Nairobi and After

The future for higher education is a matter of deep contestation

Despite the Nairobi declaration, in which all 164 member countries agreed to end export subsidies on agricultural products over the next couple of years, the “deep divide between rich and poor countries on trade persists”, and serious doubt has been expressed that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will ever again be able to negotiate meaningful multilateral trade liberalisation. The crux of the problem seems to be that India has been “unable to play its traditional role as wreaker” as it allowed the developed countries to introduce “new issues” in the agenda of future negotiations but failed to mobilize a consensus on the development issues of the Doha Round which are seen as favourable to the developing countries.[1] Perhaps this can help to explain the “disappointment” of India’s Commerce Minister who was lured by a place at the high table into signing onto the former but was dumped by the developed countries and even Brazil when it came to the latter.

Nothing significant has been heard on General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS), and there is no news from Ms. Sitharaman on whether the Indian government responded to, or was even aware of, the growing and united demand by the academic community and democratic political parties that the offer of higher education to GATS be withdrawn. If, as the above scenario suggests, the Doha Round is indeed dead, the opportunity to withdraw this offer may have been lost. The new agenda of future negotiations will usher in an aggressive phase of liberalisation and the Indian government which has already shown itself to be pliable to demands by the developed countries, will be in a much weaker position now even if it wanted to protect the rights of its citizens.

However, the struggle in defence of higher education is already being fought on the ground. As privatisation and marketisation of education are being vigorously promoted by government policies the situation is rapidly deteriorating and attacks on the education system and on academic inquiry and freedom are becoming noticeably fiercer. In order to transform education into a commodity and a tradable service as the GATS regime demands, its character as a vibrant space for socially aware critical inquiry and expression needs to be first destroyed. This means that its constituent, freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, association and instruction can no longer be tolerated. Since academic communities both inhabit and define this space which is so essential to any free, open and stable society they become targets, systemically and individually, of governments and forces that seek to oppress people in the interests of the exploiters and profiteers.

In India over the past couple of years what appeared to be uncharacteristic, atypical `incidents’, like the brutal killing of rationalist thinker Narendra Dabholkar, unmistakably acquired the quality of pre-determined and violent vigilantism against free thought with the similar mode of assassination of Govind Pansare and Professor Kulburgi, as also the threats to other thinkers and writers. The recent denial of bail to Prof. G.N. Saibaba despite his 90% level of physical disability because of his ideological commitment, stands in sharp contrast to the bail given to a central minister accused of rape, and to the dropping of charges against the president of the current ruling party in exyta-judicial killings where he has been named in the charge sheet. The purpose of such incidents was to silence inconvenient but powerful voices, and to suppress and frighten others who try to think and act independently.

It was this silence that had to be broken for the struggle to advance. Academic bodies at the state and central level being packed with individuals from a particular ideological stable – even though they clearly lacked both the academic and the professional credibility – had raised apprehensions and disgust among concerned sections. It  required however, the courageous and sustained action of the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) to bring this anger out in the open. The impact of their refusal to accept sub-standard appointments to the FTII’s governing bodies led to strong support from the film and television industry, from film makers, actors, writers and the public at large. Their sustained struggle, even disregarding their own professional futures, made people aware of the importance of these academic and professional bodies and emphasised the necessity of making suitable appointments.

In order to transform education into a commodity and a tradable service as the GATS regime demands, its character as a space for socially aware critical inquiry and expression must be destroyed…. its constituent freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, association and instruction … no longer … tolerated.

The ghastly murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, by a lynch mob of RSS/BJP leaders and supporters, who broke into his home claiming that `beef’ was being consumed and stored there, proved to be the proverbial last straw. When writers Uday Prakash and Nayantara Sehgal returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against this growing intolerance and the complete failure of the state to act or even to speak out in defence of its citizens’ right to live, act and think freely, a flood of `award wapsi’s’ pushed even the present insensitive government on the back foot. As the nation’s leading historians, scientists, performing artists, painters etc., expressed their opposition to the threatened destruction of the very idea of a secular and democratic ethos in the country, the powerful force of the ethical values which the intelligentsia publicly advocated was plain for all to see.

Within this atmosphere the resistance to the government’s offer of higher education to WTO-GATS as a tradable commodity began to spread. In university and college campuses and in research institutes across the country students and faculty have raised their voices against what they clearly began to see as a danger to the future of democracy and a threat to the people’s right to fight against discrimination and inequality. The Occupy UGC movement in its broad sweep and range opposed the government’s attempt to curtail research fellowships, slash budgets for education and reduce higher education to market requirements.  The WTO claims to promote higher education as a necessary vehicle for economic and technological development, but not in a manner that would encourage dissent and wider access to “new” voices that have historically been denied education because of gender, caste, religious, regional, linguistic, and disability discriminations. By tailoring education to narrow market requirements, students are motivated to view education as tied to job markets. This manufactured `need’ can then be exploited to make room for education corporations to profiteer at their expense. Student indebtedness is spreading world-wide. The neoliberal model of `jobless growth’ is converting it into a debt-trap.

Repressive governments that stifle inquiry and expression beyond sanctioned limits are required to secure the education `market’ for the exploiters. WTO demands that, in the name of freeing trade, academic communities be closely monitored. Democratic rights of association and legitimate forms of protest need to be discredited as forms of political `interference’ but corporate controls and unrestricted fee hikes are to be protected. The present Minister for Human Resources Development has not even found time to give an appointment for meetings with the two professional All-India Associations of College and University Teachers (AIFUCTO), and the Federation of Central University Teachers (FEDCUTA), although she regularly consults with, or is instructed by, ideological hacks of the RSS. In the past few months, we have also seen that brutal police action against peacefully protesting students, including girls, has become the normal reaction from the authorities when faced with the legitimate demands and concerns of the academic community.

Post-Nairobi, the demand that GOI withdraw higher education from the stranglehold of WTO-GATS regulation would continue to be resolutely advanced but it cannot be the sole focus of resistance. Government’s strategy of easing the implementation of a GATS regime by distorting the very nature and purpose of higher education and suppressing democratic movements in defence of higher education will have to be resisted and fought back through protracted struggles on a day to day basis.


[1] Greg Rushford, Opinion/Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Dec 21, 2015





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