Public Institutions of Education: Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Bhaskar Majumder

Not since post-JNU days, but since my early childhood that preceded the setting up of the esteemed JNU for mainly carrying forward the society with critical thinking I felt, among others, how public institutions of education helped us in getting the scope to work as antenna in the domain of education. Without realizing much, for our parents and grandparents did not leave any stone unturned to keep us away from the impact of adverse inclusion in the domain of education, we were drawn into education. My parents and grandparents were refugees, obviously not of their own choice post-1947 and perhaps thought education only could rescue us for generations to come for by that time the other support system like land, social support, community support that were thought to be needed for sustainable livelihood were lost. But it is not the story of my personal life. It encompassed many such families in the refugee colonies in West Bengal where these refugees set up public institutions for education of their children.

By extrapolation, most of what I experienced during those days may be unbelievable to the generation of 21st century that suggests me not to delve into the infrastructure by school building including basic amenities, water supply, wash room and all that. What I must mention at least is presence of a teacher-taught relation free from any political/government interference at least up to end-1960s notwithstanding the political turmoil since the mid-1960s and crises of many types. Rationing of food reflected in food scarcity did not shut down these schools. Tertiary education was not imagined that far – after all we were children of refugees.

Though the implications were not understood during that time, our primary education was cost-less and children were easily admitted in those schools many of which engaged teachers from the locality or those who rented-in house there. Again unbelievable, but the fact was that these teachers often had to beg for two rupees from the Headmaster to get food next day. There was no dearth of dedication, again by introspection.

What I mentioned so far is by no way for comparison. But what seems to me today is the respect with which education was seen is on the wane. I am not sure why. As a person in the academia for the past four decades in a number of Universities and Institutes in India, I have reasons to believe that education is not on the priority agenda of the state, with or without JNU. JNU students are resisting a battle but the war may be lost. The battle is to withdraw the hiked Hostel fees of the students or offset the enhanced costs on education. The simple question is: who enhanced the fees? Obviously, the University administration did it. Who is supposed to have knowledge about this? It is the Ministry of Higher Education or Ministry of Human Resources Development in the Government of India. If the authority representing the state had been concerned for economics of education, not education of economics, then the logic is understood in that narrow frame.

The problem is not to be cocooned in that narrow frame of ‘’economics of education’’, however. This is more for the domain of public institutions for education. As I mentioned at the beginning, education is the only weapon that empowers a child to use his pen – use of gun must not be the choice unless one joins military at a later stage. In my understanding, the domain that can come as a first priority is food that is needed on a daily basis and education follows. Many stories in India’s history-myth-mythology may explain this including the status of pre-pundit Kalidasa.

Education of economics is a little bit complex for the fact that so far, we are not sure if education is investment or consumption in the Keynesian frame. For the corporate that come forward to set up institutions of higher education, and not primary schools in the villages, education seems to be an investment that may fetch big money or redistribution of money circulated within. For ‘’education for food’’, education is surely an expenditure by the state. Now these two are non-comparable. If education cannot be examined as such, and the consequences are not obvious, then the other way is to look into the nature of public institutions and corporate institutions. My understanding is, public institutions for education are much distanced from money-making mechanism that corporate institutions may be with no suspicion on the latter regarding the quality of the teachers in both.

While quality of teachers get reflected in both processes and consequences, in each of public and corporate institutions, I doubt if the public institutions need to be corporatized. If done to the contrary, that may invite another round of privatization in the domain of first priority, as I mentioned earlier, like corporatization of the fair price shops. I juxtapose these two, public institutions of education for distribution of education and fair price shops for distribution of food for the simple reason that it is a social need.

The broader question comes here. Why should the state be responsible for fulfilling these social needs? After all, these are social and not linked to governance. By elasticity of imagination, governance is also a derivative of education but not necessarily of education in public institutions located inside the geographic boundary of India. Also, it is not a compulsion that the political-economic governors are to be home-breed – they may be imported from abroad, from both the institutions of education and institutions of finance. So, it is not a direct state concern to subsidise (sic) the public institutions of education in India. JNU mat be the first one to test the hypothesis. In case JNU succumbs, others seem to be easy prey.

Can JNU be divested or privatized? That is a risky proposition for after all education is an invisible commodity with accompanying bundle of teachers-students. While the non-teaching staff and ad hoc workers may be dealt with at ease, the state may face resistance from teachers-students. I feel humbled to suggest is, rather than demolishing the academic image of JNU if the image has not been tarnished by now, a corporate JNU may be built up for the offspring of more equal families. The location of this corporate JNU may be the capital city itself to offset other factors what in education of economics is termed ceteris paribus.

I have reasons to believe that the less privileged children cannot continue to oppose the heavyweight state; I have also reasons to believe that the civil society as the moral authority may fail in its endeavour to march with the less privileged for it is like the power of the United Nations with a Budget but no money! State is the competent authority to save the public institution of education by setting up a new institution in corporate model. Let us walk on two legs.      

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Nov 27, 2019

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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