Vol. XLIII No. 14 April 07, 2019
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Keep Education out of WTO/GATS

Saikat Ghosh, Shaswati Mazumdar

AROUND a thousand people representing a large number of organisations responded to the call for a day-long National Assembly in Defence of Education which was held on October 14 in New Delhi at the Mavlankar Auditorium. The national assembly was called to launch a nationwide movement to oppose the government's move to open up higher education commercially as a tradable service under WTO/GATS and to demand rollback of policies of commercialising and privatising education that have systematically destroyed the quality of public-funded education at all levels, first in schools and then in universities and colleges, and taken quality education out of the reach of most people in this country. The assembly was the result of an appeal launched by AIFUCTO and FEDCUTA along with several eminent citizens who included the following: SP Shukla (former member, Planning Commission, former ambassador to GATT, former commerce and finance secretary), Indira Jaising (senior advocate, Supreme Court, former additional solicitor general of India), PM Bhargava (founding director, Centre of Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB)), Sashi Kumar (journalist; founder, Asianet TV, chairman, Asian College of Journalism), Ashok Vajpeyi (poet & critic, first vice-chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, former chairman, Lalit Kala Akademi), Nirupam Sen (former Indian ambassador to the United Nations), Hiren Gohain (critic, poet and social scientist, retd professor of English, Gauhati University), Gopal Guru (professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University), Amiya Bagchi (economist, founder director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata), G Haragopal (political scientist, visiting professor, National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru) and Upendra Baxi (former vice-chancellor, University of Delhi & University of South Gujarat, former president, The Indian Society of International Law). Prominent among the participating organisations, apart from AIFUCTO and FEDCUTA, were the All India University Employees Confederation (AIUEC), School Teachers Federation of India (STFI), All India People's Science Network/ Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), All India Save Education Committee (AISEC), Forum of Engineering Professionals (FEP), and several student organisations including AISA, AIDSO, KYS, and SFI. Several other organisations and eminent citizens sent in messages of support and solidarity and expressed their willingness to join the campaign that the assembly resolved to initiate. MASS RALLY TO PARLIAMENT ON NOVEMBER 25, 2015 There are several indications that the government is inclined to sign a treaty at the Ministerial Meet of WTO/GATS scheduled from December 15-18 this year in Nairobi. If this happens, it will result in the loss of the sovereign and independent prerogative of the government to frame national policies and regulate education in the interests of the people and undermine the constitutional right to education of every citizen. The national assembly adopted a resolution unanimously, in which it resolved to form a National People's Platform in Defence of Education, a nationwide coalition of organisations and individuals, to carry out an intensive and widespread public campaign in all parts of country, culminating in a mass rally to the parliament on November 25, 2015. Speakers at the assembly included Nirupam Sen, Dinesh Abrol (Working Group on Patents), Madhu Prasad (AIFRTE), Biswajit Dhar (JNU), Tarun Kumar Patra (AIFUCTO), Nandita Narain (FEDCUTA), Tapati Mukhopadhya (AIFUCTO), Sachidanand Sinha (FEDCUTA), BS Hota (AIUEC), Narendra Sharma (AISEC), Badaruddoza Khan (MP), CN Bharti (STFI), Vikram Singh (SFI), Bhaskaranand (AIDSO), Madhu Paranjape (BUCTU), Sucheta De (AISA), Om Prakash (All Rajasthan University Association), Pramod Gouri (AIPSM/BGVS), Subhas (KYS), Sudipto Bhattacharya (Vishwabharti University), Soumen Chattopadhyay (JNU). The speakers pointed out that opening higher education to trade under of WTO/GATS as well as other bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral international trade agreements will oblige the government to follow iniquitous clauses of free trade in goods and services against the interests of citizens, make such commercial obligations irreversible despite public pressure in the future, and compel the government to surrender its right to frame national policy in the interest of citizens. Even more alarming than the clauses of the WTO/GATS are those that structure the secret negotiations under another international trade agreement – the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). Whereas the WTO/GATS demands a “positive list” of sectors that a country wishes to open to trade, the TISA functions with a “negative list” that requires governments to list all sectors that would not be covered. All these trade agreements are being negotiated without any public debate and without the knowledge of parliament. Several speakers drew attention to the lack of public awareness about the implications of WTO/GATS and other international trade negotiations and the urgent need therefore for a massive public campaign. It was also emphasised that what is being done to education has to be seen as part of the larger process of reforms to liberalise and privatise the economy, a process begun in the 1990s which has become increasingly more aggressive. These reforms seek to encompass all spheres of social existence – land, labour, health, education, etc – in order to make them available for the predatory profit-making interests of international and domestic business. Any movement wishing to stall and reverse this process in the sphere of education must therefore consciously seek alliances with the struggles in other spheres. RESOLUTION ADOPTED BY THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY THIS National Assembly in Defence of Education has been convened in the wake of an unprecedented and grave crisis in public-funded education that threatens to destroy its very foundations, ie, equity, public access and quality, and cripple collective efforts for inclusive progress, social justice and equal opportunity as envisaged in the Indian constitution. This national assembly notes the failure of successive union governments to prioritise and strengthen public-funded education, as well as their unwillingness to guarantee the constitutional Right to Education to all citizens of India. In fact, the current crisis in public-funded education obtains from the governments' anti-people policies that are designed to commercialise education, encourage private and foreign investment and for-profit initiatives and hand over public resources to private bidders in accordance with international trade agreements like WTO-GATS and TISA. The policies are being made in insulation from democratic needs and realities. They seek to essentially withdraw public investment from education, hand education over to private and commercial lobbies, make it inaccessible to the