A few years after I had joined the government service about four decades ago, I was transferred from a district in undivided Andhra Pradesh and posted as Director, Technical Education at Hyderabad. I was excited to get this opportunity, rather early in my career, to face new kinds of challenge. It was ‘new’ in every sense that I could not anticipate. That was the time when the interest to set up private engineering colleges was flourishing in A.P. Applications started flowing in and I found myself coping with the tide. Inexperienced in this field, yet infused with the ideology that education should be a monopoly of the state, I decided to oppose the move. However, government, at the secretariat level, overruled my recommendations and the new colleges started springing up.
During the process I used to informally consult my mentors in the Service and was advised to consider certain points. Could this interest in private technical education be a reaction by the better-off sections of the society to government’s affirmative social actions? Shouldn’t technical education, being so cost-intensive, be left to private entrepreneurs and business groups many of whom may be the ultimate users of such technical personnel? Why should scarce public resources be allocated to capital-intensive higher technical education depriving the primary and secondary sectors? Since by that time Karnataka was way ahead in this respect, some politicians also exclaimed: Why should Andhra’s money be going to the adjoining state? And the like. My argument that those who were ‘buying’the seats now would also be ‘buying’ the jobs later was dismissed as a young officer’s idealism. About four decades later, I wonder if I was right in my youthful exuberance.
What agitated me then started becoming a part of our reality. This movement to facilitate private initiative and induction of funds in education, more so in higher education and perhaps most so in higher technical education (including in medical education) has reached a state now that it is not merely considered inevitable, it is considered desirable as well. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of informed debate in the public domain on this important subject. The book under review serves to raise critical questions on issues that political leaders, administrators, educationists and other policy planners often fail to notice.
The author Jandhyala BG Tilak, former Vice-Chancellor of National University of Educational Planning and Administration and one of India’s best known authorities in the field, makes it clear in the Introduction: ‘The main argument of the book lies in stressing the need to resurrect the public good nature of higher education… It simply argues that the role of the state in higher education development is critical and cannot be reduced. The process of weakening of the public sector needs to be arrested and its long cherished critical goal gradually restored….it underlines the need for increased public financing and warns against excessive reliance on cost-recovery measures and privatisation..’ This perspective should not be treated as a naïve lament of a traditional educationist steeped in statist traditions.
The strength of the book, a collection of twelve articles published in major national and international journals between 2003 and 2013, rests on the author’s capacity to enumerate and analyse the points and counterpoints of the conflicting issues—role of state vis-à-vis the market, public funding vs the private, model of classical university vs the modern university turning into ‘an innovative entrepreneurial institution’ (especially in the context of the global revolution in information and communication technology), and then arrive at a reasoned conclusion. While many readers may not agree with his traditional—classical perspective, they would be immensely benefitted from the complexity and nuances of the issues discussed.
The longish introduction provides a synopsis of each article and then links them all in an admirable manner. At the end of each of the twelve pieces, conclusions have been summarized. There are also extensive notes and references to guide the reader for further study and research. Also interesting is the way the essays, complete in themselves, have been arranged logically so that the book, as a whole, provides a comprehensive picture of the sector as seen from a broad international perspective.
The first article that sets the tone of the book is titled ‘Higher Education: A Public Good or a Commodity for Trade?’ starting with his exposition of what constitutes public good according to noted economists—‘as those that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous’, that generate a large quantum of externalities, simply known as social or public benefits, Tilak argues that higher education is indeed so (at least, quasi-public good) and cites Amartya Sen to say ‘… education is development, it is freedom, and the creation of capabilities among the people is an important function of higher education.’ Alluding to the decline in public expenditure on higher education per student (% of GDP per capita) in various countries including India, he explains the factors responsible for this global trend in which ‘…some of the best universities in the world, such as Oxford and Cambridge… are entering into the business of trading their degrees to overseas students, essentially constrained by state grants… more than 50 large transnational companies, which are active in providing international educational programmes on a for-profit basis, are publicly traded on stock exchanges.’
Tilak then highlights the costs of treating higher education as a commodity and warns about the perils of such commodification and marketization of higher education that is resulting in decreasing demands for the natural, physical and social sciences, humanities and languages. He blames the neo-liberal economic policies and the advent of WTO and GATS for this dramatic shift in the sector in the last few decades.
‘Higher Education Between the State and the Market’ ends with the observation ‘…viewed in the context of relatively low standards of living for ordinary people and imperfect and incomplete markets’ it is imperative that the state plays a dominant role yielding no place to market mechanisms, especially in the context of India. This may appear as a socialistic assertion, but the spirit of the statement is understandable.
In the essay ‘Are We Marching Towards Laissez-faireism in Higher Education Development’, Tilak questions the standard premises: Higher education has over-expanded in developing regions; it has expanded at the cost of primary education; it is heavily subsidized by the state; and developing countries do not require higher education. Giving a chronology of landmark events in the last three decades, the author opines that the World Bank policy paper of 1986 on financing education in developing countries that ‘clearly recommended reallocation of public resources in favour of primary education and against higher education’ was game changing in its import.
Another interesting essay titled ‘Lessons From Cost Recovery in Education’ ends with the prescription ‘…strategy of funding general education, out of general tax revenues based upon a progressive scale, and of financing higher education out of a mix of general and specific tax instruments, is likely to remain the best option in many developing countries for some time to come.’
‘Financing of Higher Education: Traditional versus Modern Approaches’, ‘Privatisation of Higher Education:Current Trends in the Private Sector in Higher Education in Asia’, ‘Higher Education in BRIC Countries: Comparative Patterns and Policies’, ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education’, ‘Social Control on Higher Education’, ‘Higher Education and Development in Asia’ and ‘Universities: An Endangered Species?’— all these papers are rich in content, deep in analysis, detailed and illuminative in their exposition, though the inherent arguments are repetitive at times. There is no specific essay on the Indian scenario and hardly any discussion on higher technical education (where the private sector is playing a major role). Policy makers in India, over the decades since Independence, have been struggling on allocation of public resources to such conflicting demands. In India, public investment on higher education, or for that matter on education sector as a whole, being appallingly low by any standard, the case for its substantial enhancement is understandable. But because of severe resource constraints, such leap in public funding is unlikely to happen in the near future.Hence, the urgent need for innovative approaches for this sector.
Evidently, standard prescriptions would not cure new problems being faced in an aspirational India. While the state has to play a dominant role in the areas of higher general education, private sector has to concurrently play an expanding role, especially in the field of capital intensive technical education, driven by market forces. It is rather early to judge that the present global trend, as reflected in India as well, is inappropriate or distortionary.
The book’s worth will be further enhanced if the essays are updated with the latest available statistics and fresh thinking on the subject.
Amitabha Bhattacharya, an engineer by education and a retired member of the IAS, has served in the erstwhile Planning Commission, as Principal Adviser in charge of Education, Culture, and with UNDP, New Delhi. He now writes mostly on public affairs in national dailies.