Education is a Right, Not a Commodity

The students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, have been waging an agitation for nearly a month now demanding the rollback of hiked hostel fees. That education is a right and not a commodity has been asserted by the democratic student movement for long.

Student protests have taken place in the recent weeks in many other centrally funded higher educational institutions in India, including several Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) such as those in Chennai, Guwahati, and Mumbai. Students and doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, have come out in opposition to the hike in student fees and user charges proposed at their institution. Students of Ambedkar University Delhi, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, have also demanded a reduction in their fees.

Students and research scholars from other institutions have also issued statements, and organised protests and public meetings in solidarity with the ongoing struggles. PhD research scholars from IIT Delhi, the students' association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and the University of Hyderabad Students Union have issued statements. Students in Calicut University have waved black flags at Union Minister Sanjay Dhotre in solidarity with the struggle in JNU (Hindu 2019a).

On 23 November, thousands of students, working youth, teachers and others joined a massive citizen's march in Delhi in defence of education as a right. On 27 November, a National Protest Day was observed across Indian campuses in defence of affordable and accessible education (Hindu 2019b).

That education is a right and not a commodity has been asserted by the democratic student movement long. But, what exactly does this mean?

After three decades of economic "reforms" that had pushed privatisation in every sphere, many people seem to be taken aback by the very idea that education is a right. 

“How can education be a right? We paid through our nose to get an education, shouldn't everybody do the same?” 

“Doesn't subsidised education as a right amount to ‘freebies’?”

These are some of the questions raised by those who believe that education is a commodity.

Crude versions of the “education as commodity” argument claim that everybody should pay for their own education. Those who do not have the money may take loans to cover their expenses, the argument goes.

There are also more sophisticated versions of the argument, which say: let the students from better-off families pay high fees; the higher fees paid by them can be used to subsidise poorer students. This is called a “differential fee structure.”

Those who believe that education is a right reject both the crude and the sophisticated versions of the "education as commodity" argument. Let us examine why.

The Crude Version of the “Education as Commodity” Argument

The case against the crude version is simple. There is a very large section of students who will not be able to access education if the cost of running educational institutions is sought to be recovered by charging fees. In the case of India, a recent calculation has shown that 85% of the population has a family income of less than Rs 10,000 per month (Das 2019). It is not viable for everybody who cannot pay high fees to take loans. The best example would be that of the United States (US), where millions of students are deeply in debt due to student loans which they are struggling to repay, with severe consequences for their standards of living and well-being. There are millions of senior citizens in the US who are still paying back their student loans. The fact of the matter is that the economy is not generating a sufficient number of jobs, particularly the kind of jobs that will enable all those who take education loans to pay them back. The case of India is no different.

What About the Argument For A Differential Fee Structure?

Answering this question takes us to some basic issues. The vast majority of students do not have their own sources of income, and have to depend on their parents (or take loans). Many parents who will pay for their children's school education are not willing to pay for higher education of their children's choice. The problem becomes particularly severe when it comes to research degrees like MPhil and PhD. Often when parents are willing to fund higher studies, far too many of them try to coerce their children into choosing career options that they (the parents) prefer rather than those that the students themselves prefer. Moreover, if one had to pay high fees, one is, more often than not, forced to choose a career that gets back the money paid as fees, rather than what one actually wants to do. 

In other words, as Prabhat Patnaik (2015) points out, when education becomes a commodity, a buyer of that commodity is forced to sell themself as a commodity that commands a high enough price in the market. By way of example, imagine a student who studies in a self-financed private medical college by paying Rs 5 million. Once they earn that medical degree, their most important concern would be to recover the expenses incurred while studying. Therefore, the doctor might be forced to work in a private super-speciality hospital that provides expensive treatment, even if they would actually prefer to work in a public hospital where they would be able to provide service to the poor and the needy. At a private hospital, for example, the doctor might be under further pressure to prescribe expensive medicines and unnecessary and costly medical procedures.

Apart from these, given the situation in India, there is an important additional factor. High fees and the consequent additional dependence on parents imply that the student is much more at risk of being forced to marry someone against their own wishes. This is, of course, far more acute a problem in the case of women. For so many women, a university space that allows freedom, where fees are low, and where scholarships for students or fellowships for research scholars are available, provides a breathing space and a potential bulwark against such threats. Numerous men also come under pressure to take up jobs that they may not like, and to “settle down” after being forced to choose life partners against their own wishes.

