The Systematic Decimation of Higher Education in India and the UK

Why can’t the two countries, currently faced with widespread academic protests, learn from their pasts instead of making the mistake of pushing for privatisation?

New Delhi, April 05, 2018: India and the United Kingdom have been beset with protests by academic staff and students in universities. These protests, though varying in their specificities, have more in common than differences – both have to do with the privatisation of education.

Until recently, students in the UK didn’t have to pay fees to enrol in higher education. This was was slowly changed from 1998 on under a Labour government, with the final blow coming in 2010 when fees were nearly tripled based on the Browne review. In India, it all began with the Manmohan Singh-led UPA I government agreeing to bring education on the table in 2005 during the Doha round of WTO-GATS negotiations, and the death knell was sounded with  Prime Minister Narendra Modi signing the agreement in Nairobi on December 2017 according to thewire.in

In the UK, the employers’ body – Universities United Kingdom (UUK) – has sought to reduce the assured pension by a significant margin, making the job of an academic precarious at best, with a post retirement life where one may have to make do with less than the minimum living wage. The disavowal of education as a public good and a fundamental right is slowly being accepted as policy by successive governments in India and the UK.

The University and College Union (UCU) in the UK and various student and teachers’ unions all over India have stood up against this commercialisation. But are the governments listening?

In India, there have been intermittent protests by students and teachers right since the days of the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh. In 2015, the occupy UGC (University Grants Commission) movements were led by students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. Since then, the retribution has been swift and consistent. It all began on the fateful night of February 9, 2016, when it was alleged that “anti-national” slogans calling for the balkanisation of India were being raised inside JNU. The media created a furore and there was a lot of public outcry. Later, many of the videos of the event were found to be doctored. Some of the cases are still sub judice.

Since then, the administration and the students have had repeat run-ins, most recently over the administration’s refusal to suspend a professor of the School of Life Sciences against whom eight people have lodged FIRs of harassment. The teachers and students recently took to the streets against the attempt at ushering in privatisation in the garb of granting financial autonomy to 62 higher educational institutions, including JNU, and were beaten mercilessly by the Delhi police. Oxbridge institutions in the UK have been accused of trying to dilute the defined pension scheme to reduce their own financial expenditure towards the same. The UUK negotiators have refused to relent.

In the United Kingdom of the 1950s, 3.4% of the population went to universities. In India, enrolment in universities was 0.7% in 1950-51. Of course, it would be fool hardy to compare the two whilst ignoring that the India was trying to rebuild itself from years of tribute payments, deindustrialisation and a small colonial collegiate/university system benefiting the upper castes/classes.

However, a brief analysis of the respective higher education policies since the 1950s would help us understand the widespread protests around privatisation of education in both countries.

In the UK, it was the Robbins report, which was unveiled in 1963 by the committee chair Lionel Robbins, the then head of the department of Economics at the London School of Economics (LSE), which suggested that the state increase higher educational expenditure and expand the sector in such a way that all those desirous of university education should have access to it. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw education as one of the pillars on which a nascent nation must build its future, and expansion of higher education was rapid between 1950 and 1960. Institutions of higher learning were nurtured by Nehru’s government and continuity of the policies over the years after him had largely to do with the vision of luminaries like Saiyid Nurul Hasan and Triguna Sen, whose views almost mirrored those of Lionel Robbins. Why can’t the two countries, currently faced with widespread academic protests, learn from their pasts? The question still remains.

The UGC has accepted the World University Rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS) and Times Higher Education (THE) rankings in the context of PhDs from foreign institutions who may be allowed to teach in these newly designated fully autonomous universities. QS and THE data, over the past few years, have been quite revealing when it comes to the disparity between public funded and private educational institutions.

In Asia for example, almost all the universities making the cut from countries such as China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are public universities. In one of the recent university rankings, QS agrees that investment in higher education – either public or private – is a key differentiating factor. Ben Sowter, the head of research at QS says that the rankings “imply that levels of investment are determining who progresses and who regresses. Institutions in countries that provide high levels of targeted funding, whether from endowments or from the public purse, are rising. On the other hand, some Western European nations making or proposing cuts to public research spending are losing ground to their US and Asian counterparts”. The UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, rather than merely accepting these rankings, would do well to look at what the data reveals.

In the UK, there was a significant decline in the number of undergraduate entrants to universities in 2012 -13, much of which happened between 2011-12 and 2014-15, with enrolments for part-time first degree courses dropping by 28.6% as a result of undergraduate tuition fee reforms. India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio, or GER, has seen an increase from 24.5% in 2015-16 to 25.2% in 2016-17, as per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) of the HRD ministry according to reports published in  thewire.in

At this stage, any attempt at pulling the plug on funding, instead of actually increasing it, can spell disaster for a country whose prime minister is trying to bring the world home, showcasing India as the hub of a skilled workforce. Modi’s ‘Skill India’ campaign would mean nothing if it devalues the skill of those enrolled in higher education and fails to nurture them. The Modi government has often been accused of anti-intellectualism while those in power have accused the students of being leftists fomenting trouble in an otherwise peaceful atmosphere of growth and prosperity.

What cannot be denied is the adversarial relationship between the government and the students enrolled in various higher education institutions all across India. In India, affirmative action in the form of reservation of seats in higher education for scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward classes (OBC) have seen steady erosion through various means in face of onslaught by the government. In the UK too, privatisation may lead to dilution of whatever the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) has been able to achieve.

The finest hour of the protests in both countries has perhaps been the overwhelming solidarity between teachers and students. Whether use of punitive measures such as exorbitant fines and cessation of scholarships by administrations of JNU and Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India, or the suspension and deportation threat to Khaled Eissa, an MA student at King’s College London, for support to the student occupation, nothing seemed to have broken the resolve of the students and teachers to stand by each other. The authorities in both countries now desperately trying to break the deadlock or weaken the resolve of the protestors failed to see the writing on the wall.

The threat of privatisation affects each and every stakeholder. Not only academic staff, but students are also beginning to face the brunt of reduced funding, increasing fees and finally an oppressive employment system for those aspiring for a life in academia. The citizenry too must be concerned as a privatised higher education system can only inhibit access for future generations from underprivileged backgrounds.

Governments and university administrations in both countries would do well to meet the demands and understand the need of an equitable higher education system kept out of the clutches of privatisation, lest the silent majority understand future perils and stand by the protestors in both countries  according to reports published in  thewire.in

Rohit Dutta Roy is a doctoral Candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. He has been a student at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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