Fight against Committing Higher Education to WTO

December 4, 2015

Before it is too late!

The Government of India (GOI) has expressed its readiness to allow educational traders from all over the world i.e. 160 member-nations of World Trade Organisation (WTO) to establish colleges, universities and other technical or professional institutions in India as commercial ventures. This is done in form of submitting ‘offers’ to WTO while the final and ‘commitment’ stage is only pending and fast approaching. Once India’s education sector comes under this regime by making commitment for market access, the people’s right to education, for which the Government of India must be accountable, will be completely dismantled. The unbridled privatization and commercialization demanded by the WTO regime would not only deny access to the poor but also to those who may afford to purchase it in the market since even they would not get it worth the name. This is because thorough commercialization will result in degradation of the very purpose of education, course content and pedagogical practices. The social justice agenda will find no place in WTO regime. The academic autonomy, independent research and democratic spaces in our educational institutions will be eroded. Once the commitment for market access in education comes into force, essentially the GOI would be bound to protect the interests of foreign and domestic corporate houses who pursue trade in education against the interests of the students, teachers and larger society. If the people of India, particularly students and teachers, fail to bring pressure on the GOI against committing higher education to WTO, our education system will be entangled with the WTO regime forever and be doomed.

Momentum in Trade Negotiations: The GOI has submitted its ‘offers’ for ‘Market Access’ in ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’ to WTO in August 2005 as a part of Trade Negotiations which started in 2001 in Doha, Qatar. However, they have not yet become ‘commitments’ as the trade negotiations could not be concluded for the last 15 years. But, now there is a fresh momentum in the negotiations. A special meeting of the General Council of WTO was held in November 2014 in Geneva which culminated the process of systematic suppression of the 15 year long resistance of the least developed and developing countries to the encroaching agenda of Doha Round Negotiations.  Plans are on to expedite the process of the ongoing trade negotiations and successfully conclude them in the ensuing Tenth Ministerial Conference to be held at Nairobi, Kenya from 15th to 18th December this very year. Being clearly predatory on the sovereignty of the nations and rights of the people, this conference is a possible culmination of the Doha Round Trade Negotiations and has conceived an elaborate scheme of extending and sharpening the claws of WTO and significantly widening its jurisdiction and scope in all areas of economy and social life, industrial and agricultural goods, intellectual property rights and services like education, health, insurance etc.

Onward March of Imperialism: The countries of the world are classified by WTO as 1) Developed; 2) Developing; and 3) Least Developed. Economic inequalities among countries referred to as ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘least developed’ are a product of the imperialist exploitation of the latter two categories by the former. WTO was constituted to protect the interests of the developed countries; it is detrimental to the interest of the rest of the world. Developing countries like India joined WTO intending to use this membership for the benefit of its corporate houses, and promising subsequent ‘trickle down’ benefits for the people. The class and social inequalities (caste, religious, ethnic, gender, disability-related, linguistic) in all countries and inequalities among nations stand aggravated due to different agreements operating under the WTO regime for the last two decades. With the proposed expansion of WTO operations at the Tenth Ministerial, this process will be further intensified. Ironically, this ‘Doha Round Trade Negotiations’ is also called Doha Development Agenda as it has got some palliatives for the poor nations in order to woo them.

GATS-Education: Three Integrated Multilateral Agreements viz., 1) General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT-1994) which includes Agreement on Agriculture; 2) Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS); and 3) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) together constitute the main body of WTO. Education, as reduced to one of tradable services, is brought under GATS. Ironically, the trade in education is governed by GATS Council (Council for Trade in Services) along and at par with services such as recreation clubs and night pubs under the same set of rules, though with some variations due to domestic regulations of member-nations! We need not oppose foreign universities if they are coming to India on the basis of educational and cultural relations in order to exchange and spread knowledge. This has been a prominent feature throughout India’s history and was promoted by leaders of the freedom struggle including Gandhi and Tagore. But, that is not the case at all under WTO regime. Now, the foreign universities are coming under global trade agreement to make profits. Again, under this agreement, it is not a must that only well-established and prestigious foreign universities come here and provide comparable education and research facilities. Any provider can establish a new sub-standard university in the country of origin and then establish a branch here. A report of a survey by a task force jointly appointed by World Bank and UNESCO in 2000 on foreign educational providers is on record stating that even ‘Renowned Universities of Developed Countries established low standard branches in backward countries’. Alarmingly, Government of India, in its ‘offers’ has assured full national treatment to foreign providers and this would lead to providing equal rights and privileges to foreign providers on par with domestic institutions and siphoning of assets and funds to them.

Domestic Regulation: Accredited bodies formed under the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM), one of the legal instruments under WTO, would annually review the trade policies of different member countries and ‘suggest’ measures to change their respective policies. This regulation of domestic policies by WTO bodies will prove to be an outright infringement on freedom and sovereignty of the nations, more particularly of the developing and the ‘least developed’ ones, in formulation of their respective public policies. The TPRM personnel with full authority would meet the ministers and secretaries of the HRD Ministry on yearly basis and assess the implementation of the so-called reforms agenda in education. The HRD Minister would be more accountable to TPRM personnel than to the people of India! The HRD Ministry in UPA regime introduced six Higher Education Bills in the Parliament to change the domestic regulations in conformity with WTO demands. Though all the Bills now got lapsed, there is every possibility that the present BJP lead NDA regime will introduce their equivalent ones and try to pass them. In fact, the imposition of Choice Based Credit System in Delhi University and other universities as well as the proposed Common Universities Act are steps taken by present NDA government to make way for WTO agenda in higher education.

Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRAs): In recent times, Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRAs) have been established in many service sectors like power, water, insurance, tele-communication and other services. Establishment of such IRAs can only be understood as a compliance of the ‘Additional Commitments’ provision under GATS.  An IRA in higher education, like the already established IRAs in different services, would be ‘independent’ of public pressure and free to ‘regulate’ the sector in favor of domestic and foreign capital. The previous UPA government’s reform Bill to establish the NCHER may have lapsed along with its other higher education reform Bills, but the present BJP-led government has already announced its commitment to establish a similar body in its Election Manifesto (2014). Already a committee formed by HRD Ministry under the new dispensation has recommended dissolving the UGC and its replacement by a new body ‘National Higher Education Authority’. Such a body if formed would be an ‘Independent Regulatory Authority’ in higher education as sought by additional commitments under GATS.

Call of the Hour: WTO-GATS regime reduces education into a commodity and turns the student into a consumer in clear legal terms. By turning education into a tradable commodity, it would also abandon the role of education as an enlightening, empowering and transforming process required to develop social individuals imbued with self-dignity, and citizens inspired by the constitutional values of democracy, plurality, social justice, secularism and socialism so that they are able to protect the independence and sovereignty of the nation. Education-loving people cannot remain silent at this critical juncture. AIFRTE appeals to all pro-people organizations, activists, intellectuals, teachers, students and all sections of the struggling masses to join hands for a resolute struggle against this neoliberal assault on our education system and demand immediate withdrawal of the ‘offers’ given to WTO-GATS in Higher Education as they would become an irrevocable commitment of bondage for the nation and people!

With Greetings                                                               

All India Forum for Right To Education