Time For A Student Movement To Stand Up To This ‘Business Of Education’?

Posted on March 27, 2015 in Specials

By Devesh Narayanan:

The education sector seems to have taken the biggest blow during the recent budget restructuring, with massive cuts in fund allocation around the world. Most governments have shifted focus to primary education, leaving higher education open to the private sector. This alarming trend of the privatization of higher education has become a serious concern, given the series of negative ramifications on students, teachers, and societies.

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Yet the increasingly ubiquitous nature of privatized universities has resulted in an unprecedented drop in the quality of education, and students around the world are coming together to petition for change.

Numerous questions are being raised as to how so many governments are so callously disregarding the future of their people with such myopic policies. But, the only answers that we’ve received are pitiful excuses and illogical rebuttals. Narayan Ramaswamy, a partner and head of educational practice at the consultancy firm KPMG recently said, “We are not a rich country and instead of complete state funding, elite institutes should be allowed to raise funds themselves.”

Well yes, perhaps we aren’t the richest country in the world. But I believe that there is no greater investment than education, and a country rides on its educated task-force to push for greater economic growth. Privatization comes with higher fees, over-crowded schools, under-skilled teachers, and irrelevant training, but no one really seems to care. I believe that the prevalence of this “bystander culture” has become one of the greatest threats to our education system.

Investing in education is the greatest contribution towards building a better human capital, and I find it intriguing that these budget cuts come in the light of the grandiose development plans by PM Modi and the other world leaders. Today, India struggles to spread its wings of modernity against the ever-widening gap of social inequalities in the country. Talent and money are distributed arbitrarily, but it has become increasingly difficult for a student to find the education he or she deserves. Neither a rich student from a sub-standard university, nor a poor student with basic schooling is going to make much of a contribution to the society. Our dream of an active, vibrant, and progressive India isn’t going to be realized if so many students are left behind.

Therefore, I believe that the privatization of educational institutions will lead to the rise of very significant issues. The inevitable hikes in fees will deny many students from lower income-bands the opportunity to pursue higher education. However, for those who do manage to pay the extravagant fees, the profit-driven motives of the institutions will often lead to a compromised quality of education.

A good example of this would be the London School of Economics (LSE), where students recently occupied a central administration room at the university in protest of what they call the ‘marketization of higher education.’ Students were quoted as saying, “When a university becomes a business, the whole of student life is transformed. When a university is more concerned with its image, its marketability and the ‘added value’ of its degrees, the student is no longer a student — they become a commodity and education becomes a service.”

The situation at LSE wasn’t a first, and it certainly won’t be the last. Universities around the globe have become a space for dissent, with students raising their voices against the corporatization of education. With the spread of the occupation movement to Sheffield, Warwick, Birmingham, and Oxford, and large-scale rebellions in Quebec and Amsterdam, students are campaigning actively to show that the current system simply cannot continue. In an example closer to home, a large number of students recently took their protest to the streets, to demonstrate against the Central Universities Act and the Credit-Based Choice system, both of these have been deemed as “toothless” and “a khichdi of no relevance.”

The Central Universities Act seeks to regulate central universities through a common set of rules and procedures, with a provision for transferring the  faculty and a centralised recruitment process. The move has been termed as a “draconian assault” on quality education, and an attempt to enforce uniformity. The Credit-Based Choice System is best described as a cafeteria-style education, where students are overburdened with a concoction of foundation, core and elective papers that merely touch upon the subjects being taught.

The students also protested against the largely unsuccessful Lyngdoh Committee recommendations, which have failed to curb the use of “money and muscle-power” in student elections. Instead, the policy has served as a means to curb the freedom to organize student movements, and has been termed as a “direct attack on campus democracy”. It is no doubt a radical undertaking by the government to make such drastic changes, but these changes threaten to destabilize an already weak system. Our country’s future should never be the guinea-pig of governmental experimentation.

Undoubtedly, the privatization of education has left many students dissatisfied, and the education they are receiving today does not justify their investment. As educational institutions shift towards satisfying their sponsors and benefactors instead of their students, I believe that they will make a string of bad decisions that will jeopardize their very purpose. Maybe our country isn’t rich enough to afford complete state-funding, but that should never be used as an excuse for a sub-standard quality of education.

It is heartening to see the students stand up for themselves, to demand what is rightfully theirs. A healthy culture of campus dissent is becoming increasingly popular, and I am confident that as more students are mobilized, this resonant voice will be too hard to ignore. As a Delhi University student counsellor aptly puts it, “Decisions about education should always be made in consultation with those who are most affected by them. We will not hesitate to stand up against injustice.”

I believe that it is time for the institutions and governments to pay heed to these protests. With effective discussions, I am confident that a compromise can be reached. In fact, there are a number of global student agitations that have led to the negotiating table amicably, including the recent Quebec. However, more often than not, we see name-calling, finger pointing, and ugly arguments that sometimes result in expulsions and arrests. It is vital for us to realize that everyone is working towards a common ideal: to improve the quality of education in the country.

And we should work together to realize our ambitions. Perhaps, the institutions could be a little more accommodating and allocate a small portion of funds (say 10%) towards meeting the needs of their students. Perhaps, the student unions could be more considerate in taking care to not disrupt college proceedings during their protests. Perhaps, the government could consider additional budget restructuring to ease the burden on the students and the institutions. I am optimistic that careful planning and open discussions could pave the way for the education that we truly deserve.

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