In short, once you pay high fees to earn a degree, you are likely to become a slave of either the interests of your family or those of the market, which forces you to get your money back as fast as possible. What education should do instead is to help people liberate themselves. It should give them wings, not shackles.

Moreover, research scholars (those who pursue MPhil or PhD) need to be compensated for their work. From the point of view of the society as a whole, research involves the expansion of our knowledge base, and is not just “studies” in a conventional sense. Research in all disciplines, including basic sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, is important to ensure the intellectual self-reliance of a formerly colonised country like ours. Private funding would be limited by numbers, accessible to very few people, and would often come attached with conditions regarding what should be researched, what can be written and so on. Such research, therefore, has to be necessarily publicly funded.

A decade ago, the Report to the Nation (2006–09) of the National Knowledge Commission, not a particularly radical body, had made the following recommendation: 

“It is generally true that interested and talented people choose to pursue doctoral studies. They could have easily opted for better paying career options. Also, there are many more students whom the system fails to attract on account of remuneration issues. Thus it is important that while deciding remunerations, opportunity costs are factored in. There should be a regular upgradation of the amount of fellowships offered for PhDs, and in general for the entire academic profession.” (National Knowledge Commission 2009)

For many years, the fellowship amounts available to the vast majority of research scholars in India's central universities have stagnated at Rs 5,000 per month and at Rs 8,000 for MPhil and PhD, respectively. Instead of resorting to fee hikes that dangerously increase the living expenses of students and researchers, the government should increase the fellowship amount for research scholars, and provide adequate scholarships for the poorer students in other degree programmes.

Are Standards in Public Educational Institutions Low?

There are people who claim that the standards of education provided by government-funded educational institutions are low. Facts show that this claim is false. Our best higher educational institutions—Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, University of Hyderabad, IITs, Indian Institutes of Management, National Institutes of Technology—are in the public sector. In the case of schools, well-funded Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas are known for their high standards. The key issue is that of funding. Kerala and Delhi have shown that excellent government schools can be a reality if sufficient funds are earmarked for them, and adequate attention is paid to running them well instead of running them down to prepare them for privatisation. 

What About Funding?

The money that India spends on education is very low in comparison to most countries. India’s central and state governments' combined spend for education is a mere 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP). This is far behind not only socialist Cuba and several Western European and Scandinavian countries where education is free, but also other developing countries like Brazil, South Africa and Kenya, as Figure 1 shows.

The youth and student movements have been demanding increased public funding for education and healthcare, and higher public expenditure to generate jobs. In response, most ruling politicians and mainstream economists would ask, where the money is going to come from. The short answer would be: tax the rich.

Taxing the Rich

The rich in India are simply unwilling to pay taxes, and they manage to extract far too many tax exemptions for themselves from governments they control, which has resulted in India being unable to raise sufficient revenues to fund public services. This can be seen in India's tax-to-GDP ratio (tax revenue as percentage of the GDP), which is among the lowest in the world at 17.8%. Advanced countries with the strongest public services and social security systems have high tax-to-GDP ratios. The figure for Sweden is 44.6%, 47.9% for France, and 34.8% for the United Kingdom. The figure for even the United States, known for a relatively weak social security system, is 26.3%. Other developing countries like Brazil and South Africa are doing much better, at 33.8% and 29.4% respectively.[1]

Economists have for long pointed out that doing away with tax exemptions and instituting a wealth tax along with an inheritance tax can help raise revenues substantially (Ghosh and Rekhy 2016). 

This is something that the student and youth movements could consider adding to their core demands. Doing so would be of enormous value. Sections of the general public who are confused by the arguments about the alleged “lack of funds” will now find that there are absolutely practical ways to raise sufficient funds.

For the student movement, "tax the rich" could easily and usefully be added to the demands for withdrawal of fee hikes and higher scholarships and fellowships.

One of the famous slogans of the French students' agitation of May 1968 was, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” The apparent contradiction in the slogan referred to the system that made the realisation of their slogans impossible. The demands we are talking about today, however, are nothing but possible.

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