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We need to save higher education from WTO: Anil Sadgopal

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:59 IST

India\'s stand

  • The govt has made some offers on higher education to WTO-GATS
  • India\'s offers will become commitments, unless withdrawn fast
  • Education will be on the agenda at Nairobi Ministerial Conference in December

What\'s on offer

  • Foreign varsities will get to open shop in India
  • Govt will have to subsidise public and private institutions equally
  • If subsidies go away, universities will have to raise their own money
  • The cost will get passed on to students

Policy passe

  • WTO will vet India\'s education policy
  • It will also control accreditation
  • Commercialisation will jeopardise original research

Education was once considered to be a public welfare tool. Higher education was thought to be the panacea to rid a developing country like India of its ills. As economic liberalisation set in about two decades back, perceptions started to change. Education was seen as a lucrative sector of the new service economy.

The change reflected in policy as well. And India looks set to take more steps in the direction this December at the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Nairobi.

India has already made some offers to the WTO-GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services) for higher education. They show that the government is willing to go along with the GATS principle of opening up the sector for trade.

Broadly, it will be done in the following ways:

1. Students will pay for education through correspondence from foreign institutions;

2. They will pay to go study abroad;

3. Foreign universities and teachers will get to open shop in India.

The WTO will also get to control India's education policy through its own accreditation body.

The move has been criticized by several quarters, but most Indians are still unaware. The 'offers' will become 'commitments' if India does not withdraw them before the Nairobi talks.

The All India Forum For Right To Education (AIFRTE), a platform of teachers and students, organized a protest in Delhi on 9 August to draw attention to the issue.

Catch spoke to AIFRTE's Prof Anil Sadgopal, the ex-dean of Delhi University's Faculty of Education and Prof Madhu Prasad (also from the same varsity) about the implications of opening up India's higher education sector to the WTO:


You say India has placed offers to make education tradeable? What do you mean?


Education has been made a tradeable service under GATS. We are treating education like services such as hotels, pubs etc. Instead of universities, academic councils and Parliament, education policy will now be determined by WTO norms.


Almost 30,000 colleges, 700 universities, IITs, IIMs, law colleges - everything will be subject to this change. Everything above Class 12.


Who all are party to the noise being generated?


The only noise is ours. AIFRTE started writing about it and holding meetings. We decided to resist the commercialisation of higher education in June. On 9 August, there were demonstrations in several states, including Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, MP, Telangana, Punjab and Maharashtra.

Political parties - especially the right-wing and the centrist parties - are keeping quiet. And the Left parties are just waking up to the issue.


How many countries are signatories to the WTO agreement?


Forty-four. Several like Canada and Australia have refused.


The European Union passed a resolution to not give away any part of education to WTO. Even the African Union had the courage to say no.


How will the agreement be executed?


There are various conditions. Let's take 'national treatment' - The government will have to provide the same facilities and grants to anybody seeking to provide a education service, as it provides to public-funded state universities.

Suppose the University Grants Commission gives a Rs 50 crore grant to the Delhi University for its library. It will have to grant the same to, say, a GE University or an Ambani university.

The WTO believes that governments shouldn't favour national institutions. All traders must get a level playing field to compete.


Will this interfere with our education policy?


It will. The World Bank had mooted the idea of an independent regulatory authority - a single window for the global market, instead of several institutions like we have (such as the UGC, the AICTE, the NCTE, the Bar Council of India, the Medical Council of India, etc).

The Indian government has already started propaganda to discredit these institutions.

The Yashpal Committee Report even gave a name to this overarching body: The National Council of Higher Education Research. The National Knowledge Commission of India has also recommended a similar body.

In its 2014 election manifesto the BJP talked about setting up a highly empowered central institution "to improve the quality of higher education", instead of having too many bodies.

This is scary. It will threaten the sovereignty of our higher education.

If our governments - state or central - want to a new scheme, they will have to get it vetted by WTO's Trade Regulation Council. A trade policy review mechanism will annually review the policies of member countries and "suggest" changes. Even accreditation will be determined by them.


What will the immediate ramifications be?


The government will stop subsidising its own institutions.


Suppose DU stops getting its annual grants. It will be forced to privatise its courses or start self-financing courses, charging fees at market rates. Every university will be forced to earn its own money.


What about the larger societal ramifications?


See, privatisation and commercialisation of education don't just increase fees and exclude sections of the society from education. It attacks the character of knowledge.

Take my own field, molecular biology. It is a fundamental science from which all modern knowledge of biology has arisen. Research institutions in molecular biology or, say, quantum physics will be unable to carry on with such programmes.

They will get pushed to start applied courses, considered to be 'useful'. Instead of teaching molecular biology, they will teach only biotechnology, which is merely an application of molecular biology knowledge.

Where will the fundamental knowledge of such disciplines come from? From Europe and America. All research in fundamental knowledge will be patented there and sold to India, and we will depend on them.

Our outstanding research institutions, like TIFR and IISc, will be finished.


Will the commercialisation of higher education also have an impact on school education in general?


Higher education is not just about higher education. It impacts upon the entire schooling process as the knowledge required for school-level education is generated there.

Linguistics tells you how to teach languages. Teachers are prepared formally through BEd, MEd and PHD programmes.

If the knowledge character is altered, gradually only marketable knowledge will be popular. You'll prepare teachers attuned to only marketable knowledge, not socially useful knowledge.


First we reduced education to literacy. Now we've reduced it to skill development. Saying "let vocationalisation take place in terms of family structures" is to return to the caste system. The child labour amendment, if passed, will clear the way for such a structure.


Is the government being secretive about this?


Absolutely. Our education policy has been turned upside down in the last 10 years and there has been no national debate. Today, a New Education Policy is being churned out. What do we know about it?


Globalisation happened because our government decided to stand with the global market. The present government is more desperate than the UPA and far more in control of political power.


Would many students and teachers, who embrace neo-liberal principles, not welcome the move?


The youth has been tuned in the last 15-20 years to hail changes that decrease their workload, expect less and less diligence, analysis, application of mind and expression from them.

Look at the Vyapam OMR sheets - there are four circles and you need to darken the one with the correct answer. What is being promoted is a student's ability to guess, which is in coaching classes in exchange of thousands of rupees.

Nobody protests and says that the ability to write, analyse, create and express original opinions is being shattered.

It's not about fees alone; WTO will kill the sovereignty of our higher education

These are swifter ways of getting jobs, but not everybody will get one. There is a huge gap between jobs available and economic growth. Young people are desperate to somehow get through and get a job. For most, just getting a certification in enough.


Even our best institutions are glorifying just one goal: to earn. And young people are focussing only on that.


Hasn't the ship already sailed?


Maybe. But we already seeing a terrible burnout rate among young people. By the time they are 30, they are finished.


What will happen in the next economic recession? Something like Greece? It will take the next crisis for these ideas to fall flat. Today our economy is more in sync with the global economy and, unlike 2008, we probably won't have the public sector to fall back on.


What will be your next step?


From 28 September, (Bhagat Singh's birthday) to 2 October there will be protests across the country. There will also be a rally from Kadhka Kalan, Bhagat Singh's village in Punjab, to Rajghat.

We will hold meetings in all state capitals in the first 10 days of November, and then from 13-18 December in Delhi.

The Kenya Conference starts on 14 December and we have already submitted our concerns to the human resource development ministry.

We want people from all walks of life to understand what's at stake and involve them in saving education.

First published: 28 August 2015, 9:31 IST
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.