WTO @ Nairobi: Portents of an Apocalypse
In the forthcoming 10th ministerial meeting of WTO at Nairobi, Kenya from 15-18 December the public discourse on higher education about its being public/merit/private good and the covert/overt preparation of the government over the last two decades to withdraw from higher education will finally come to an end. The conclusion of the current Doha Round Negotiations, which started in 2001 but could not be completed because of the concerted resistance of the least developed and developing countries, has been planned in this meeting. A special meeting of the General Council of WTO was held in November 2014 at Geneva, which decided upon the process of suppression of resistance and finalized the 'work programme' to conclude the negotiations in Nairobi. Once done, it will have ruinous consequences for the people of poor countries as variety of goods and services would suddenly be pushed beyond their reach.
For India, it is not going to be any less severe. Its offer of higher education made in August 2005 at Hong Kong will become an irrevocable commitment once the Doha round is concluded. While this offer was made by the Congress-led UPA government, the current BJP-led NDA will pride on its consummation, once more exposing the essential anti-people character of these parties. The implications of this imminent disaster has yet not dawned on people commensurately despite a countrywide agitation has been afoot under the aegis of the All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), a federated body of hundreds of organizations and activists in the country, floated in 2009 to demand free and equitable education to all from KG to PG.
The protagonists of marketization of higher education confuse people saying that higher education is not a public good. Public good in economics is narrowly determined on dual criteria: non-rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning one person's use of the good does not diminish another person's use of it and no person can be prevented from using the good, respectively. It is this dual nature of public goods that makes them unsuitable for market in satisfying their demand. And therefore, they are supposed to be provided by non-profit organization and government. Classically, lighthouses and national defence exemplify the public goods in economics book. However, economics also notes that such examples are scarce in practice and most goods fulfill one criterion or the other, or sometimes are public goods and sometimes are not, varying with their different modes. Often it is the public perspective that makes a good public or private. It provides an example of an official portrait of Henry VIII in the National Portrait Gallery in London as a public good, but the painting of Mona Lisa in the Louvre as not. As we see, many a good that were classically considered public good, such as public roads, have been deftly turned into private good and are brought in the realm of market as toll roads in recent times.
Why speak about higher education, even the elementary education and primary health services can be termed as private goods with this argument. It is a pure neoliberal ploy to commoditize everything, including water and air, to be marketed for profits. In the public perspective education in general and higher education in particular fulfils four major functions: the development of new knowledge (the research function), the training of highly qualified personnel (the teaching function), the provision of services to society (the service function), and social criticism (the ethical function). If we consider each of these functions, from even the economic criteria of non-rivalrous and non-excludability, the higher education will heavily lean towards being a public good than private good. For instance, the new knowledge is built upon the old knowledge; Einstein's theories would not be possible without the Newtonian base. The motivational argument given for restricting research as private good through Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) by the neoliberalists is myopic. In the long run, the non-generation of theoretical knowledge or its confinement to elite networks through artificial devices like IPR or other WTO mechanisms is bound to adversely affect the pace of new knowledge production and thereby human future.
Then there is a perennial argument that came from Macaulay's times about the lack of resources for education. The National Knowledge Commission has predicted that India needs an investment of about $ 190 billion to achieve the target of 30 per cent Gross Enrolment Ration (GER) in higher education by 2020 and expectedly advised to meet it through FDI as the government lacked resources. For just one year, 2012-13, the tax revenue foregone by the government to companies worked out to Rs. 5,73,627 crores (in excess of $ 100 billion by then exchange rate). Government has been gifting such amounts every year to corporate sector, the sum of which even for a few years would be in multiples of this requirement!
Huge profit potential
These arguments are just a cover for the naked interests of the global capital in the largest market of higher education in the world with over 234 million individuals in the 15-24 age groups, equal to the US population (FICCI, 2011). This market of over $ 65 billion a year, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 18%, comprises 59.7% of the largely price-inelastic education market. It is rightly considered as the 'sunrise sector' for investment. India's online education market alone, in which the US has evinced huge interests, itself is expected to touch $ 40 billion by 2017. An RNCOS (a market research firm) report titled, 'Booming Distance Education Market Outlook 2018' expects the distance education market in India to grow at a CAGR of around 34 per cent during 2013-14 to 2017-18.