majority of people of this country and dictate the form and content of education in a manner that contradicts the idea of education as a public good. This national assembly notes with alarm that the government of India has chosen to drastically slash its education budget in the 12th Plan at a time when increased public investment in schools, colleges, universities, polytechnics and technical institutes is needed to cater to the growing demand for education among the working classes, urban and rural poor and socially marginalised sections. The cuts in public spending over several decades have led to a freeze in the appointments of regular teachers, large scale contractualisation of teachers and non-teaching staff, unhealthy student-teacher ratios, reduction in research-funding and fellowships and the deterioration of physical infrastructure like classrooms, laboratories and libraries. The attempt to justify this neglect and advocate virtual classrooms and online courses as a substitute to real teaching-learning is unacceptable. The visible effect of the growth of the private sector can be seen in the way government schools have been devastated and reduced to catering to the poorest sections. Private schools have been allowed to mushroom while government schools face persistent neglect and are sometimes even being forced to merge or shut down. Since the 1990s, public-funded higher education has also been subjected to such policies, with cuts in government spending, increasing casual employment of faculty and administrative staff, and decay of infrastructure while simultaneously encouraging the establishment and rapid expansion of private institutions. Today private institutions have come to quantitatively dominate the higher education landscape. Coupled with the recent spate of rushed ‘academic reforms’ without regard to their feasibility and review of their impact in a country of such vast diversity and crippling inequalities, this process has led to a severe decline in quality and taken quality education out of the reach of the majority of the Indian people. Increasingly too, authoritarian modes of governance and nefarious means are being used to fracture democratic opinion and crush popular protests against the erosion of public-funded education. This national assembly objects to the government of India's unconstitutional attempt to create a centralised policy to govern all levels of education in complete disregard of the federal character of our democratic polity and the prerogative of states to determine policies and administer education under the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution. This national assembly opposes the undemocratic manner in which the MHRD has chosen to engage with a select group of NGOs, trade lobbies and technocrats while ignoring the concerns and appeals of collective bodies of students and teachers in its attempt to revise the National Policy on Education (NPE). The proposed features of this National Policy – Public-Private Partnership Model, RUSA, Common Legislation on Central Universities and FDI in Higher Education – reflect the government's inclination to treat education as a tradable service, instrumentalise knowledge and abandon the pursuit of scientific and critical learning, favour the private sector, impose corporate models of academic governance that lack mechanisms of public accountability, rollback its reservation policy, ignore the needs of the girl-child, the underprivileged and the differently-abled, and impose draconian measures on students and teachers to suppress democratic opinion and criticism. This national assembly opposes the government of India's commitment to offer education as a commercial service under WTO-GATS and TISA. Under these international trade agreements, tertiary education (higher education and research) is to be treated as a globally tradable set of services. To allow global trade in education services, the education policies will be required to provide a “level-playing field” to all investors, thus being forced to end the education subsidies that presently cater to the needs of the largest sections of our populace, help run universities, colleges and institutes that offer higher education as public service. Additionally, the trade agreements will require the government to adopt a 'market-friendly' approach to the content of education. This will severely impair the development of academic disciplines that are not perceived to be directly related to the skill needs of global industry and commerce. It will also result in restriction imposed on fields of research and original academic enquiry. Most importantly, such commercialisation will ensure that education will not be able to accommodate an independent and critical spirit of intellectual pursuit that is integral to the growth of our democratic consciousness and progressive social transformation. This national assembly demands that the government immediately withdraw education from WTO-GATS, TISA and other international trade agreements that potentially override the sovereign prerogative of the country to decide its own educational priorities and policies and undermine the sovereign right of its citizens to equitable, affordable and good-quality education. This national assembly urges public intervention through nationwide campaigns and parliamentary interventions to arrest the destructive policy-direction and resist the commercialisation and privatisation of education. This national assembly resolves to facilitate the creation of a National People's Platform in Defence of Education with the express objective of effectively raising the following demands and building sustained popular struggles to have them met. 1. Immediate withdrawal of education from WTO-GATS, TISA and other bilateral or multilateral international trade agreements 2. Increase in budgetary allocation on education upto 6 percent of GDP to cater to growing demand and need of education at all levels and the expansion of public infrastructure for education 3. Free education for all citizens up to secondary level and affordable tertiary education for all sections of society in recognition of the public Right to Education 4. Promotion of scientific enquiry and democratic values in education through which respect for cultural diversity and plurality of opinion is fostered 5. A new National Policy on Education (NPE) – reflecting the federal character of the union and states' prerogative to decide their priorities and emphases within the framework of Constitutional values – in consultation with states, collective bodies of students, teachers and non-teaching employees. The national assembly further resolves to call for a 'Mass Rally to the Parliament' in Delhi on November 25, 2015 during the parliament session to bring pressure on the government not to sign any treaty to open the higher education sector at the WTO/GATS Ministerial Meet in December this year. The national assembly resolves to carry out a mass campaign for participation in the rally and to appeal to MPs of all political parties to intervene in parliament. To this end, it also resolves to disseminate its concerns widely and mobilise citizens through social media.