It’s Not Wise to Trade in Higher Education

A clumsy commitment to GATS could be disastrous for India's long-term growth. The resultant marketisation would prioritise employability as the main criteria for the evaluation of an education.

Unknown to most people in the country, government servants speaking in measured tones will sit behind closed doors in Nairobi, Kenya for three days beginning December 15 and take steps to radically and permanently alter the face of the Indian higher education system. This would include removing barriers to setting up foreign universities in India, allowing foreign distance education and teacher exchange programs, lowering the barriers for foreign textbook and exam testing companies and, lurking behind all these individual proposals, the destruction of the very idea of public education itself.

The forum for these negotiations is the Tenth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation, a part of its ‘Doha Development Round’ of talks. The WTO’s official purpose is the regulation of international trade but it is frequently criticized for being a tool for the advancement of policies that favour rich nations.

In 2000, the WTO made the controversial decision to include education as one of the many services brought under the ambit of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS). GATS considers education a tradable commodity, essentially reducing it to the same level as services like banking. But unlike banking and other commercial services, education is seen the world over as as a right, and one which societies (and states) have a moral responsibility to guarantee. Some countries like Germany and Sweden have embraced this ethic and provide free public education for all citizens. Others like the United States trust in the market and have a highly competitive privatised higher education system that outranks, with some exceptions, the country’s public universities. While the US system has created some of the greatest universities in the world like Harvard and Stanford (with the aid of massive public funds), it has other, less appealing aspects. For example, the cumulative unpaid student debt in the United States is more than a trillion dollars.

India today finds itself at a crossroads between these two fundamentally different perspectives on education and it must make a choice.

Oh, the humanities

The possibility of a completely free, high quality public education system accessible to everyone in this country seems impossible to achieve at the moment, mainly due to the lack of political will. Thus, privatization in the field of education can be seen as a compromise for the sake of expedience. But letting this compromise become the basis of our new system would be an abdication by the state of its moral responsibility in guaranteeing the right to education to its people. How comfortable are we with abdicating the responsibility of our children’s education to the dictates of a rate of profit? In fact, how comfortable are with the compromises we have already made? Prof. Jandhyala B.G. Tilak, National University for Educational Planning and Administration, states in a UNESCO report that “the rules and procedures framed to regulate private institutions have actually helped the proliferation of cheap, poor quality, even dishonest and uncontrollable private institutions, which are crowding out the public institutions and the government is not able to do anything significant in this regard.”

A clumsy commitment on our part to GATS could be disastrous for the people and for the long-term growth of the country. The resultant marketisation would prioritise employability as the main criteria for the evaluation of an education, to the detriment of the liberal arts and basic sciences. The liberal arts have always been a favourite punching bag for those who confuse narrow-mindedness with enlightened pragmatism. Can we really afford to dismiss the role of literature and history, the opening of vistas of perspective, in creating a wise, critical and humane society? What will a country with no place for these disciplines look like? In her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, the eminent philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims “the future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance”.

The basic sciences are similarly essential but for completely different reasons. While engineering might be more marketable, study and research in the basic sciences are strategically vital to the interests of a developing country. Ignoring fundamental research is tantamount to entering into voluntary intellectual serfdom to the western world; the steady stream of royalty payments constraining our actions as firmly as iron chains. This may seem simplistic and provocative but royalty payments have been rapidly rising and the enforcement of intellectual property rights (including limiting generics of lifesaving drugs) has been an explicit aim of all multilateral trade agreements initiated by the WTO. Yanis Varoufakis, former Minister of Finance for the Syriza government in Greece, puts it bluntly when he says free trade agreements “are nothing to do with free trade. Everybody wants free trade. Who wants enslaved trade? … It’s about who owns the right to the idea that will give rise to the good.”

