The cancellation of non-NET fellowships is just a curtain raiser. Enormous fee hikes, unexplained subsidy cuts and eternal fund crunches may become the norm in higher education if the Modi government has its way in the WTO conference

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Among its many obsessions ranging from people’s culinary habits to tireless publicity-oriented globe trotting, the incumbent government invests its interests in another favourite subject — education. Be it the nomination of Gajendra Chauhan as the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) chairman or the inclusion of RSS  sympathisers in the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), each time the Modi government attempts to carry out ‘reforms’ in education, it stirs up a controversy.

Recently, in an inexplicable move, the government decided to scrap fellowship for non-net (National Eligibility Test) scholars. The move has met with widespread protest and hundreds of students are demonstrating in front of the UGC office in New Delhi. The ongoing student protest poses a question about the future of education in India. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg if we look at what is likely to come our way with regard to reforms in education.

On 15 December, the fate of Indian education will be decided at a World Trade organisation (WTO) conference in Nairobi. If the government commits to the WTO clauses in the conference for higher education, it would mean that Indian education system will become a free market commodity. Education is one sector out of 12, which will be included in the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which is a set of rules covering international trade in services. So far only 43 out of 160 countries have accepted the binding conditions of gats on education.

Presently, the Indian government is obliged to provide subsidised education to its citizens. However, once education becomes a foreign investment avenue after the WTO-GATS agreement, it will be beyond the government’s control. The WTO clauses on higher education will open the doors for foreign universities to invest in commercial educational ventures in India. Once large scale foreign investment in the sector becomes a reality, the funding for government aided institutions will also dry up. In such a scenario students will be left with only two options: either incur heavy costs for pursuing higher education or give up such dreams altogether.

Till now, the government of India has maintained complete opacity on the WTO-GATS agreement on higher education. It has hardly been publicised, perhaps because the government is itself aware of its glaring loopholes. A look at the consultation paper on WTO-GATS prepared by the Trade Policy Division of the Department of Commerce identifies these commitments as opportunities. It says that higher education in India is a ‘billion dollar industry’ which shows rapid growth and if this opportunity is clinched well, it will not only reduce the government’s pressure of creating infrastructure but the entry of foreign players will also reduce expenditure on education.

It further says that higher education in India benefits individuals, particularly the rich, more than the society as a whole and hence “spending on higher education should be discouraged”. Also, since higher education has ‘low price elasticity’, cost recovery through higher fees will not reduce enrolments.”

It is likely that gats may force the government to maintain a policy of ‘nondiscrimination’ and the ‘creation of a level playing field’ for foreign universities and institutions, which will be acting in the capacity of service providers. The policy of non-discrimination means that the government will have to treat all foreign providers at par with domestic private providers. This translates to equal patronage to foreign providers in terms of privileges or subsidies with respect to land, roads, tax exemption, etc. This would affect the funding of public universities too.

According to the prevailing norms of the WTO-GATS, unless government colleges are not charging any fees whatsoever, they will be deemed as private players. This is of course highly impractical since government institutes need to charge a nominal subsidised fee for their day to day working. In such a scenario, the government will be left with two options provide similar subsidies to all foreign providers or revoke them altogether. In any case, it will be a win-win situation for foreign investors while public institutions will have to bear the brunt.

The All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), which is a prominent voice against the government’s decision to accept the WTO diktat, feels that the government is going ahead with the agreement stealthily. Anil Sadgopal of the aifrte is outrightly critical of the idea. “Yes, only corporate and foreign service providers need level playing ground. It is not for the common people of the country,” he says sarcastically.

Target: the university Instead of raising the standards of education, an apathetic decision-making body is hell-bent on choking research. Photo: Vijay Pandey

Government colleges are already struggling with lack of funds, if a new stakeholder enters, they will be starved. In such a scenario, colleges will be asked to become self-sustainable, as recommended in the Department of Commerce’s consultation paper. This automatically means fee hike, which works in favour of foreign providers as the biggest challenge that they face in the Indian market is options of affordable higher education at government aided colleges.

The idea that the taxpayers’ money will be spent on foreign profit making institutions is ridiculous. However, it may well become a reality in the near future. The only consequence of this sort of educational development will be that the underprivileged and those who need government assistance will be left with none and those who don’t will have surplus, thereby exponentially increasing disparity.

Also, if funds are discontinued, government colleges will be forced to rely heavily on self-financing courses, again which would ultimately create a “level playing field” for the foreign providers. The All India Students’ Association (AISA), one of the prominent voices of the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement, released a statement recently saying that the WTO is a body that represents and fosters the interests of the richest businessmen whose capital has been in crisis for a decade now. “For a young developing country like India, affordable and quality higher education for youth is indispensable. We must understand that education is not a luxury and hence it must be available to the poorest citizen,” says Sucheta De, national president, AISA. “But this agreement will be a death knell to such a vision.”

The intentions of the Modi-led government regarding the education policy have been clear since the announcement of the general budget this year. The ruling government reduced the budgetary allocation by eight percent in higher education. Also, India’s gdp expenditure on education is just above three percent, which is much lower than the global average.

Interestingly, the coming of foreign universities is not an assurance of any quality education either. Ritika Khurana, visiting faculty at Narsee Monjee College of Commerce, Mumbai has written a paper for the International Research Journal of Social Sciences in which she has analysed the mechanism. Her paper argues, “It is conjectured that free market mechanisms in education would open up opportunities for students.

However, the data collected presents a somewhat contradictory picture. As pointed by Maheshwari (2003), of the 1,780 American universities, only 50 are marketing themselves in India and of these only eight features in the top 10 in their respective categories in their own country.” Furthermore, according to the aifrte, the World Bank survey tears down the claims of quality education under the gats regime. It says, “The World Bank in 2000, on foreign educational providers, is on record stating that ‘wellknown universities of developed countries established low standard branches in backward countries.’”

Under the light of such statistics, the situation becomes more alarming as these providers will not be under any regulatory authority like the UGC. Jane Knight, a researcher from the University of Toronto points out in her report that dispute settlement is an ‘ unconditional obligation’ under GATS. This means that Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRA) will be established in education as well. IRAs are typically established to keep the government away from decision- making so that any objection from the public can be ignored. Policymaker and entrepreneur Sam Pitroda and scientist and educationist Yash Pal suggested the formation of an ira for higher education in their respective reports in 2006 and 2008.

Furthermore, prevailing terms and conditions entail that the Ministry of Human Resource and Development will have to meet the representative body from WTO annually under the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM) which will ‘suggest’ the countries to change their respective policies.

Rajan Gurukkal, eminent historian and former vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam believes that it is about the dominance by the developed nations over new knowledge markets. “The corporate houses want to tap the knowledge market in the developing countries,” says Gurukkal. One cannot indeed ignore the imperialistic character of GATS.

Amidst all this, the government had maintained a comfortable silence on nonnet fellowship and succeeded in not divulging any information about its GATS agenda either. “Non-NET fellowship is just the beginning of what is to come,” says Sadgopal. “They will soon start revoking other benefits like stipends. India has clearly joined the league of capitalist powers and will soon do away with subsidies as they have already started to do in the agriculture sector.”