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Lost in transition

Many pending bills in Parliament seek to legalise the privatisation of higher education. This means opening newer avenues for profits at the cost of social good, writes Sitaram Yechury.

columns Updated: Apr 16, 2012 23:26 IST

The Supreme Court ruling sanctioning the legality of the Right to Education has also mandated every private school to ensure at least 25% enrolment from the economically weaker sections. The caveat is that the fees will be subsidised by the government and the target will be reached progressively, in the coming eight years.

Soon after, the human resource development minister appealed “with folded hands” to pass 14 bills that have been pending before Parliament since UPA 2 assumed office. The basic thrust of both these developments is to legalise the further privatisation and commercialisation of education. The government is willing to pay up to Rs 19,000 per annum per student from the weaker sections to private schools.

While the elite schools may be unhappy, budget private schools would make a windfall profit. Already, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, private schools enrolment has sharply grown from 18.7% in 2006 to 25.6% in 2011. Studies across the states have shown that the per pupil expenditure in such schools is vastly below that of the government schools, while they charge as fees, anything between five to 12 times more.

The Universal Right to Education, international experience shows, can never be achieved, without a network of State-run ‘neighbourhood schools’. This has laid the foundation in all developed countries. Our Bill also does not provide for children below six years, with the government refusing to attach aanganwadis to primary schools. Many of the pending bills on higher education seek to legalise this approach of the government subsidising private education players. Take the case of Andhra Pradesh, which has 705 engineering colleges with the capacity of 3,04,200 students.

However, only 2,08,936 qualified after the entrance examination, leaving an excess capacity of 75,836. There are only 29 such government colleges with a mere 5,276 seats, the rest are private. With the government subsidising the fees of SC/ST/OBC students, AP has spent Rs 3,621 crore in the last fiscal alone, compared with the budget of only Rs 1,087 crore for technical education. If all eligible students are to be covered, then Rs 7,500 crore is required.

This is for one state alone. Consider that the initial requirement to start a government college is only Rs 50 lakh. Instead of starting government colleges, such high subsidies to private colleges, apart from providing them with land and loans, only means the creation of new avenues for profit-maximisation. In addition, the government continues to drag its feet on legislating social control over such private business enterprises with regard to fee structure, syllabus, teachers and staff salaries etc. The salaries of teachers in unaided, budget private schools are, at least, four to seven times lower.

This is precisely the thrust of the neo-liberal reforms that seek to prise open newer avenues for higher private profits at the cost of social good. The economic gain from the export and import of higher education is an essential element in the General Agreement on Trade in Services. According to the Planning Commission, 88% of funds required for the approved expansion of higher education in the 11th Five Year Plan (FYP) were to be generated through the infamous public-private partnership (PPP) route.

The Approach Paper to the 12th FYP, states: “Private initiatives in higher education, including viable and innovative PPP models, will, therefore, be actively promoted. The current ‘not-for-profit’ prescription in education sector, should be re-examined in a pragmatic manner.” Private participation in enlarging the coverage of mid-day meal schemes, fully funded by the government, is being encouraged and a major part of the expansion of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan will take place through PPP.

Professor Tilak of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration has detailed the measures the government is contemplating for legalising such large-scale privatisation and commercialisation (Economic and Political Weekly, March 31, 2012). He concludes that higher education in India has moved “from a system embedded in welfare statism… to a system based on a neo-liberal market philosophy. Sadly, the transition seems to be complete and dangerously irreversible.”

Today, there are 73 private universities and nearly 100 deemed universities compared to none a decade ago. Private higher education today accounts for about four-fifths of enrolment in professional education and one-third overall. Contrast this with the US where less than one-fourth are enrolled in private institutions.

Prof Tilak says: “A 30-40% enrolment ratio seems to be the critical threshold level for a country such as India to become an advanced nation.” In 2009-10, the government’s gross enrolment ratio was only 15%. Even this low percentage gives all of us a reason to be proud that in every effort at expanding the frontiers of knowledge the world over, Indian youth are playing an important role. The second language in Silicon Valley is an Indian language. Imagine, if this enrolment percentage were to, at least, double, the potential of India to lead the global civilisational advance would be unquestionable.

It is time to recollect the Report of the 1948 Commission on University Education headed by Dr S Radhakrishnan, which said: “As we claim to be a civilised people, we must regard the higher education of the rising generation as one of our principal concerns... Many of these proposals will mean increased expenditure, but this increase, we are convinced is an investment for the democratic future of a free people.”

Instead of investing in the future by improving State-run education, qualitatively and quantitatively, UPA 2 is eager to subsidise and promote unregulated commercial shops.

(Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP)

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 16, 2012 23:20 IST