Why higher education in India must not bow to the market

Written by Madhu Prasad | Published on: December 14, 2015

Knowledge as Trade: Higher Education and WTO-GATS Regime

Today India’s higher education sector is faced with a serious threat. Instead of fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide free and compulsory school education of quality to all children and take steps to expand and democratise higher education, the state is retreating from its responsibility. In August 2005, the Government of India (GOI) made an `offer’ to provide Market Access to higher education as a `tradable service’ under the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS). This offer was made in spite of the conclave of state education ministers having warned against the move in January 2005, citing fears of conflict with national values and goals. If the offer is not withdrawn before the conclusion of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of the Doha Round being held from December 15- 18, 2015 at Nairobi, Kenya, it will become a commitment in perpetuity.

GATS was founded in 1995 to extend the reach of the WTO to `services’ including essential services like education, health, water etc. Education International, a global union federation representing nearly 30 million teachers and education workers worldwide, was explicit in its opposition and had called upon the WTO’s 7th Ministerial Conference “to affirm that education and other public services are basic human rights. Education must not be treated as a commodity [. . .]. GATS is a commercial agreement with the aim of expanding business opportunities for investors. By contrast, the goal of education is to serve the public interest: education advances human understanding, preserves and promotes cultures, and strengthens civil society and democratic institutions.”[1]

In order to mount a strong resistance and compel GOI to withdraw the ill-conceived offer of higher education to the WTO-GATS, we need to understand why the government made its offer in the first place and why successive regimes led by different political parties have not withdrawn it over the last ten years.

The higher education sector in India is quantitatively the third largest in the world, after the United States and China, with over 700 universities, more than 37,000 colleges, over 1.3 million teachers and 30 million students. However, India has the lowest percentage of the relevant age group accessing postsecondary education among the "emerging" and many developing economies. As India boasts one of the highest percentages of young people as a proportion of the country's total population, Its low Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 19.4% gives an idea of the sheer numbers of those unable to enter institutions of higher education and highlights the gigantic steps that need to be taken if the country is to enlarge its GER) beyond the current level.

Qualitatively, the higher education sector faces an even bigger crisis. Even if one does not give much credence to the current fashion for bemoaning the absence of any Indian institutions in the global top 200 rankings, the problem is evident. As far back as the late 1960’s, it was recognised[2] that postsecondary institutions were neither growing rapidly enough to cope with the increased pressure for admissions, nor being adequately funded to allow for academic innovations and advances. A 1984 study[3] had established that whereas student intake had been increasing annually by 9% for close to half a century, funding went up by a mere 2%. When inflation was factored in, there was actually a decline of 2.9%. Falling standards and low academic attainments were inevitable, as the issue remained unaddressed over decades. Failure to appoint permanent faculty — contractual appointments currently average more than40% — is making student-teacher ratios academically non-viable. Infrastructural facilities, including adequate provision for libraries, laboratories and residential accommodation, have been consistently low and hence the failure to develop research abilities among students and sustain or evolve proper evaluation procedures and standards is not surprising. Less than 1% of those in higher education opt for research, as grants and fellowships are not provided for and are in fact being further cut (the latest is the threat of discontinuation of non-NET research fellowships). Barring some select universities, and a few elite `centres of excellence’, the higher education system