Why higher education in India must not bow to the market

Written by Madhu Prasad | Published on: December 14, 2015
Murli Manohar Joshi stated that those who were able to enhance their individual market value by accessing higher education should be prepared to pay their own way and not expect government to fund it. Limited scholarships and liberal loans could be provided for the less well endowed. In 2000, the University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairperson Prof. Nigvekar presented the position paper, “Trade in Higher Education: Impact of GATS on higher education, research and knowledge system in selected contexts in Asia and the Pacific region”, at UNESCO’s second regional meeting. According to the UGC website, he declared that knowledge had become a “tradable commodity” and that there was “little if any empirical evidence that GATS and the trade in education service per se is compromising national systems of higher education.” The Ambani-Birla Report[6] was released the same year. With its companion Model Act 2003 prepared by the UGC, it was a blueprint for restructuring higher education on the model of market-oriented enterprises promoting corporate values. Its agenda had to be shelved because of strong opposition from teachers and students organizations. However, its principal recommendations continue to provide the framework of `reforms’ for restructuring higher education.

Although a new government with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister took office in 2004 and higher education was now termed a “merit 2 good”, which could receive limited subsidies, the pace for trade in higher education was accelerated. In 2006 the Commerce Ministry under P. Chidambaram issued a circular that higher education as a “tradable service” under GATS would benefit students who spend large amounts of money for a foreign-based education if foreign universities were permitted to open campuses and offer courses in India. The country it was argued would also save large foreign exchange outflows. However, this position was dangerously simplistic even when viewed from a purely commercial angle.

A country’s degree of development is strongly related to the establishment of commitments on liberalisation in education. The three leading higher education liberalisers (Australia, United States and New Zealand) are all net exporters. Developing countries on the other hand are almost all net importers of higher education. Coming under GATS will have the effect of imposing one model of education — private, commercial and import-oriented — on developing countries. Secondly, not only would educational institutions in these countries face great difficulties in gaining access to global educational markets, but trade liberalisation would also weaken their own national systems within the country due to foreign competition. Additionally, trade liberalisation as envisaged in GATS would introduce considerable complexity and limitations in domestic regulation and financing of educational systems, which would immediately effect national/local authority and negatively impact educational access. Interestingly, GATS Mode 4 (presence of natural persons across borders) is the only mode for which the developed countries are less "open to trade" than the rest. The claim here is that this would be incompatible with their immigration policies. In contrast, developing countries want to see advances in this mode, as their comparative advantage in the trade in services lies mainly in the export of "human resources". Specifically, developing countries like India see this trade mode as being an important source of income received through monetary transfers made by their workers abroad.

It is significant that, contrary to common belief, quality suffers as a result of liberalisation. Developing countries usually lack suitable infrastructural, legal and technical mechanisms to evaluate the quality of private international (or domestic) higher education services. Internationalisation of education in many developing countries has led to the multiplication of ‘diploma-mills’ or "garage-universities", terms that indicate the low quality of education provided. The Task Force 2000 report of the World Bank and UNESCO pointed out that even prestigious universities set up sub-standard centres in less developed countries. Finally, GATS commitments would accentuate the brain drain problem, which afflicts countries of the periphery rather than developed metropolitan centres.

However, during the past decade, measures have been rapidly undertaken to commercialise the higher education sector in India and create conditions favourable for making the transition to the WTO-GATS regime. The seven higher education Reform Bills, which have been brought before Parliament from 2010 onwards,