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.