Right to education: Global cuts in state funding indicate increased privatisation and commodification

Ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education for all is one of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. It has been welcomed by the international community, although there are serious doubts about achieving these goals with the current international institutional structure.

In preceding notes on school and higher education in India, we have seen how it is becoming more and more difficult for students to materially realise their fundamental right to education. This piece tries to map the larger picture of the education system. It is not sufficient to criticise and question national governments alone for their failure to provide opportunities of learning to all. There is much more to the scene than what can ostensibly be seen.

State funding down, tuition fee up

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The present global trend clearly shows regular cuts or insufficiency in state funding that correspond to a constant rise in tuition fee and student loans. Although developing countries’ education system is the worst hit (due to increased pressure of massification), there has been a significant effect on developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand also. Greece, Italy, Hungary and Portugal have seen more than 5 percent cut in overall education budgets, while decreases of 1-5 percent were observed in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Ireland, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain and the Scotland. In India, when 50 years back it was recommended to invest at least 6 percent of GDP in education sector, we are still struggling with a paltry 3.8 percent (a detailed analysis of the Indian scenario is available in Part I and II of this series).

In the United States, public funding in higher education has gone down by $10 billion. To take an example, the University of Texas that earlier got around 60 percent of funding from the state, now gets only 12 percent. For schools also, the cuts continue even eight years after the recession. According to a survey, at least 31 states in the United States provide lesser funding per student as compared to 2008. The cost per student for the university has increased by around five times the rate of inflation since 1983, making it less affordable for the student and increasing the amount of debt she must take. Another data, made available by the United States Department of Labor, shows that between 2006-2016 overall tuition fees in American colleges have risen by a staggering 63 percent.

In 2016 end, Brazil witnessed unprecedented student protests spreading across 1,000 schools in 19 states to protest the austerity policies announced by President Michel Temer. The students fear that imposing the federal spending cap to overcome country’s budget deficits will lead to “sharp cuts in school spending” and put an onerous burden on the poor. Before this, the impeached president — Dilma Roussef’s government had already announced a steep 75 percent cut in Brazil’s post-graduate support programme.

It seems the practice of fund cuts has almost become universal, especially after the global economic crisis. A UNESCO report on higher education predicted in 2009 that the crisis will lead to various implications, including severe constrain on budgets of public universities, pressure to increase the tuition fee and restriction of availability of student loans. These “cutbacks”, the report said would be unprecedented since World War II. As prophetic as it may get!

Role of International Economic Institutions

In the post colonial era, in the desperation to catch up with their developed counterparts, developing and least developed countries are ready to adopt any measure which is prescribed to them as beneficial for their development. Opening up of markets for foreign players in education sector is one such prescription, which sometimes is even administered forcefully.

India offered higher education services under GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) and since then, scholars and activists alike have raised serious questions on its implications. In last months of 2015, there was a long drawn student protest (known as the ‘#OccupyUGC Movement’) in India against the scrapping of Non-NET fellowships given to the students pursuing research in universities. It got support from South African students who were also protesting against the 10.5 percent fee increase by their government around the same time. Critics attribute the scrapping of Non-NET fellowship to India’s offer at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) under GATS. Due to uncertainty about the kind of foreign institutions this offer would attract, there are serious concerns regarding commodification of education with no guarantee of quality or access with equity. There is also a fear of deprivation from subsidised education that the government has been providing till now. The convention in GATS is, once commitment is made, it can only be improved and not withdrawn. If we sign the dotted line to assume the commitments, the education standards will only plummet further. As Jandhyala Tilak points out in his paper submitted at UNESCO — this would open the market for foreign universities, which are likely to have no regard for local – ethos, values, problems and even medium of instruction. It would lead to massive privatisation of education further resulting in increased costs and widening inequities since the ability of the country to “plan education for national needs would disappear altogether.”

Apart from the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also plays an important role in social spending of the debtor countries that take short-term loans whenever there is an economic emergency related to balance of payment or foreign exchange. The lending from IMF (that has increased since global economic crisis) comes with “conditionalities” requiring the debtor country to bring down inflation, make structural adjustments to limit fiscal deficits and government borrowing, promote privatisation and build-up foreign currency reserves. All this renders the low income nations incapable to invest in their education programmes. Afro-Asian countries that are frantically trying to provide free education to their masses, reduce class size, pay salary to teachers and build more classrooms are likely to face cuts in an already inadequate funding. In 2011, a research commissioned by the Education International Research Institute did three case studies of Jamaica, Uganda and Latvia. It was found that in all the three cases, governments were arm-twisted to control the expenditure on essential services including education. This led to a serious compromise in the quality and nature of education that the governments of these countries had planned to provide to their citizens.

Towards where?

The New York Times in its report on South African protests argued that with isolated exceptions like Germany and Norway, high cost of education is a “global problem”. Alongside, it quoted– the increasing costs of learning in the United States, favouring of private institutions by the government and high student debt that is getting more and more difficult to repay.

Global cuts in state funding are indicative of increased privatisation and commodification of education as a tradable product available for the student consumers. There is a crucial role of the international economic institutions such as the WTO and the IMF, which help in relaxing the norms of entries for private players in education markets, particularly in developing and poor countries. The educational process is considered as analogous to a commercial transaction in which students pay tuition and in return receive knowledge, skills and a degree certifying qualification for a vocation. Therefore, instead of being considered a mix of social cultural and economic policy, education is seen as a shoot of economic policy only.

Ibn Sina was a medieval era Persian polymath, regarded as one of the finest scholars of his time. In his single life, he managed to pursue his interests in medicine, philosophy, science and poetry… all at the same time. In fact, his findings became the foundation of many modern theories and principles in science and arts. For instance, his work Al-Qanun fi't-Tibb (The Cannon of Medicine) remained a standard medical textbook in the European and Islamic world till as late as 17th Century. There was no WTO or IMF or the concept of privatised education as we know it today. All that he and his brilliant successors had was an environment, which gave them the space to develop their knowledge for the collective benefit of humanity. Their motivation and interests lay beyond just acquiring a job with some trader.

How many of us today can claim to have the same space that Ibn Sina and his colleagues had in their times? I personally want to learn music and become a poet apart from being a law teacher. But the only anxiety that occupies my mind is to earn the bread for family so that they can live and eat healthy. May be in my profession as a law teacher, I will write some good books and articles before I die. But there, it will end. Many of us, I think are struggling with the same syndrome. Our interests are conditioned to be unidirectional. Our personalities and inner impulses remain unexplored. We see education as an expensive but necessary investment that will potentially fetch us a reasonably good “job”.

Therefore, the idea of education, I think you will agree, needs a thorough revision.

Part 1: Fee hike in private schools: Ambiguous regulation of fees is making education a privilege
Part 2: Erosion of public universities' autonomy: Is education on the way to become a privilege in India?

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 20:54 PM

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