Shiksha Samvad with Ramesh Patnaik ( General Secretary, All India Forum for RTE)
The Government of India (GOI) has expressed its readiness to allow educational traders from all over the world i.e. 160 member-nations of World Trade Organisation (WTO) to establish colleges, universities and other technical or professional institutions in India as commercial ventures. This is done in form of submitting ‘offers’ to WTO. Once India’s education sector comes under this regime, the people’s right to education, for which the GOI must be democratically accountable, will be completely dismantled. The unbridled privatization and commercialization demanded by the WTO-GATS regime would not only deny access to the poor but also to those who may afford to purchase it in the market since even they would not get it worth the name. This is because thorough commercialisation will result in degradation of the very purpose of education, course content and pedagogical practices. Again, the academic autonomy, independent research and democratic spaces in our educational institutions will be eroded. The WTO regime considers education as a tradable service and a commodity and student a customer in clear legal terms. Once, the global commitment for market access in education comes into force, essentially speaking, the GOI would be bound to protect the interests of foreign and domestic corporate houses who pursue trade in education against the interests of the students and teachers of the country. If the people of India, particularly students and teachers, fail to bring pressure on the GOI to withdraw the ‘offers’ given to WTO in higher education sector immediately, our education system will be entangled with the WTO regime forever and be doomed.
Technically speaking, the GOI has submitted its ‘offers’ for ‘Market Access’ in ‘Higher Education Sub-Sector’ to WTO way back in August 2005 as a part of Doha Round Trade Negotiations which started in 2001 in Doha, Qatar. However, they have not yet become ‘commitments’ as the trade negotiations could not be concluded for the last 10 years. But, now there is a fresh momentum in the negotiations. Plans are on to expedite the process of the ongoing trade negotiations in WTO from the forthcoming July onwards and successfully conclude them in the ensuing Tenth Ministerial Conference to be held at Nairobi, Kenya from 15th to 18th December this very year. This Conference aims at significantly widening the jurisdiction and scope of WTO. If GOI do not withdraw its ‘offers’ given to WTO in Higher Education Sector well in advance of the Conference, these would automatically become irrevocable ‘commitments’ on the part of the nation with far-reaching implications.
Onward March of Imperialism: The countries of the world are classified by WTO as 1) Developed; 2) Developing; and 3) Least Developed. Economic inequalities among countries referred to as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ are a product of the imperialist exploitation of the latter by the former. WTO was constituted to protect the interests of the developed countries; it is detrimental to the interest of the developing world. Developing countries like India joined WTO intending to use this membership for the benefit of its corporate houses, and promising subsequent `trickle down’ benefits for the people. The class and social inequalities (caste, ethnic, gender, disability-related, linguistic) in all countries and inequalities among nations stand aggravated due to different agreements operating under the WTO regime for the last two decades. With the proposed expansion of WTO operations at the Tenth Ministerial this process will be further intensified. Ironically, this ‘Doha Round Trade Negotiations’ is also called Doha Development Agenda as it has got some palliatives for the poor nations in order to woo them.
GATS-Education: Three Integrated Multilateral Agreements viz., 1) General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT-1994) which includes Agreement on Agriculture; 2) Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS); and 3) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) together constitute the main body of WTO. Education, reduced to one of tradable services, is brought under GATS which is one of the three integrated multilateral agreements under WTO regime as stated above. Ironically, the trade in education is governed by GATS Council (Council for Trade in Services) along with and at par with services such as recreation clubs and night pubs under the same set of rules, though with some variations due to domestic regulations of member-nations! The ‘offers’ and ultimately the ‘commitments’ in ‘Market Access’ are to be given by a member country in Mode-wise and Sector-wise format for operationalisation of GATS in the country.
Foreign Providers: We need not oppose foreign universities if they are coming to India on the basis of educational and cultural relations between our country and a foreign country in order to exchange and spread knowledge. This has been a prominent feature throughout India’s history and was promoted by leaders of the freedom struggle including Gandhi and Tagore. But, that is not the case at all under WTO regime. Now, the foreign universities are coming under global trade agreement to make profits. Again, under this agreement, it is not a must that only well-established good quality foreign universities come here and provide comparable education and research facilities. Any provider can establish a new sub-standard university in the country of origin and then establish a branch here. A report of a survey by World Bank in 2000 on foreign educational providers is on record stating that ‘well-known universities of Developed Countries established low standard branches in backward countries’.
Domestic Regulation: Accredited bodies formed under the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM), one of the legal instruments under WTO, would annually review the trade policies of different countries and ‘suggest’ to the countries to change their respective policies. This regulation of domestic policies by WTO bodies will prove to be an outright infringement on freedom and sovereignty of the nations in formulation of their respective public policies. In all possibility, the public policy perspective of member countries would be controlled by WTO regime. The developing and the ‘least developed’ countries would fall victim in an incremental manner to this provision. The TPRM personnel with full authority meet the ministers and secretaries of the HRD Ministry on yearly basis and enquire year after year about the implementation of the so-called reforms agenda in education. The HRD Minister would be more accountable to TPRM personnel than to the people of India! The HRD Ministry in UPA regime introduced six Higher Education Bills in the Parliament to change the Domestic Regulations in conformity with WTO demands. Though all the bills now got lapsed, there is every possibility that the present BJP lead NDA regime introduce their equivalent ones and try to pass them. Thus, the ‘domestic regulation’ by WTO and its organs can lead to infringement on sovereignty of the member countries, more particularly of the developing and the ‘least developed’ ones.
Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRAs): In recent times, Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRAs) have been established in many service sectors. We have IRA for Power, for Water, Insurance, Tele-communication and other services. Following the model of market oriented enterprises promoting corporate values that was provided by the Ambani-Birla Report for Higher Education reform (2000), the report of the Sam Pitroda-led National Knowledge Commission (2006), suggested that an ‘Independent Regulatory Authority of Higher Education’ (IRA for HE) be established. Prof. Yash Pal’s report on ‘Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (2008)’ recommended establishment of an overarching body, ‘National Commission for Higher Education and Research’ (NCHER), by either abolishing or subsuming existing all-India educational bodies like UGC, AICTE, NCTE, MCI, BCI etc. Such IRAs are clearly intended to divest existing statutory bodies of institutions of higher education of their autonomy, and representative central and state governments of their legislative responsibility and accountability. Establishment of such IRAs can only be understood as a compliance of the ‘Additional Commitments’ provision under GATS. In higher education, like the already established IRAs in different services, an IRA would be ‘independent’ of public pressure and would be free to ‘regulate’ the sector in favor of domestic and foreign capital. The previous UPA government’s reform Bill to establish the NCHER may have lapsed along with its other higher education reform Bills, but the present BJP-led government has already announced its commitment to establish a similar body in its Election Manifesto (2014)