Globalization And Corporatization

Higher Education, Market and Corporate Control

Anup Sinha

The resurgence of faith in markets during the era of globalization along with the rise in the domination of giant business corporations have had a slow but steady impact on higher education all over the world, including India. There has been a systematic corporatization of institutions of higher education—with colleges and universities, in varying degrees, beginning to be financed more and more by private capital. More than this, the idea of higher education is being redefined increasingly in the language and culture of business corporations, where all activity and all relationships are viewed as merely instrumental in contributing to material growth and profits. All other considerations are either strongly discouraged or worse still, viewed as subversive and dangerous for the health of the economy.

Higher education was once considered an important democratic public sphere where people engaged in it would learn to view the world in a critical fashion. It was a common expectation that young people in higher education would be encouraged to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, and to be able to imagine something beyond their own immediate well-being. These young people were to serve the public good, cultivate an ethical sensibility and take risks to improve the substance of democracy. It was all about creating citizens aware of the world and connected to the needs and concerns of others.

In recent times this is being replaced by an almost exclusive focus on the market and the economy, with no concern for social costs or social obligations. Education is no longer an arena for creating long term value for society. Consideration of short-term profitability is the over-arching criterion for judging the worth of education. This encroachment on an important public sphere of democracy is being played out along with a more systematic set of actions. In the name of the rising sovereignty of the market and the diminishing influence of a retreating state, social protections are being curbed and labour unions are being made impotent. Public discourse is dominated by a language of extreme individualism and harsh competition. In today's world—it does not matter if one is in India or is residing in some metropolitan capital of the West—it is impossible to determine how private troubles and difficulties are connected to the wider public context. It is an era of the eclipse of critical agency and the social imagination.

In India people have witnessed a systematic privatization of higher education and a systematic retreat of the state in the name of fiscal difficulties and the need for fiscal discipline. There has been an explosion of colleges and institutions that serve the market—offer professional courses like engineering, medicine, law and the somewhat nebulous subject of business management. There are three outcomes of this trend. The first, of course is the immense increase in the number of students coming for specialized higher education. The second is the concern about the poor quality of education offered on the one hand and the rising costs of the delivery system on the other. The third, and arguably the least discussed of the three, is the impact on academic culture and the academic community.

Rise in Numbers
One outcome of this trend has been a sharp rise in the growth in the number of students, much more than what colleges and institutions can accommodate, with an explosion in the demand for limited seats. Industry (and of course a market-friendly government) has been continuously claiming that the only way the nation (meaning the economy) can progress is by having a technologically trained work-force that has been exposed to cutting edge technology. This is supposed to constitute the much needed life-blood of the knowledge economy which will take all forward with higher incomes and higher wealth. This articulated need has created the supply of, as well as, the demand for technical education.

However, if one looks around the economy, there are not many jobs being created, let alone high-tech jobs that require cutting edge skills. Indeed, the small sprinkling of jobs being created is in low-tech services. Apparently India is going through a boom in security services. As violence and terrorism (which can be thought of a privatized war waged by paid criminals) increases, the need for private security services increases. Shops, offices, restaurants, schools and colleges, gated residential buildings, private residences are all being 'manned' by security guards. It sometimes appears that individual fears and helplessness is leading to a situation where every employed person and his dependents will have a personal bodyguard. For one thing these security guards do not need high tech degrees with cutting edge knowledge. Or take the increasing number of retail shops in malls that employ shop-floor assistants. They do need some communication skills (one college principal told this writer that this year in Kolkata the largest demand for undergraduate seats in colleges were in the department of English) but again they hardly need an engineering degree or an MBA.

Not only that, people who are familiar with the IT industry in India (and the glory it supposedly brings to the economy) has only a very few number of jobs that are really high-tech intensive in nature where a prior exposure to the latest knowledge in IT would be required. The overwhelmingly large numbers of jobs are—what a famous scientist once claimed—as IT 'coolies'. They are very low end coding or data entry jobs, skill requirements for which are not too complex. It is arguable whether one needs to be a bachelor of technology to do that. However, almost all these jobs do go to engineers—does not matter which species of engineer they might be—the industry is indifferent to civil, mechanical and chemical, bio-technology, electrical, instrumentation, aeronautics, naval architecture or even electronics and computer science. Their screening is more often than not done on the basis of their psychological ability to be tolerant to stress and their ability to obey orders and carry out instructions that are repetitive in nature.

Yet the demand for such education with technical degrees keeps rising because industry and policymakers keep insisting that they require people with cutting edge skills. Market supply responds by expanding triggered by the growth of private institutions that can admit students at market determined prices (which implies exorbitant tuition fees). Many politicians are known to be investors in these private colleges and institutions. Hence the allocation for education in state budgets get curtailed in the name of the fiscal crisis for which the market-friendly state must retreat from providing for the public good. Not only that, in the new discourse on public policy, the concept of the public good keeps receding and fading. The public is merely an adjunct of the private as a facilitator and a partner to deliver goods and services for profit.

