A neoliberal attack on India's schools

Nisha Thapliyal describes the drive toward privatization of higher education in India.

IN THE current climate, with the direction of higher education in India being hotly contested, a university official might be heard saying the following:

Welcome to the Tweeds Cosmopolitan University, India! You will have the privilege of studying at the first "offshore" foreign university in India and save 70 percent of what you would spend for the same degree in the UK (approximate tuition $1,600 per semester). Throw in another $3,679 and you can even spend a semester on our UK campus. The campus is spread over 30 lush green acres and surrounded by 1,400 acres of otherwise protected national forest land. Opt for undergraduate or graduate degrees in Business Management, Marketing, Hospitality and Image Management. Our campus was inaugurated by former and current state chief ministers and continues to be generously supported by the authorities. Our entrepreneurial partners own one of the largest media groups in India.

A small temporary hitch--our degrees are currently not recognized by the University Grants Commission of India. And, oh yes, some of our students have begun to sue us. As we said, it's "temporary"...just watch the Indian parliament!

It is difficult to gauge whether "Tweeds Cosmo" (name changed) is the rottenest apple in the barrel--only because the lack of regulation prevents us knowing how many rotten apples there are. What is without doubt is that a great deal of money has already been made by a convenient nexus of businessmen, politicians and, of course, the foreign universities concerned. Students craving the newest "hot" degrees ("Image Management" being the hottest at the moment) have yet again been fooled and defrauded.

Such higher education scams, of course, were perfected in the 1990s with the proliferation of for-profit unaccredited medical and engineering colleges.

It is in this milieu that the Honorable Minister of Human Resource Development (formerly the Ministry of Education) Kapil Sibal introduced six bills for higher education reform in the monsoon session of parliament this year. Drafted with minimal consultation with civil society, the six bills will, in effect, reduce higher education to a status of tradable commodity which can be sold to those with higher purchasing power.

More specifically, the bills propose to:

-- Restructure (or just plainly and simply deregulate) higher education regulations and accreditation along lines promoted by the World Trade Organization to facilitate higher education "entrepreneurs" (both foreign and domestic);

-- Deprive students of the right to unionize and the right to resort to the court system for redress of grievances;

--Generally trivialize knowledge and the profession of university teaching

Not one of these bills intends to strengthen public higher education, which has been neglected for three decades.

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FACED WITH staunch opposition from a few political parties (including the Communist Party of India-Marxist), as well as civil society (such as the All India Forum for the Right to Education), the minister has been unable to get the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill in Parliament.

It was an unfortunate development for his plans to announce that Indian higher education had "opened up" during recent Indo-U.S. strategic dialogues in Washington, D.C. So instead, he instructed the central regulatory body--the University Grants Commission--to explore possibilities within existing laws to permit foreign institutions to enter, as well as to facilitate, "twinning programs" and the granting of joint degrees--presumably such as those pioneered by Tweeds Cosmo.

The Honorable Minister then poured his considerable image management skills into trying to "sell" India as a desirable destination for foreign direct investment during interactions at the Carnegie Endowment and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and at a luncheon hosted by the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

His latest pitch: Indian higher education in the 21st century will be driven by "cyber-universities" or "multiple universities coming together in cyberspace to grant a single degree, saving students enormous costs by substituting physical attendance on college premises with distance learning via the Internet," according to The Hindu.

In closing, when we talk about higher education in India today, we may only be talking about 18 percent of the population. Access to quality higher education is still largely a function of gender, class, caste, religion and other historical markers of social privilege and power.

However, the small window for equitable opportunity afforded by public universities with policies (including tuition subsidies, low-cost or free boarding and lodging, and reservations for scheduled castes and tribes) is likely to disappear if the masters of liberalization have their way.