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India: The bleak new academic scenario

Krishna Kumar in The Hindu

The other day, a student asked me what exactly the word ‘liberal’ mean. She wanted to know whether ‘liberalisation’ promotes ‘liberal’ values. She had noticed that institutions of higher education, which are supposed to promote liberal values, were finding it difficult to resist ideological and commercial pressures triggered by the process of economic liberalisation. So, was economic liberalism different from political liberalism? And what do people mean when they refer to neo-liberal policies? The questions she was asking could hardly be addressed without invoking the political economy that has emerged over the last three decades.

When liberalisation of the economy started to receive common consent in the mid-1980s, few people thought of examining what it would mean for education. Then, in 1991 came the dramatic announcement of a new economic policy, accompanied by a package of steps to be taken for ‘structural adjustment’ of the Indian economy. The purpose of ‘adjustment’ was to facilitate India’s integration into the global economy. Even then, education didn’t receive specific attention. Some critics of the new economic policy expressed anxiety about the consequences of state withdrawal from its prime role and responsibility in sectors like education and health. The national policy on education drafted in 1986 had mostly adhered to the established state-centric view. A major review in the early 1990s vaguely resonated the new discourse of liberalisation, but offered little evidence of change in the basic perspective. The Programme of Action, announced in 1992, stopped short of admitting that the state’s role in education was about to change. Nobody could imagine at that point that over the following decades, the state’s role in education would change so much that the Constitution would begin to sound like rhetoric.

School education

In order to examine what happened, we must make a distinction between school and higher education. When Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao spoke about liberalisation as the central theme of the new economic policy, he also referred to the ‘structural adjustment programme’. Under this programme, the World Bank offered a ‘safety net’ for primary education. It meant additional resources and policy guidance to enable the system to expand its capacity for enrolling children. The District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), which later mutated into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), symbolised the ‘safety net’ approach. It was designed to cushion the harsh effects that ‘structural adjustment’ under liberalisation was expected to cause in welfare sectors like children’s education and health. The DPEP and SSA efficiently served this role, creating an ethos in which children’s education seemed to have become a major priority of the state. The success of these programmes emboldened the government to push the Right to Education (RTE) law through Parliament. Governments of many States registered their anxiety over their capacity to fund the implementation of RTE after the Central assistance provided under SSA runs dry.

How valid that anxiety was is now amply clear. All across northern India, the DPEP and SSA have left a radically expanded system that no one wishes to own. The contractual teachers appointed on a massive scale to fulfil the ambitious goals of DPEP and SSA are crying aloud for dignity and stability. Post-RTE, many State governments have drawn on the services of mega-NGOs and private companies to look after schools. As one might guess, it is children of the poor who attend these schools. Under the policy of liberalisation, the state has outsourced these children to non-state players. Those belonging to the better-off sections of society have moved to private schools.

Higher education

In higher education, the new economic policy designed on the principles of liberalisation offered no safety net. From the beginning, the assumption was that higher education ought to generate its own resources. An accompanying idea was that higher education should respond to market demands in terms of knowledge and skills. Over the last three decades, these two guiding ideas have dented the established system of higher education in all parts of the country. Both Central and State universities have been starved of financial resources. Cutting down on permanent staff, both teaching and non-teaching, has emerged as the best strategy to cope with financial crunch. A complex set of outcomes, specific to different universities, makes any general analysis difficult. In some, self-financed courses, mostly vocational in nature, have provided a means of income. In others, such courses have been resisted by teacher unions. However, these unions have gradually lost their power and say because they are broken from within.

A shrinking elite of senior, permanent teachers is struggling to represent a vast underclass of frustrated and vulnerable ad hoc teachers. The old idea that an academic career should attract the best among the young holds no meaning now. Research fellowships have been used as a cushion to absorb the growing army of unemployed, highly qualified young men and women. They have no organised voice, and each one of them is individually too vulnerable to protest against continuous exploitation.

This is the bleak new academic scenario. In India, the term ‘liberal’ essentially meant a voice representing courage and wider awareness. Training of such a voice was the main job of colleges and universities. This function grew under severe constraints in colonial times. The constraints were both social and cultural, but as electoral democracy advanced, political constraints gained ground. Politicians of every ideological persuasion resented the role of colleges and universities in maintaining the supply of critical voices. These institutions have now been forced to compromise their role in training the young to speak out. The compromise has taken over three decades to occur. It is hardly surprising that no political party shed a tear. So, if we now return to the question my young student had asked: ‘Does liberalisation promote liberal values?’ The answer is, ‘It hasn’t.’ Rather, it has eroded our society’s institutional capacity to train young people who might pursue liberal values by exercising an independent voice.