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LEARNING AS COMMODITY

- The dualistic structure of Indian higher education

The fact that hardly any Indian institution of higher education figures in the list of top 200 prepared by The Times Higher Educational Supplement is taken by many as proof of the poverty of higher education in the country. Indeed, on several occasions, President Pranab Mukherjee himself has expressed anguish that very few Indian institutions figure on the THES list.

It would follow from this that institutions which do figure on this list, or are close to doing so, are of good quality, while the crisis in this sector only afflicts those numerous institutions, especially state universities, that are way below the mark. Implicit in the focus on THES and such other lists is the view that within the dualistic structure of Indian higher education, with a few elite institutions at the top and vast numbers of poor institutions below, the former are more or less “all right”, while the crisis is confined only to the latter.

This view, however, is incorrect. The essence of the dualistic structure of Indian higher education is that both sides of it are crisis- ridden, the first group experiencing as much of a crisis as the second. Although their crises are of different kinds, they are interrelated, constituting two sides of the same coin.

The crisis of the second group is obvious and getting worse by the day because of the fiscal squeeze on state governments, which are their main funding agencies. Most of them now make do with guest faculty or temporary faculty instead of permanent faculty, since they lack resources. Guest faculty and temporary faculty are paid a pittance, much lower than permanent faculty, and are deprived of all benefits including pensions. They have little incentive, scarcely any institutional commitment, and often supplement their meagre incomes by giving private tuition, which leaves them little time for keeping up with new intellectual developments in their fields, let alone for any research or deeper academic cogitations.

Some state universities do not even have funds to employ temporary faculty; they simply let the students fend for themselves. I remember once, as a member of a University Grants Commission committee, being told that the economics department of a university that used to be quite prestigious not long ago had only three faculty members to look after the MA, MPhil and PhD programmes. The students had to cover large parts of the syllabus entirely on their own, with literally zero teaching by faculty members. The students produced by these institutions are also left to fend for themselves on a job market that is anyway characterized by an excess supply of job-seekers. They end up either jobless or with jobs that have nothing to do with their inclinations and with whatever education they manage to acquire.

The neo-liberal economic regime has aggravated the crisis of this particular academic universe. Tax concessions to the rich in the name of development, combined with limits on government borrowing enforced through fiscal responsibility legislation, have restricted the total resources available to Central and state governments as a whole; and among them the Centre has claimed the lion’s share, forcing cash-strapped state governments to squeeze higher education. To be sure, state governments cannot escape culpability on many counts, but they have operated within fairly tight structural constraints.

These constraints, and their fall-out, are visible not just in India but elsewhere in the world as well. Even in the United States there is a tendency to replace permanent faculty with adjunct faculty, which is paid a pittance, in the current atmosphere of austerity. In fact, out of a total faculty strength of 1.5 million in the higher-education sector of the US at present, as many as 1 million — that is, almost two-thirds — are adjunct faculty. This, apart from violating the basic principle of “equal pay for equal work”, does great damage to the quality of higher education. No doubt, the US scene is not as bleak as the Indian one, but very similar tendencies are at work there as well.

It is hardly surprising that in this situation there has been a mushrooming of private profit-making institutions offering courses in technical subjects in particular, where the excess supply of job-seekers is less. They charge exorbitant fees, which often force students to take education loans, and to pay back these loans they have to turn themselves into commodities, selling themselves to the buyers who offer the maximum price. Many educationists actually fear that when the demand for job-seekers goes down, the pressure to pay back debt may cause a spate of student suicides, much the same way as we have peasant suicides. This sector, in short, is marked by the shameless commodification of education.

One of the hallmarks of a commodity is that it is no longer a “use-value”, or a thing of utility, for the seller. The products of this private-education sector, therefore, are not oriented to deriving creative satisfaction from their work; and correspondingly, they do not derive any creative satisfaction from using the input — namely, education — that goes into producing the commodity which they are themselves. The private education sector converts education into a commodity and takes all creativity out of it, which necessarily makes it second-rate. It is noteworthy that in the US, for instance, institutions of higher education are either state-funded or run by private charitable endowments. They are not meant to be profit-making entities. Radical criticism no doubt accuses institutions run by private charitable endowments of transgressing into money-making — but it remains a case of transgression.

Commodification, however, started long before the boom in private institutions. Publicly-funded institutions like the IITs, IIMs, and medical institutes, which were supposed to aid the country’s quest for self-reliant development, were from the very beginning major sites of brain drain, with absolutely no restrictions imposed by the government. The process of commodification, already evident in the brain drain, has now reached a stage where such institutions are ranked according to the initial salaries that their students command when they are offered placements at the interviews arranged by placement cells within them.

Commodification is inimical to creativity. It is also impervious to the social role of education. Not surprisingly, therefore, even within those institutions, which make it to the THES list or are on the verge of doing so, casteism, communalism, inegalitarian views, even contempt or at best unconcern for the poor, and patriarchal attitudes like demanding dowry, all of which, besides being objectionable, are also against the values enshrined in the Constitution on which modern India is founded, are quite prevalent among students.

This was not always the case. Many of these institutions were cradles of egalitarian and radical thought not long ago, despite the trend towards commodification implicit in the brain drain. But neo-liberalism has made material self-seeking and self-promotion, to the detriment of any creative quest for self-realization, which necessarily brings in its wake a social concern, a pervasive trait among their students.

Since education must be concerned with arousing sensitivity to one’s surroundings, in particular a social sensitivity (or, to borrow a Gamscian term, since education must produce in societies like ours a group of “organic intellectuals of the people”), one would not be far wrong in saying that in the best of our institutions we are not providing education in the true sense. The readiness with which students in our front-ranking institutions are reportedly succumbing to the so-called “wave” generated by a person widely tipped to be the next prime minister of the country, despite his lack of contrition over, if not actual complicity in, a pogrom against the Muslims in 2002 in the state he led, testifies to a failure in our higher education system.

One cannot of course cavil at students choosing one kind of politics over another, but one has not heard of campuses in our elite institutions having massive debates over support to the person in question, which is worrying. It suggests not just a lack of sensitivity to the feelings of minorities, not just a lack of concern for secular values, but above all a lack of quest for freedom and self-realization; for one cannot be free if one’s fellow human beings feel oppressed. It reflects an advanced process of commodification, of both education and its products, even in our front-ranking institutions. At both ends of the spectrum of higher education, therefore, we have a crisis. The dualistic structure exacerbated by the neo-liberal regime prevents proper education in the institutions below because of a lack of resources; it prevents proper education in the institutions above by making it a commodity. The quest for a place in the THES list will further exacerbate this dualism, further commodify education, and further aggravate its crisis.