Free market encourages the maximum growth of ‘skilled education’ (management, technology and so on), trying to bind both natural science and social sciences. Since the free market is driven by technology, it binds the natural sciences quite effortlessly.
It also tries to bind social sciences that form the basis to formulate policies for the market to grow. However, the free market succeeds in this only partially (like human resource management, development studies). It is challenging because social sciences cannot be bound by established wisdom - they are about ideas, and explore the possibilities beyond the establishment.
It is here that one must acknowledge the critical role of social sciences to keep a check on the market that runs by the technocratic rationality of maximizing the profit.
Why we need independent social sciences
One might be bound by the market, or, as a management graduate, be tasked with maximizing profit at all costs. However, as an individual, they would still care about the sensibilities in life: a sense of peace, family well being, the food that they eat, and the air that they breathe. They might not want to support a fascist political regime, global terrorism, everyday violence, gender discrimination, environmentally disruptive development projects... Social sciences need to exist independently to attend to these challenges.
When social sciences get increasingly pulled under private education, the fees would be charged equivalent to that of a technical course. This leads to a cycle where graduates are required to find a job in the labour market to pay back education loans, for instance. The supply and demand of the graduates into the neo-liberal markets will hegemonise the structure, and the academic discourses will increasingly be shaped to facilitate neo-liberal policies.
Though this transition is being strategised in India, it is already in practice in the west. Several disciplines in the west, like development studies, behavioural sciences, and cultural studies, are majorly funded by the corporate foundations. This closes the gates to such education for the poor. The dominance of the privileged in these discourses will impoverish the subaltern perspective.
To understand the very critical nature of non-technical institutes like JNU, we must look at the position of higher education in post-independence India.
India as an underdeveloped country in the trajectory proposed by the west, had invested majorly in the applied sciences like engineering and management than in natural sciences and social sciences. IITs and IIMs were set up to give subsidised education to a demographic majorly comprised of the rich and the middle class who had the accessibility to higher education.
However, social science had its representation both from a minor segment of high elite as well as the poor. Non-technical public universities, including JNU, naturally had the tendency to draw people from the poor and marginalised sections that allowed them to develop a critical discourse, owing to their lived experiences of disadvantaged positions in society. This is also one important reason why JNU fittingly remains a prime critic of governments and neo-liberal policies.
How finance and skill scarcity structure the fee
To understand the big picture, we must understand the role of finance in privatised education. In India, student loans haven’t been as much of a problem compared to countries like the US owing to a history of public education. IITs, IIMs started off providing subsidised education, and still do, except for a few IIMs, thanks to the standard set by the prevalence of public education in India.
In a market-driven education system, scarcity of technical skills in the market is what majorly determines fee structures. A private institution can charge you any amount of fee if it can get you a job with an equivalent pay/return on investment (ROI). Free market works by perpetually pushing the bounds of technology; and so, technical skills always have to remain scarce for the free market to grow.
Top-tier institutes set fee standards for other institutes to follow, and this margin keeps increasing with the increase in technical skills. Once education is bound by the business of private financing, numerous private institutions bloom whose fee would be much higher than what market could offer as the pay. Finance thrives with loans that last long.
As there is more labour being supplied for a once scarce skill, the pay package for it decreases. The consequent demand for a newer skill is created for the minuscule few to tap. Thus, even as the graduate/labour supply increases, the net salary circulation in the market remains essentially the same. Nevertheless, the newer skill demand and its pay would perpetually increase and the finance’s profit would skyrocket.
Thus, in essence, all the students will be expected to crack the average ROI, which, in practice, is reserved only for a few. The utopian situation that every private university will provide quality education that would equip students with required skills would never occur as it would doom the growth of finance.
Though the debt situation might affect graduates from all the institutes, many graduates from top-tier institutes are from elite/upper-middle class and mostly have access to credit. However, most of the middle class students will be pushed into debt, whereas the poor could only dream of accessing skilled education in a privatised education setup.
The India that we don't want
Though the growth of private universities will bring in a lot of MNCs and create job opportunities, one has to be cautious about the notion of private/global capital. Government policies (such as visa policy, reservation policy) will find it increasing difficult to deal with market forces, and most times, wouldn’t stand the chance to resist the global capital force.
Private universities might increasingly attract foreign students and the global capital will invariably attract cheaper/skilled labor from abroad to the country; in India’s case, we’re already facing a huge employment crisis. Any sort of reservation based on ethical or social justice will find it difficult to find a place in marketised education, except for the classical free market strategy to extend a few scholarships to marginalised sections to justify exploitation. Furthermore, the free market will legitimise the state of life of the poor, and argue that there is a fair way to rise and compete regardless of the actually unfair educational opportunities.
If private education takes hold, and as pay standards rise, mass consumption increases and consumption culture increases the cost of living. With a market facilitated mass consumption, profit will be made from every aspect of life, resulting in a wide and insurmountable cultural and economic divide.
Free market will perpetually try to eliminate poor from competing in the market. The privileged will invariably try to reproduce the status-quo by their access to education and job, which is favoured by the market too, studies on recruitment, work ethics and work culture have shown. Privatisation of education will remain a systematic strategy to eliminate poor from competing in the labour market.
Even though the skilled and technical institutes like IITs and IIMs provide subsidised education, a great deal of the opinion of the students tend to fall against the subsidy. This is because their job opportunities are directly linked with the neo-liberal market, especially the likes of finance sector. But looking at a larger picture, it is imperative for us to acknowledge that India needs to remain the place of irony where people getting subsidy might talk against subsidy, but education still needs to remain public.
Aravindan Ravichandran is a Masters student of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are the author’s own.