Why higher education should remain a public good

Education is one of the vital services that a modern state is expected to provide to its people. It is a service that every welfare democracy is obliged to give in the most accessible form.
For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)
For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)

In a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore compared his educational experiment at Shantiniketan to a vessel carrying his “life’s best treasure”.

He spent 40 years of his life establishing Vishwa-Bharati, which had wide influence in Europe, Japan and the US.

It was a unique educational institution, and emphasised education as holistic. Sadly, in today’s India, his ideas do not find an appropriate place.

Education is one of the vital services that a modern state is expected to provide to its people. It is a service that every welfare democracy is obliged to give in the most accessible form.

Democratic values and virtues can be acquired only through good education. Privatised education cannot teach us this because it is entirely dependent on market rules.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had realised the value of university education long ago. He said, “A university stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives.

"If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.” Norway, Estonia, Brazil, Iran, Cuba, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and a number of other countries—not just economies where development policies are inclined explicitly to welfare, but developed market economies as well—provide free and quality education at all levels for their citizens.

However, the commoditisation of higher education has gained acceptance in recent decades. In India, there has been a paradigm shift in the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012- 2017) of higher education for “For-Profit Institutions”. It has favoured an approach endorsing private capital in higher education with an eye on profit generation.

Many states including Telangana have endorsed it and have even granted permissions for private universities. It is astonishing to see today an array of individuals and societies such as corporate companies, religious organisations, hoteliers and liquor barons offering private higher education in the country. The so-called “meritorious” students endowed with cultural capital are admitted to subsidised public institutions of learning, which are of relatively higher quality, while the rest join low-quality mass private institutions that charge huge fees. Unfortunately, the development of differentiated or stratified higher education is not challenged at a significant level. Instead, the government is encouraging and partly supporting, through affirmative action policies of entry, the market in higher education.

The user pay principle, which has led to the dominance of the freedom to choose the product over the freedom to choose the provider, partly explains the mushrooming of private institutions offering market-oriented professional courses. How come that we have presently excellent long-term strategic programs such as Mission Kakatiya (Resource Economics),  Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Samanvaya Samiti (Political and Social Science), Mission Bhageeratha and irrigating one crore acres through Kaleshwaram (Sustainability) that are neither integrated in education nor in research programs at our colleges and universities?

Homogeneity of disciplines/curriculum: Studying the conflicting interest of state and market in higher education is essential to understand the functioning of a university. The motive of the former is to serve society while the objective of the latter is to serve the private interests of students/consumers/clients. Earlier, in the sphere of teaching, learning used to be across a spectrum of disciplines without perfect symmetry or homogeneity. In today’s situation, people show strong favouritism for a profit-oriented homogenous curriculum, which will make their children employable. In this way, the market shapes the popularity and availability of courses to students, such as short-term vocational and specialised courses that draw lucrative fees.

Likewise, the market drives the research agenda of universities as resources for research in life sciences, medicine, engineering or economics are abundant while resources for research in philosophy, linguistics, history, sociology, environment and literature are scarce. The current international debate on “21st-century skills”, also in the backdrop of the current pandemic, is between (a) purely knowledge-oriented view of education, and (b) competency-based approaches in education gaining high importance. In solving problems that are usually complex, humans have to apply knowledge—often incomplete knowledge —in contexts where the conditions are often uncertain in order to offer a practical solution to a real-world challenge. 

For example, today an engineer is trained to “make” and “innovate” for a demanding economy without fully understanding the social processes that create certain “demands” in the first place or knowing whether manufactured goods are distributed fairly in an unequal society like India. The deeper social goals of education, recognised as “democracy of education”, have largely been undermined in the market-driven system. “Democracy of education” allows public campuses to become a place of dissent, debates and security for the aspirations of marginalised sections. No wonder why Osmania University was a watershed, creating pioneering leaders for the liberation of the erstwhile Hyderabad state as well as for the separate Telangana movement for several decades.

The new trends of neo-philanthropy: The new trends of “philanthropic consultants” and “volunteerism” fit into the neo­-liberal economic system. New ways of organising the gifting of time and money are growing at an extraordinary rate. These legitimise the neo-liberal economic and political system by providing the “human face” of the market. Philanthropic involvement appears as voicing the aspiration to cut state involvement from welfare, whether education or health. This allows the state to step away from providing basic services as private agents would take care of them. In this era, philanthropy has become a part of market activities, thus leading to a partial withdrawal of the state in education or health legitimate. But experiences from all over the world convincingly show that education as well as health should be considered as public goods, not private ones, and the vital services arising out of them have to be provided by a modern welfare state in the most accessible form to all its people.

Ramesh Chennamaneni
Telangana MLA, Humboldt Expert in Agriculture, Environment and Cooperation

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