LAST week Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced fifty thousand scholarships for African students at the conclusion of the India–Africa Summit. It is quite natural that the African leadership lauded Modi and gratefully accepted the largesse offered by India. However this kodak moment was spoilt by the simultaneous police action that was taking place against Indian students who have been protesting against the withdrawal of non-NET fellowships outside the UGC. Typically, the BJP and its student organisation, the ABVP started a media and whisper campaign that the movement against the withdrawal of the fellowships was motivated and instigated by Left and democratic forces. They argued that the minister of human resource development had already assured them that the fellowships would not be withdrawn. However, the press release of the ministry has shown these claims to be untrue, and the decision of the students to continue and intensify their struggle is now receiving widespread public support from intellectuals and teachers. In the light of this, it is important to understand the context and the significance of the Occupy UGC movement.
A STRUGGLE TO SAVE
THE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM
It is well known that the assault on the public education system has intensified especially in the last decade after neo-liberal economic reforms. The legislation to bring foreign direct investment into higher education and open up the sector to private universities is further accompanied by the meagre funding of higher education throughout the contemporary history of the country. While the overall educational expenditure was around 4-4.2 percent of the GDP between 2010 and 2012, the expenditure over university and higher education remained between 0.86-0.89 percent inclusive of both central and state budgets. Hence, the level of public expenditure in university education is abysmally low and the lack of political will to invest more is tied to the growth of education as a for-profit industry. As a recent report on the growth of foreign investment in the education sector shows that there was an investment of $960 million in the education sector from 2000 to 2014. More than fifty percent of this has come in the last four years and recent studies indicate that the market for private education is only growing at an alarming pace.
The fundamental challenge facing teacher and student organisations are thus rooted in a changing policy perspective where education is not being treated as a non-for profit transformative enterprise, but a for-profit marketable commodity. This is clear from many industry reports on education. As a 2010 evaluation of the sector by Price Waterhouse Cooper suggests, a change in mind set will increase the competition within the sector and provide better quality education at lower fees. The government too seems to agree with this perspective and makes the following assessment in its discussion paper on trade in educational services under the GATS agreement. In its paper entitled ‘Export of Educational Services’ it concludes that the market size of Indian education sector is expected to increase to Rs 6,02,410 crore ($95.80 billion) by 2014-15 on the back of strong demand for quality education. Indian education sector’s market size in 2011-12 was estimated at Rs 3,41,180 crore ($54.20 billion). The sector grew at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.5 percent during 2004-05 to 2011-12. Considering the importance of education and skill development, the government of India has set itself an aggressive target of achieving 30 percent gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education by 2020. According to the ministry of human resource and development (HRD) data, enrolments have increased from 15.5 million (GER of 12.4 percent) in 2006-07 to 17.3 million (GER of 15 percent) in 2009-10 and further increased to 27.5 million (GER 19.4 percent) in 2010-11. Realising the fast growth of education sector in India, many private education providers are looking for relevant acquisitions and alliances in this space. The private education sector is estimated to reach $70 billion by 2013 and $115 billion by 2018. The proposed changes in the structure of higher education and its regulatory framework are intended to facilitate the operation of foreign and private players by inducing competition within the sector. It is obvious that scholarships such as non-NET fellowships are seen as both redundant and market distorting mechanisms within this framework. This and not the lack of accountability (as propagated by the UGC and the ministry) seems to be the real reason behind the stopping of this meagre fellowship amount that was helping research scholars in a small way.
PRIVATISATION OF EDUCATION
AND STUDENT DEBTS
The best example of the operation of the educational market and its implication for students is seen in the case of the American system where most of the colleges and universities have been funded by private endowments. With high fee structures and minimal public subsidies, education in America provides a big market for financial credit where students spend more than a substantial part of their early working careers paying off student loans. According to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) project on student debts, student loans are now accumulated to about one trillion dollars, forming the second largest borrowing from the federal lending system. In 2012, 1.3 million students graduated from a four year college with debts, up from 1.1 million in 2008 and 0.9 million in 2004. Of these 66 percent of graduates from public colleges had student loans; 75 percent of graduates from private non-profit colleges had student loans and 88 percent of graduates from for-profit colleges had student loans. The average debt levels for all graduating seniors with student loans rose to $29,400 in 2012, a 25 percent increase from $23,450 in 2008. In 2012 average debt was $25,550 at public colleges, again 25 percent higher than in 2008, when the average was $20,450. At private non-profit colleges, average debt was $32,300 which was 15 percent higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200. And at for-profit colleges, average debt was $39,950 which was 26 percent higher than in 2008, when the average was $31,800. The repayment of these loans is linked with the capacity to pay. In 2004 the unemployment rate of undergraduates in 2009 was below 6 percent and rose to 7.2 percent in 2014. This does not include those students who took loans and could not complete their graduation. Hence the authorities recognised that there were several who could not repay their loans creating a student debt crisis. These figures show that private participation within the education sector in fact has a cascading affect on student borrowing, which can be disastrous in a situation of jobless growth.
Though the level of student borrowing in India is relatively low it has been increasing at an alarming rate in the last decade. In a recent study on India, P Geetha Rani shows that the number of accounts of educational loan is 2.3 million in 2011–2012, which increased from a mere 0.11 million in 2000–2001. The proportion of students enrolled in higher education, who are sanctioned education loans constitute about 1.3 percent of total number students enrolled in 2000–2001 and increased to around 9 percent by the beginning of 2011–2012. Further the average annual growth rate of loans was 33.5 percent between 2000 and 2012, whereas enrolment in higher education only grew by 11 percent in the same period (P Geetha Rani, ‘Education Loans and Financing Higher Education in India’ Higher Education for the Future, Vol 1 (2), 2014, pp.183-210). These figures raise a warning bell as they show that shrinking public financing of education will open up credit markets that will increase the indebtedness of households, particularly from lower middle class and deprived households. The assault on the university system and public financing of education also has to be seen in this light.
The evidence presented above clearly shows that the struggle against the privatisation and commercialisation of education has to be intensified urgently. The ‘Occupy UGC’ movement signifies a significant spontaneous reaction to neo-liberal policies. But its further expansion and intensification requires a leadership that is able to build a rainbow coalition against the dismantling of a public education system. The time is ripe, scientists, students, writers, scholars, film-makers, teachers and a significant section of the intelligentsia are protesting against the neo-liberal and neo-conservative forces that are supported by the current NDA government. The challenge for the Left and democratic forces is to turn this moment of discontent into a sustained and organised struggle.