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Fight against inclusion of higher education in WTO

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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 should 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 commercialization will result in degradation of education, course content and pedagogical practices. 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 as 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 government 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 had 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 coming July and successfully conclude them in the ensuing Tenth Ministerial Conference to be held at Nairobi, Kenya from December 15 to 18 this very year. This Conference aims at significantly widening the jurisdiction and scope of WTO. If the Indian government does 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. In this regard the Joint Meeting of National Executive Committee of AIFRTE( All India Forum for right to Education)  and All India Steering Committee of  All India Shiksha Sangharsh Yatra has decided to take up wide campaign against such draconian move of inclusion.

Momentum in Trade Negotiations

A special meeting of the General Council of WTO was held in November, 2014 in Geneva which culminated the process of systematic suppression of the 10-year long resistance of the least developed and developing countries to the encroaching agenda of Doha Round Negotiations.  It was decided to finalise a ‘work programme’ of the negotiations by July, 2015 and further to hold the Tenth Ministerial Conference, the topmost body of WTO, in December 2015. This would prove to be most ruinous for the least developed and developing nations and working masses of the whole world. The decisions of the Tenth Ministerial shall cover trade in goods, including agriculture and services such as education, health, drinking water, public distribution system and all other entitlements of the people. The ongoing Doha Round Trade Negotiations, as stated earlier, started in 2001. These were started in the Fourth Ministerial Conference of WTO held in Doha, Qatar and are hence named after the host city. Being clearly predatory on the sovereignty of the nations and rights of the people, the Doha Round has conceived an elaborate scheme of extending and sharpening the claws of WTO. Anticipating the assault, fighting forces throughout the world are resolutely preparing themselves to resist the Tenth Ministerial Meet. Education-loving people cannot keep silent at this critical juncture.

Onward March of Imperialism

The countries of the world are classified by WTO as Developed, Developing and 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 interests 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. In the last two decades, WTO agreements have aggravated the class and social inequalities (caste, ethnic, gender, disability-related, linguistic) in all countries. With the proposed expansion of WTO operations during the Tenth Ministerial Conference, 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., General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT-1994) which includes Agreement on Agriculture, Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), together constitute the main body of WTO. Education, reduced to one of the tradable services, is brought under GATS.

Ironically, the trade in education is governed by GATS Council (Council for Trade in Services) in the same way as recreation clubs and night pubs, under the same set of rules but 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 the operation of GATS in the country.

FOUR MODES OF TRADE

GATS recognizes five sub-sectors in ‘Education Service’ – Primary Education, Secondary Education, Higher Education, Adult Education and Other Education. The Indian government submitted ‘offers’ in Higher Education Sub-Sector.

GATS also recognizes four modes of trade in all services. In higher education, they would work as Cross Border Supply, where the students receive correspondence education from a foreign supplier and pay the service charges, Consumption Abroad where the students go to a foreign land to receive education and pay service charges, Commercial Presence, where the foreign providers can establish universities and colleges here, provide service and collect service charges, and Presence of Natural Person, where the foreign teachers come to India to render service in institutions and collect service charges.

In all the four cases, as India is opening up its market, the Indian students would be customers, foreign individuals get remuneration and foreign corporate houses earn profits. Even if we keep the question of money aside, the greatest  misfortune would be the reduction of education to a tradable service, a trade controlled by the global corporate forces. The worst thing is that the agreement would be, in essence, irrevocable!

Foreign Providers

We need not oppose foreign universities if they are coming to India on the basis of educational and cultural relations between the countries 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 agreements. Now, the foreign universities are coming to India under global trade agreement to make profits. Again, under this agreement, it is not mandatory 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. Actually, a survey report published by World Bank in 2000 on foreign educational providers states 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 of 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 increasingly fall victim to this provision. The TPRM personnel with full authority meet the ministers and secretaries of the HRD Ministry on a 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 the UPA regime introduced six Higher Education Bills in the Parliament to change the domestic regulations in conformity with WTO demands. Though all the bills have now lapsed, there is every possibility that the present BJP-lead NDA government will introduce 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, we find that Independent Regulatory Authorities (IRAs) have been established in many service sectors. We have IRAs for power, water, insurance, tele-communication and many other services. Sam Pitroda, chairperson of knowledge commission, suggested in his report (November 2006) on Higher Education that an ‘Independent Regulatory Authority of Higher Education’ (IRA for HE) be established to regulate higher education.’ In the same vein, Prof. Yash Pal, in his report on ‘Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (2008)’ suggested that the government should establish an overarching body to be named ‘National Commission for Higher Education and Research’ by either abolishing or subsuming the various all-India educational bodies working in different domains of higher education like UGC, AICTE, NCTE, MCI, BCI and so on.

So, both the Knowledge Commission and the ‘Prof. Yash Pal Committee’ have recommended an independent regulatory body as a high-profile centre of power, often using untenable logic. Establishment of these IRAs can only be understood as a compliance of ‘Additional Commitments’ provision under GATS. These IRAs are clearly established to divest the representative governments of their power and accountability of decision making. The already established IRAs in different services as well as that to be established in the field of education will be ‘independent’ of public pressure and thus be free to ‘regulate’ the respective sectors in favor of domestic and foreign capital. As on date, a bill which was introduced by the previous UPA government to establish an IRA in education under the nomenclature of NCHER stands lapsed along with the other higher education bills. However, the present BJP-led government has already declared in its election manifesto (2014) its commitment to establish a ‘Higher Education Commission’ for the same purpose.

Need of the Hour

WTO-GATS regime reduces education into a commodity and student into a consumer in clear legal terms. Turning education into a tradable commodity will lead not only to the denial of education to the poor and disadvantaged but also to deceiving of students and exploiting of teachers in a global market so created.

Further, globalization of education under trade rules would lead to the degradation of the very purpose course content of higher education, besides research, to suit the needs of corporate world. It relagates education from its position as an enlightening, empowering and transforming process which is required to build citizenry with self dignity on the values of democracy, plurality, social justice, secularism and socialism as enshrined in the constitution of India and to protect its sovereignty. Education-loving people and organisations in India have been organising campaigns against inclusion of Higher Education Sector of India in WTO ever since a back ground paper was circulated by WTO in Sept 1998 in favor of bringing education under its regime.

However, the campaign was not strong enough to stop the ‘offers’ being given to WTO by the Government of India in Higher Education Sector in 2005. It is time now time to build a strong movement demanding the withdrawal of the offers for market access lest they become irrevocable commitments on the part of the nation. AIFRTE appeals to all pro-people organizations, activists, intellectuals, teachers, students and all sections of the struggling masses to join hands for a resolute struggle against this neo-liberal assault on our education system and demand immediate withdrawal of the ‘offers’ given to WTO-GATS in Higher Education lest they become irrevocable bondage for the nation and people!

AIFRTE Presidium

Dr. Meher Engineer, Chairperson, AIFRTE; Ex-President, Indian Academy of Social Science; Kolkata

Prof. Wasi Ahmed, Bihar, Former Joint Secretary, AIFUCTO; Patna

Sri Prabhakar Arade, Maharashtra, President, AIFETO; Kolhapur

Prof. G. Haragopal, National Fellow, ICSSR; TISS, Hyderabad, Telangana

Prof. Madhu Prasad, Delhi, Formerly Deptt. of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University

Prof. Anil Sadgopal, Madhya Pradesh, Former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University; Bhopal

Prof. K. M. Shrimali, Delhi, Formerly Dept. of History, Delhi University

Dr. Anand Teltumbde, Writer & Civil Liberties Activist , Professor, VGSOM,IIT, Khargpur, WB