The preparation for handing over this sector has been afoot right since 1986, when the New Education Policy allowed private investment into higher education, leading to mushrooming of private shops in the garb of educational institutes selling much demanded professional education. They have since grown into veritable empires. From 1991, after formally embracing neoliberal reforms, there were concerted attempts through committees after committee culminating into the Mukesh Ambani-Kumarmangalam Birla committee that created "A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education" in April 2000 to stress that higher education should be left to market forces. Although government has since scaled up self-financing through substantial raise in fees, it was not politically feasible to completely dismantle state financing of higher education. These moves, however, certainly prepared grounds for the offer of higher education to WTO in 2005.Thereafter, the erstwhile UPA II had tried to clear all hurdles in committing higher education to GATS through various (six) Bills including the Higher Education and Research Bill, which advocated complete abolition of UGC, MCI, AICTE, NCTE, BCI, etc. but failed to get them passed in Rajya Sabha. Then the government resorted to its pet ploy of bypassing parliament in launching a Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) in September 2013, to change the entire structure of higher education, undermining UGC and promoting public-private partnership (PPP). Choice Based Credit System, Common syllabus, etc. were some of the initiatives in the direction to facilitate prospective foreign players.
The successive governments adopted competitive strategy of improving statistics of higher education and in process winked at its rapidly falling standards. Even the few markers of quality education in India, IITs and IIMs, were not spared and were multiplied without consideration to their infrastructure and faculty. It certainly raised the GER to claimed 17-18% but still far below the world average of 26% and that for other emerging countries like China (26.70%), Brazil (36%), and Russia (76%). In the context of India's super power ambition, it is utterly dismal. This gap indicates huge investment and profit opportunity for the global capital.
One may cynically think, India is already one of the most privatized higher education countries in the world; 64% of all educational institutions being private. India already allows 100% FDI in education sector, the inflows already exceeding US$ 1,171.10 million from April 2000. Already, 631 foreign universities/institutions have been operating in the country mostly with a concept of 'twinning' (entering into joint ventures and academic collaboration with Indian universities) according to the Association of Indian Universities. Historically, higher education is starved of financial support; public expenditure on it being the lowest at $406 per student, less than even the developing countries like Malaysia ($11,790), Brazil ($3,986), Indonesia ($666) and the Philippines ($625). Qualitywise, higher education is nowhere; our best institutions also ranking beyond 240 in global rank. So, what more harm can there be if the higher education goes under GATS? The brief answer is that the awkward 'for profit' clause in the current policy would go away; all future policies of India in respect of higher education shall be annually reviewed by the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM), one of the legal instruments under WTO, and the changes suggested by it shall have to be abided by-- an outright infringement on freedom and sovereignty of India-- and of course, the reservations and other concessions in favour of the SCs and the OBCs, will go away. Higher education aimed at producing inert feed for corporate sector shall become a tradable service which will have to be bought by students as consumers.
Narendra Modi's claims of creating better opportunities for Indian youth gets thoroughly exposed when he is set out to shut them out permanently from the access to higher education at Nairobi following his predecessor. For the Congress it was expedient, for him it is ideological. The Brahmanical supremacist ideology of his Pariwar perfectly resonates with social Darwinist neoliberalism in dispossessing majority of people of whatever little they have and putting a handful of elites to lord over them. For those handfuls, GATS regime in higher education may still mean inexhaustible opportunity but for the multitude of masses it means the death knell. How on earth would they, who are supposed to be subsisting on Rs 20 a day, whose calorie intake has already dipped to worrisome level, who are in a state of permanent famine, afford the market price for higher education? It is just this week for them to thwart this sinister move of their imminent apocalypse.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai