every one of these predictions. According to Altbach, the FEPs that are making a beeline for India and other developing countries are mostly bottom feeders. Rarely are they top level or Ivy League. They want to make a quick buck given the large budgetary cuts in education in their domestic market, and especially in light of the burgeoning market here.

There is something highly paradoxical about all these projections of growth in the academic market, both in terms of student enrollment as well as the bulk of teaching jobs lying vacant. It seems at least superficially to be at odds with the popular upper caste rhetoric around reservations, which bemoans the shrinking seats in government educational institutions and lack of jobs. Of course, one realizes that the two are not contradictory at all. The shrinking seats are supposed to be an indicator of the need for growth in the private sector and the jobs lying vacant a sign of the paucity of real talent. Thus the MHRD’s surrender of education to the private sector carries an implicit casteist logic. Apart from the fact that the budgetary cuts in education are designed to compromise the quality of education in public institutions, they also validate upper caste paranoid fantasies that these institutions are crowded with untalented and unmeritorious reserved category students who do not deserve to fill these vacant posts. The subsequent exemption from providing reservations granted to private universities and FEPs then serves not only to exclude the majority of poor and backward communities, but it also exposes their false claims of expanding the market. Like in the US, these private bodies are not meant to cater to the growing numbers, but a select minority who can afford to pay the high fees. The GER is just a fetish with numbers, a symbolic bait with which to attract the FEPs.

For some time India has been regarded as the great exporter for the world’s cheapest highly skilled labour. The IITs and the regional engineering colleges have between them supplied the US with enormous cheap technical labour, and helped drive down wages overall in Silicon Valley. It is imperative that the flow not stop. Even as the GOI is raising such a hue and cry to justify cuts in public education in the name of autonomy, they are diverting huge funds in the form of land and tax exemptions, as well as funds allocated for OBC reservations into these new private schemes. Thus the true carrot dangled in front of the FEPs is not really in the form of an expanding educational market, but a subsidized bounty that enables them to set up shop at virtually no cost. It is a fact indisputable that if the FEP bill is passed, irrespective of the emendations, it will help subsidize the imperialist west’s demand for cheap labour and profit thirst. But more importantly, it will put a permanent hex on the Indian economy by ensuring that money remains within the minority upper caste class club.

Meanwhile, despite Sibal’s hope of creating world-class campuses in India, the twinning programmes, which are designed to be its most attractive feature, reveal what is really at stake. According to the twinning programmes, the students will do part of the degree in the Indian branch campus, and the rest ‘partly in any other educational education situated outside India’. Fearing that the students will be shunted to some satellite branch campus in the developing world, the SCR insists that the above clause should be replaced by the words ‘its main campus in the country in which such institution is primarily established or incorporated’. This return to the idea of the main campus points to a deeply entrenched colonial mindset. But instead of seeing its role as merely peripheral, the neoliberal neocolonial mind projects itself as an arterial branch actively pumping lifeblood to the heart or main campus. It also acknowledges that the project is purely about expanding a market for goods indelibly foreign, even when it is hastily dressed in some tattered nationalist garb.

(I am grateful to Kavita Krishnan, Radhika Menon, Vijender Sharma and Dipankar Basu for sharing resources and to Jesse Knutson for feedback!)
References

“Foreign Universities in India”, http://www.icbse.com/universities/foreign/, date unknown.

PRS Legislative Research (for all the bills and the SCR), http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/

Timothy Brennan, “Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism”, New Left Review 7, Jan-Feb 2001

Philip Altbach, The “global market” bubble’, The Times Higher Education, 14 Feb 2008, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=400584§ioncode=26

Radhika Menon, “Public Private Partnerships: Private Profiteers Peddling Education?”, Liberation, July 2008

Philip Altbach, “Is open door in higher education desirable?”, The Hindu, 2 June 2009, http://www.hindu.com/2009/06/02/stories/Philip Altbach, 2009060254620900.htm

Kavita Krishnan, “Policy Offensive on Higher Education”, Liberation, July 2009

“Foreign university bill gets cabinet nod”, The Times of India, 15 March 2010, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-03-15/india/28128017_1_reforms-bills-entry-and-operation-foreign-education-providers

BBC News, “Indian bill to allow foreign universities to operate”, 15 March 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8567737.stm

Rediff Get Ahead, “Foreign schools can’t solve India’s problems”, 18 March 2010, http://getahead.rediff.com/report/2010/mar/18/careers-education-philip-altbach-foreign-schools-cant-solve-indias-problems.htm

Philip Altbach, “India’s open door to foreign universities”, The Hindu, 7 April 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article391080.ece

Radhika Menon, “A Bill to Kill Higher Education”, Liberation, May 2010

Inside Higher Ed, “All Eyes on India”, 30 June 2010, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/30/india

G Mahadevan, “Words of caution against foreign universities”, The Hindu, 13 July 2010, http://www.hindu.com/edu/2010/07/13/stories/2010071350050100.htm

S Vaidhyasubramaniam, “Foreign universities bill: an unprescribed pill”, 1 August 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/article544631.ece

Vijender Sharma, “FDI in Education”, 21 November 2010, http://vijendersharma.wordpress.com/tag/fdi-in-education/

Liberation editorial, “Barack Obama’s India Visit: Outsourcing US’ Economic Crisis to India”, Liberation, December 2010

P Sainath, “Corporate Socialism’s 2G Orgy”, The Hindu, 7 March 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article1514987.ece?homepage=true

Kavita Krishnan, “Student Movements in the time of Liberalization”, Seminar, August 2011

1 Comment »

One Response to “Private Nation, Public Funds: The Case of the Foreign Education Providers (Regulation of Entry and Operation) 2010 Bill”

  1. amit Says:
    September 23rd, 2011 at 00:40

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    amit