‘Relevance’, ‘Mobility’ and ‘Upgradation’:It’s Market All the Way in the Higher Education Policy Making*

Ravi Kumar**

Policies and programmes are not constituted outside the governing principles of the system, which in today’s case is mindless urge for profit seeking. For instance, it cannot be denied how committedly the Indian state pursues the agenda of private capital. The ‘social sector’ is the most grievously hurt victim of this onslaught. The recent debates and policies in favour of privatisation of higher education and the emphasis of the Planning Commission or the United Progressive Alliance Chairperson (the ruling alliance) on the need to encourage participation of private sector in education are some of the most recent and vital contexts within which any decision of the state in education needs to be read.

While reading the context what also becomes necessary is the need to unravel the farcical employment of certain concepts such as ‘social justice’ by the state. It has been amply clarified by the Government of India statistics itself that over 70% of Indians live on Rs.20 or below per day. This reflects in a certain sense the condition of the Indian masses and the debate on justice needs to consider this as a constituting variable of its understanding. Hence, the government would argue that precisely because of such profound marginalisation, apart from those based on caste, etc., that ‘schemes’ to uplift the downtrodden masses are required. But then, and quite ironically, it also pursues a relentless agenda of privatisation, which inevitably converts education into a commodity as any other in the market and creates a situation of exclusivity for some and denial for millions. The social justice remains only rhetoric. Then, the big question remains whether the majority of Indians can purchase this commodity of education? Answer will be negative. Therefore, if social justice means making education accessible to all or if it means equipping everyone to compete in market then it has to be seen as something contesting marketisation of education.

Another aspect of this context is the absence of democratisation. Dialogue is one of the vital constituents of democracy and it can be identified at two levels – horizontal as well as vertical. Despite all rhetoric of participation and decentralisation, the way things happen in India it can be identified only with vertical dialogue. The Government one day feels that the curriculum should be revised, so it begins a process, which involves the ‘intellectuals’ concentrated in and around the power centre. The school curriculum as well as higher education curriculum is transformed in the similar manner. In the name of dialogue, seminars in various cities are organised and thereby a ‘consensus’ is reached. Would these ‘dialogues’ would have same responses if debated across over 500 DIETs (District Institute of Educational Training) or across as many Village/Block Education Committees (VEC, BEC)? It still remains something that the ‘intellectual-administrators’ need to work upon. Such a process would have not only generated a horizontal dialogue but also a process of ‘conscientisation’ on some of the most vital issues including religious sectarianism. The horizontal dialogue would have allowed withering of notions such as someone from the metropolitan centre of Delhi is necessarily better equipped to understand the educational deprivation of Dalits in a Bihar village through the active participation of the local VEC or BEC members on these issues. It is about ending hierarchies, including the thoughts of those who are intentionally kept out of policy making and implementation. But we tend to avoid debates and critical gestures made at our thoughts and actions because it does not serve ‘our purpose’. If the common man is included in these dialogic processes s/he may start questioning the schools trying to introduce courses on BPO trainings or universities having courses on ‘stock’ or ‘tourism’ or why fundamental research is relegated to second plane. One needs to build upon these contexts if one wants to truly grasp the recent development in higher education.

The recent decision of UGC (See “To bring in Uniformity, UPA orders university curriculum upgrade”, The Indian Express, December 6, 2007) to bring ‘uniformity’ in education not only raises serious pedagogical issues but also has ramifications for the liberal ethos of higher education. These ramifications will be primarily in form of curtailing the creative potential of teachers and students, mechanising the process of teaching-learning as well as, ultimately, making the system subservient to the needs of the market.

Traditionally universities have represented a kind of dichotomy. While they have worked within the framework of state, they have also been centres of dissent and rebellion. Whether it was the students’ movement of 1968, the students’ upheaval of 1970s in India, or later on many issues, universities have time and again demonstrated their vibrant democratic ethos. The recent decision of the Government demolishes this foundational ethos of higher education. It is already playing pranks with the Indian population by putting forth rhetorics of social justice along with large scale privatisation of higher education, thereby taking education out of reach of most of Indians.

By not consulting the higher education institutions on such an issue the Government has persisted with its practice of top-down mechanism in policy making and implementation. Such a practice diminishes possibilities of dialogue, which can be one of the true instruments against undemocratic socio-political tendencies. Rather such instances become precedences to institutionalise sectarianism in education system.

The initial reports indicate towards the danger of making courses subservient to market in name of linking the life inside and outside the college. However, the danger, as indicated by recent trends in school education, is that in the name of making courses ‘relevant’ and ‘professional’ they are modified or deleted to suit the needs of market. The element of critical inquiry, identifying, for instance, the relationship between such courses and the interests of capital also constitute an aim of higher education. Are we going to emphasise on such as aspects as well in our revision of courses? Secondly, are we not deliberately fostering a hierarchisation of courses in this process on basis of certain criteria such as its job prospects etc.? The creative potential of the student as well as the teacher takes a backseat in these exercises.

Every region has a distinct socio-economic and cultural ethos which demands specific curriculum and pedagogy. Will a student coming out of a private schooling system or from the metropolis require similar curriculum and pedagogic methods as a student of a village government school from a backward region to get integrated with the global economy? Perhaps, no. Such initiatives and the people attached with them need to rethink and reflect on the aims of higher education. And, lastly, how they reconcile the requirements of the private capital with the aims of higher education to infuse a sense of criticality and creativity will remain a major challenge.

**Teaches sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
*This is an expanded version of a response published in The Economic Times, 12th December 2007

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