Another 17 year-old student, Nandini, studying in a private college has committed suicide on September 13. This is already the fourth suicide/death in a span of four weeks of youngsters studying in commercial educational institutions.
One of the most important interventions of the Central government that can actually make this situation far worse is scheduled to occur in Nairobi, Kenya, between December 15 and 18 this year, at the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) negotiations. The Indian government in 2005 under the UPA already ‚Äėproposed‚Äô to open up the education sector, and the present government may sign to take the commitment through to open up Indian education services across the board to the foreign players.
Such a commitment will imply unlimited access to the Indian ‚Äėeducation market‚Äô, loss of regulatory autonomy both by way of costs and more importantly local needs. Indian families will pay to enrich outside players and the state will be compelled to allow repatriation of profits. The comprador class in the Indian bureaucracy and politics will enrich themselves and leave the field to be plundered. They will have even more justification for the state to withdraw from its primary responsibility to provide quality education to its people.
Signs of such a possibility are already in evidence. In a specious argument, the ‚ÄėConsultation Paper on Higher Education in India and GATS: An Opportunity‚Äô put out by the Human Resource Development Ministry in 2006 says that ‚Äúeducation is generally considered more a merit good rather than a public good. However, this is based on the assumption that the government steps in to provide education services because it is ‚Äėgood‚Äô for society. If this assumption is relaxed, education could as easily be considered a private good, which is excludable and rivalrous. Indeed, higher education does display many characteristics of private goods in a number of countries.‚ÄĚ It does not explain why such a ‚Äėrelaxation‚Äô is required to make higher education ‚Äėexcludable and rivalrous.‚Äô
In whose interests?
The education market is believed to be worth over 2.3 trillion dollars across the world with the USA, the UK and Australia among others being major suppliers. Such moves, however, are not accepted. Latin American university associations and an association of 5000 universities in Europe have already either opposed or asked for a freeze on the idea of including trade in education services in the GATS.
The American and the British people who have been victims of privatised education systems that trap them into life-long debt if they seek university education are showing overwhelming support to the politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn who are promising free education as a democratic right.
The commercialisation witnessed in India has already converted education into a commodity that makes money for the seller but dehumanises the buyer. Apart from the dubious practices of fixing exams and results, lack of basic labs, these institutions have no time for extra and co-curricular activities. An entire generation has also missed out on acquiring language skills and exposure to social sciences, both of which are the keys to good education.
In combined Andhra Pradesh, commercial private enterprise entered Intermediate education in the early 1980s. The Narayana and Chaitanya groups were established on an aggressively commercial basis to train students to ‚Äúcrack‚ÄĚ IIT, EAMCET, NIT and AIEEE examinations. Many others joined in. With the shift towards vocationalisation and technical education under the Telugu Desam rule, there was a phenomenal growth of coaching centres for IITs, which later transformed themselves into intermediate colleges. This was followed by rapid increase in the number of commercial engineering colleges.
The loud advertising campaigns run by these colleges, the manner in which they chase, snare and prey on families till they wean entire communities from state-run educational institutions is a story often repeated. Distressingly, parents have bought into this system and are also complicit in the illegitimate practices of the colleges in some cases.
The economic crisis in rural communities made people realise the value of education as a liberating force. But when the communities began to look for education, there is a commercial wasteland awaiting them, killing their children slowly.
In the earlier three cases the students decided to end their lives unable to bear the harassment for fees from the college managements. Nandini did not leave any statement but reports say that her father has passed away and mother works as a nurse. Economic hardship cannot be ruled out as one of the causes for her death.
The pride India takes internationally about its educated class was possible because of premier institutions in the state sector like the IIMs, the IITs, medical colleges and the outstanding not-for-profit educational institutions that were run by committed educationists. The state-run schools were available to everyone, where all classes of children could get similar education. An egalitarian spirit prevailed where childhood camaraderie was possible cutting across class and caste.
Instead of correcting the shortcomings of the system and strengthening existing infrastructure, by prolonged neglect and mismanagement, the state-run systems were allowed to stagnate. Yashpal committee in 2009 lamented, ‚Äú‚Ä¶ character of our education has restrained and restricted our young right from the school age and continues that way into college and university stages. Most instrumentalities of our education harm the potential of human mind for constructing and creating new knowledge. We have emphasized delivery of information and rewarded capability of storing information. This does not help in creating a knowledge society.‚ÄĚ
The private education system when it entered the scene, instead of striving towards rectifying the problems, aggravated the rote based system aimed at acing the competitive entrance tests that led to further degradation of learning abilities.
The current callous neglect of higher education system by the state will deprive India‚Äôs vast rural and suburban communities access to higher learning. The demographic dividend that can be a blessing if the people‚Äôs educational aspirations are fulfilled, can turn into a nightmare if it fails. India must refrain from committing higher education services to international trade.