Quality of Education
This leads to the second outcome of privatization. There has been a claim by industrialists, particularly the IT sector that while the economy needs people in the labour force with modern technological expertise, there is a dearth of employable graduates emerging from the higher education sector. It is claimed that even up to 30 per cent graduates do not have adequate skills to enter the modern labour market. Private capital, in creating a large demand for technical and professional higher education, need not concern itself with quality. Just as goods can be pushed in to markets with flaws or adulterations, human beings can be thrown in the market as commodities with deficits and defects, as long as they have paid their tuition fees and obtained a piece of paper called a degree.

If the customer is supposedly the king in capitalism, why do young adults who (they and their parents) pay heavily to buy the degree accept this state of affairs? The standard story goes somewhat like the following suggests with minor variations in the theme. Students enter a private college with high fees. They are taught by part-time staff, often fresh graduates who are appointed as trainee teachers (who themselves know very little to share with their juniors). The pay for the trainee teacher (this is a legitimate category created by the policy makers in charge of higher education) is low, averaging something like what a call centre attendant would make. They are disengaged after one or two years, to be replaced by a new set of fresh graduates. There are one or two faculty members who are experienced and relatively more knowledgeable. They can at least set the syllabus and prepare question papers that are accessible to the external world outside the institution. Examinations are de facto open book, so that the paying students are assured of a degree even if they hardly know the basics of their subjects. And the story is repeated the next year. It is little wonder then that the quality of their technical skills is low and their social sensibilities largely absent.

While this state of affairs is true in a very large number of institutions of higher education one might point out that all are proud of the quality of education in the elite institutions of the country and a handful of universities and institutions like the IITs and IIMs are mentioned. The pressures on these institutions are very severe with an expansion of intake of students and the creation of new locations for new IITs and IIMs. In all these places there is a very severe shortage of faculty and the burden of teaching leaves inadequate scope for research and reflection. It is of little surprise that Indian institutions are not on the top of the heap in terms of global reputation, though everybody knows that students coming out from these institutions are indeed quite bright. The importance of the interrelationship of good research and good teaching was never fully appreciated by Indian policy makers. Initially it was thought that universities and institutions for professional education would be separate. Universities expanded into teaching shops while five star research laboratories and research centres were set up to produce new knowledge. The quality of both has suffered as a result.

Restructuring of Higher Education
The third impact of this trend of growth and privatization in higher education has been on academic culture. This change in culture has also had an adverse impact on the way society looks at the academic community, as well as, the academic community's self-image.

An inevitable impact of private capital and the neo-liberal state was to treat the education sector as a place for training a potential labour force with new skills that would be commensurate with the hanging technology of the workplace described by new terms like the knowledge economy or the high-tech society. Values have become completely instrumental in nature with skill-training for the job market as the only purpose of imparting higher education. In a 1992 book titled Thinking for a Living Ray’Marshall and Marc Tucker wrote "...the key to productivity and competitiveness is the skills of our people and our capacity to use highly educated and trained people to maximum advantage in the workplace." To create the society where thinking for a living becomes a reality, they claimed, that economic policy, labour-market policy and education policy must be linked into an integrated strategy called "human resource capitalism".

This strategy called for a coordinated transformation of the workplace, of schools and training systems, of family and community services, into a seamless web of continual learning and renewed productivity for feeding the labour market. Yet, as it has been claimed earlier, this vision of a labour market that will complement the needs of business and industry is far removed from the reality of the economy and society. In fact most of the times when the restructuring of the education system is discussed—sometimes in the chambers of commerce and sometimes in the ministry of higher education—the language is the same. There is a need for more funds (sometimes euphemistically labeled as a private-public partnership), there is need for more competition, there is need for more accountability of staff and faculty, and above all, each of these aspects should be measurable in terms of specific metrics.

The Minister of Higher Education of India has recently announced that he will allocate R 99000 crore for RUSA (Rashtriya Uchatar Sikhsha Abhijan) which will also be used to provide funds to private institutions. The target is to increase the gross enrollment ratio from 18 percent currently to 30 per cent by 2020. There is of course no guarantee of quality or of any assurance of jobs. Without the promise of jobs any skill profile is uncertain at best, irrelevant at worst. This is a good example of how public money is used for private profit-making. And education is no longer considered a long term investment. Only short term returns suffice.

The obsession with returns (profit is a dirty word in education) makes everything from recruitment to promotion to work norms to research output, measurable. The quality of delivery is redundant, except the syllabus must be modern (the latest taught in affluent Western institutions) and each chapter, and each session in the classroom must explicitly be connected to training in a particular skill. Even publicly funded colleges and universities must conform to this kind of targeted and quantifiable output of skill-training. Everything is standardized and measured and there is a booming (highly profitable) industry of developing national tests, certificates and accreditation agencies. All things about education must be measurable and controllable from a central point. This central point of course is influenced and in turn controlled by the needs of private capital.

