There are many ways to look at the function of higher education in society. One way to think of higher education is to see it as an asset that can be created, as a potential investment, as a market, as a “sector”, as a corridor for the circulation of global power, even as we talk about nations as deceptive units of measurement within this paradigm. Another way is to see it as a human right, independent of limiting market considerations, as principally inclusive, for the public good, and as the urgently necessary wrecking ball to take down entrenched social divisions, not just within nations, but globally. Kaushik Basu’s view of higher education belongs to the former school of thought (‘A Higher Opportunity’, IE, September 15, 2017).
Advocates of neoliberal economics believe that education needs to primarily be a handmaiden of economic power on the global stage, urging therefore that those branches of education that prove themselves to be economically viable need to be given precedence above all others. In this framework, stocktaking of available strengths becomes essential. One such strength, according to Basu, is the fact that while being colonised may have been terrible for us, we were still mercifully left with the useful old English language. This, and the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru set up IITs, IIMs, and “some fine universities” has led to 1.4 per cent of students participating in Study Abroad programmes out of US universities to choose India as their destination. Fewer than 5,000 students choosing India as a study abroad destination is for Basu good enough reason to “create room for private universities and institutes to flourish” so that “India can become a destination for students from around the world”.
First, in Basu’s own terms, this cannot be sound economics, unless of course endeavours such as these can be funded by private parties, extracting huge profits from those who wish to enrol. Second, our universities have, for decades, welcomed students from all over, but particularly from the global South. These students chose India precisely because solid education was also affordable and accessible because it was supported by the state. This is not the kind of “hub” that Basu argues for. Also, we need no reminding that only a very small section of Indian society has English, it is a marker of both class and caste. Speaking of it in terms of a “strength” is disingenuous.
Basu does indeed go on to say that private firms will invest and that they should be given flexibility on tuition fees and salaries offered to academics to attract the “the best professors”. He tells us that many universities in the US charge upwards of $60,000 as tuition fees, so private universities in India could easily go as low as $20,000 (Rs 12,81,000) “and still make a profit”. Really, who is this education for? For students in the English-speaking global north who don’t make it to universities there, but would still like an education?
A big advantage in the education scenario being annexed by private firms is the government needs to do no more than create an enabling environment, so that the return on this “investment will be enormous”, Basu says. It is not clear how these returns on investment made by private firms in commercially viable areas in education will accrue to the state.
In recent years, not only have successive governments in India slashed funding for higher education even as numbers of those who aspire for and enrol has grown exponentially. They have relentlessly pushed the idea of education for profit, paving the way for the retreat of state responsibility at a historical moment when the question of access to education needs far greater attention. In view of students across the country calling for solid and affordable education, institutions of higher learning, some of which rank at the top in the country’s own ranking systems, are being dismantled, bit by bit, both internally and through whipping up of public sentiment against particular universities as being contrary to national interest. These are the very universities that have consistently produced impeccable scholarship that has upheld the principles of equality in society as an objective for the state to uphold. This is not a paradox. The destruction of existing state-funded institutions while publicly arguing for foreign universities is part of the same project that sees education not as a basic human need and right, but as yet another thing to extract profit from, which then circulates only in the hands of a few.
When students across the world are fighting for affordable education, recommending that profit motives eviscerate the noble ideal of education for all is a sign of cultural and political blindness. We need to give hope in education a chance if we want to live in a more equal society where citizens’ human rights are guaranteed.
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