Foreign universities in India

The Indian government seems to have no inclination to heed these statements. It has made two ‘offers’ to the WTO with regard to higher education under GATS. The first was under the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and a second, revised one was made under Manmohan Singh when the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2005. In WTO-speak, an offer can be withdrawn. Commitments, on the other hand, are like embarrassing teenage memories – they stay with you forever. While theoretically reversible after three years, the difficulty and penalty involved makes them “virtually guaranteed conditions” in the words of Tilak. The full texts of these offers are available online and they make for bleak reading. Where they could’ve displayed a clear and sharp vision that hedged against all possible means of exploitation, the near total absence of negotiation is a clear sign of the lack of political will and interest in the area of higher education. The formulation of the New Education Policy by the current BJP government could’ve been a sign of hope if they hadn’t been preceded by actions like the cancellation of non-NET fellowships, cutting the funding of CSIR labs and IITs, the historical revisionism, the appointment of non-academics to academic posts, etc. Allowing foreign universities in India through GATS could be similarly misguided.

A 2007 World Bank report titled Trends in International Trade in Higher Education documents two of the main concerns. First, the negative effect on domestic public institutions, such as the poaching of highly-qualified staff. Second, the possible influx of low-quality foreign providers rather than the Ivy League giants we imagine. The report claims that the greatest asset of institutions like Harvard is their reputation and they can be expected to delay any expansion till quality standards can be guaranteed. What happens till then? In theory, individuals could find the least regulated state in America, setup a paper educational institution and then have all the bargaining power of Harvard when it comes to opening up a college here. Even the report by the Yashpal Committee on higher education reform noted that “giving an open license to all and sundry carrying a foreign ownership tag to function like universities in India, most of them not even known in their own countries, would only help them earn profit for their parent institutions located outside or accrue profit to the shareholders”.

Other concerns include the fact that as per the current offer, affirmative action policies based on caste and gender would not be applicable to foreign universities. In its initial offer, the NDA had included a provision to allow for affirmative action reservations in foreign universities but this was deleted in the revised offer by UPA-1. It would be unwise to underestimate the pressure a body like the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM) could exert on the government to further deregulate, considering what we know from WTO negotiations in other areas like agriculture and healthcare. And last, but not least, signing up to agreements like GATS is an inherently undemocratic exercise. What else can you call decisions taken at secret meetings that the will of the people cannot reverse, except at a huge cost? No explanations have been made to justify this loss of domestic sovereignty.

Mind the door

As far back as 2001, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the American Council of Education, Council for Higher Educational Accreditation (also American) and the European University Association made a joint declaration advocating their respective countries stay out of  GATS. And oddly enough, the United States, Canada and most of Western Europe have made no commitments under higher education. So either these countries are hypocritically pressuring India to do something that they aren’t willing to do themselves or the pressure is coming from countries like Australia and New Zealand where educational services are a major export or, most terrifying, India has taken up this bizarre initiative of its own accord. The last explanation seens quite plausible considering the evidence that this is primarily an initiative of the Department of Commerce, and not the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

What changes does the government expect to see with the arrival of foreign universities? Not more employment opportunities for Indian faculty,because the increase will be negligible. Not an increase in access because they’ll primarily be catering to the upper middle class for whom education opportunities have never been scarce. Not a decrease in the $3.6 billion dollars of foreign exchange that is spent by parents sending their children abroad as the primary objective for these students is the international exposure and the potential for landing jobs in those countries. At best we can hope that these institutions will provide a higher standard of education and domestic institutions will improve to compete. But if this is achieved with steep hikes in fees that are justified by the logic of ‘low-interest’ loans that increase the debt burden on students and their families, will it be worth it?

The biggest concern about the Indian system today is the lack of equitable access to high quality education. This is a large and complex problem but it can be solved and foreign universities having a place in the solution cannot be ruled out. But the solution surely does not lie in blindly turning to foreign profit-maximising universities. It would be like trying to clean your house by leaving the front door wide open. Sure, it’s possible that the stranger who enters might have your best interests at heart. But let’s be honest, you’re more likely to get cleaned out than cleaned up.