As a result of all these changes the plight of the student and the teacher has worsened. Moreover, the student and the teacher often keep blaming each other for the sorry condition of education. Teachers claim that students have no intention of learning anything, while students often claim that teachers are useless and are only interested in earning more through private tuitions. The students face a world of high unemployment with high chances of downward mobility, high debt for paying market fees and a future that is in no way essentially better than the past. No one in the system is interested in asking what kind of education would be appropriate for students to be informed and to become active citizens. Instead, what India is witnessing is the rise to dominance of a powerful, ruthless, destructive, market-driven notion of education, of freedom and of the meaning of responsibility. This type of education structure does not contribute to the making of a sense of tolerance and concern for others that are central to democracy. Rather, it fosters a sense of organized irresponsibility where any thought or action that crosses the narrow limits of self-interest is taken to be a sign of weakness.

The ideology of the education system (involving both the public institutions, as well as, the directly private ones) is a corporate ideology that embraces standardizing and structuring the curriculum, top-down governing structures, courses that promote entrepreneurial values and the reduction of all levels of education to job-training and 'learning to sell' activities. With the decline of the liberal arts and the humanities in many US universities career officers (and not qualified faculty) teach seminar courses in the humanities. In one such institution students were asked to produce a 30 second commercial on their self as a saleable brand. This is a trend the world over, and is getting imported through the blind emulation of anything foreign. A minister in the HRD ministry has recently claimed, while supporting the hurried and undemocratic switch of the Delhi University undergraduate programme from three to four years (as practiced in USA), that it would help Indian students go abroad! This was the official reason cited by a policy maker at the highest level.

The rise of the market driven paradigm has affected the academic community too. There is a discernable tendency towards the elimination of tenure and the rise of the contractual teacher-worker—a new class of subalterns. Faculty is regarded as one form of cheap labour in the reserve army, powerless to influence their conditions and terms of work. As with other types of labour the skill profile of the teacher-worker is also being screened and conditioned by a profusion of tests and elimination processes at the national level. Both the teacher (through teacher-training and workplace culture) and the taught are increasingly becoming depoliticized with a technically-trained docility. In this corporatized model, what is sustained is a deep disdain for critical ideals, and the idea of a democracy that cherishes public spheres and practices that are not linked to market values, business culture, the economy, or the production of short term financial gains. Many business houses and quite a few institutions of higher learning believe that even what is to be taught in a course is no longer an academic decision, but a market consideration.

In India this trend is observable in many of the well reputed institutions of higher learning. Little wonder that in the past couple of decades the fortunes of the professional education institutions like the IITs and the IIMs have grown exponentially. There has been a relative decline in the well established universities, and within these universities there has been a sharp decline in terms of faculty, students, and resources in the humanities departments. In smaller colleges in sub-urban areas there has been a complete collapse of such departments, many having been actually shut down. In the prestigious institutions there has been a similar explosion of numbers in terms of locations and seats. These institutions continue to remain public institutions, but largely follow a market model of high fees, private donations and revenue earned from consultancy work done for corporate clients, funding their operational expenses.

The governance structure is largely led by corporate members, with many boards of governance not having even a single member from academics but filled up with many bureaucrats, corporate executives and entrepreneurs. The culture of work and the language of governance are typically corporate. Even donations from corporations or from alumni are tied to something they would like to extract from the institution. Recently in the business school of a well known university in USA, a large financial holdings company gave a one million dollar gift on the condition that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged would be the required text in a course. All over the world universities are rapidly losing their sense of mission. University heads are being referred to as CEOs and the discourse of managing education is all about targets, financial incentives, strategic planning and organizational restructuring—a discourse much more familiar on Wall Street and in corporate board rooms. The new rules of the game in higher education are being set decisively by people who have hardly any connection with academic learning. Those who have the connections are being marginalized.

There is a slow but steady takeover of academic control by the market. Education is viewed as having only instrumental value essential to feed the needs of the productive economy. The productive economy appears as a set of deep contradictions with a set of claims being made about technology and skill requirements on the one hand and the harsh ground reality of joblessness and low skill opportunities on the other. This trend has introduced intense elements of fear, insecurity and feelings of powerlessness among faculty who for fear of losing their jobs toe the line of their corporate bosses. Andreas Hess in an article in Irish Times February 10, 2011, sums up the impact quite aptly:
"But let's have no illusions. What is really at stake here is that an old egalitarian ideal of the republic of knowledge is being perverted. It is not the ingredients of competition but the elements of fear and control that are being introduced here and which are absolutely detrimental to any pursuit of knowledge. In the context of higher education and the pursuit of knowledge, fear and control mean the end of any intelligent undertaking."

Like the rest of society, higher education too is going through a churn where perfectly viable models of education will be rendered useless in the instrumental rationality of global capitalism, where people will continuously be required to re-skill themselves by new and more controlled training for an ephemeral job market, and where despite this incessant change required to prove to the market that Indian authorities are capable of changing for the sake of change, a lot of individual lives will be wasted for the simple reason that the training and re-training of people will be of no avail. The growing insecurity that corporate power brings with itself will make not only many curricula or programmes unnecessary, it will make many teachers and students redundant. In the world of global capitalism education too will contribute to the relentless creation of waste—only this waste will not be measured in terms of metric tonnes of garbage, but in terms of human lives and capabilities.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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