In the desperate quest to get jobs, parents and students are willing to forgo the pleasures of actually having an education, Prabhat Patnaik tells G. MAHADEVAN. In an interview to The Hindu-EducationPlus, Prabhat Patnaik, eminent economist and Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, advocates social regulation of private self-financing institutions. First of all, there should be an expansion of public education, he says. What is your take on the higher education scenario in Kerala? What are the challenges in this sector today? First thing is that in the sphere of higher education, there is a mushrooming of the private sector institutions. As long as they are charitable institutions, the matter is different, but many of them are actually profit-making institutions. Which basically means that the demand for these institutions has outstripped what the public educational facilities could take care of. The second thing is that invariably, because it is concerned with the objective of preparing people only for the limited purpose of getting jobs and so on — here again, I am not talking about old distinguished institutions run by organisations — the quality of education is very poor. Unfortunately, even in the public education system, the quality has gone down greatly. So, the inadequacy of public education and a lowering of the quality in general. And the third thing, it is something that is not unique to Kerala.
There is a certain devaluation of higher education as education. There is an obsession with simply getting jobs. Now, I am not against people wanting to get jobs, but the point is that in the desperate quest to get jobs, parents and students are willing to forgo the pleasures of actually having an education. I think that is associated with societal characteristics and so on which have changed over time. To challenge this, I believe that first of all, there needs to be an expansion of public education. Secondly, there has to be some social regulation of the private self-financing institutions. Private self-financing institutions that work on the basis of profit are contrary to the very spirit of education that underlies the Indian State. That said, Kerala was the first State, the pioneering State, to attempt social control over such institutions … partly because in Kerala, such institutions merge with the minority-run institutions, the issue is more complex, difficult to disentangle. But now the idea of a social regulation has been taken up by the Central government itself. They are bringing in a Bill. So, first of all, an expansion in the number of public institutions. Not only numbers but also expansion in investment to improve quality and then social regulation.
The third and very important thing is an improvement in quality through changes in curricula and changes in the way the whole education system is organised. There is this perception that in the coming days and years, governments would not be able to pump in this kind of resources into education and other sectors. There is this thinking that the government should gradually withdraw from such sectors and allow the private sector to come in where it is not possible, financially, for the government to go. Where would you draw the line for private partnership in higher education? In my view, other than charitable institutions — the Church has been running institutions for many years, or other such institutions — there should be no role whatsoever for private institutions in higher education. By which I mean private, profit-making institutions … Why should profit or surplus be a dirty word in the field of education? Because education is not a commodity, not a sack of potatoes. Because education is a very important component of our nation-building. Education is very important for the independence of a society and the nation. If you become parasitical on other nations for your ideas, then, you also move your freedom to other nations.
The liberation in the sphere of ideas is an essential prerequisite for liberation in actuality. In fact, the Indian Freedom Struggle begins with the critique made by people like Romesh Chandra Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji of the whole colonial system. The moment you free your mind from the myths of colonialism as perpetrated by colonialism itself, that is when struggles begin in actuality. The point is education is something different. That is why everywhere in every country in Europe and even in the U.S., education is essentially seen as a public responsibility. If it is the case that education is essentially not just for the individual to be educated but also for the society to be free, then society should take the trouble to ensure enough funding to see that a proper education system is in place … Is it right to assume that private enterprise, by definition, would not do all this? Yes, because private enterprise is interested only in profit. Consequently, if you have private enterprise in education, they would be giving only that kind of education which is profitable. I, for one, believe that it is very important to study philosophy.
Because philosophy underlies all our thinking. A profit-driven education would devalue philosophy, the study of basic subjects, higher mathematics … it is very important to study political theory, economic theory, very important to study theoretical physics. But if you have a private, profit-making system, you would find that it concentrates on those kinds of students who would get “higher jobs” and those jobs may be in areas that have nothing to do with basic disciplines. What is wrong, even theoretically, with an education that leads to a job, a high-paying job? There is nothing wrong with that. There is everything wrong with an education that leads exclusively to a high-paying job … Where the profit is, investment would grow … But would the public sector have enough resources to … The very idea that there are not enough public resources is wrong.
Because the same money that the private sector invests in education can be taxed away by the government to be invested in education. If the idea is to enlarge education and the logic of that is associated with something called nation-building, then, it is incumbent on the government to take that money from the private sector as taxes and have a public education system. In fact, the tax-GDP ratio [in the country] is one of the lowest in the world. Some years ago, India was the fourth, from the bottom, in this respect. Even capitalist countries, true-blue capitalist countries (even the U.S., mind you), have a much high tax-GDP ratio than we have. By the way, the US has a very fine public education system. People don’t realize that the U.S. has the finest public education system anywhere in the world. Even renowned universities there are not profit-making universities.
Universities like Harvard were set up as a result of rich people bequeathing their property. That is not the same as somebody doing a business. The other thing about private education is that they exclude the poor. We as a nation cannot afford education becoming a commodity. In the recent budgets, both the Centre’s and Kerala’s, more funds have come the way of the education sector. Yet, you have often expressed dissatisfaction, publicly, with such initiatives? Even when more funds have come to the education sector, there is a shift in the Central government’s philosophy of education that people are unaware of. Most people look at only one side — more money. Yes, more money is being spent on higher education but to some extent, it is being squeezed elsewhere. In a globalized world, are not such shifts inevitable, even necessary? It is a globalized world but not an equal world. The globalized world is one that is marked by hegemony. That is why I prefer to call it imperialist globalization. To say that with globalization we have all become brothers and sisters … I wish that were the case, but… So, to defend our freedom we need that old concept of education.
It has not become irrelevant … What then could be the recipe for improving quality in the higher education sector? We should first have an appropriate view of education … at the moment we are not drawing the best to the academic world … our income policy has gone for a toss … that should be rectified … then, there is that invisible chemistry, commitment to the life of the mind, that should operate in a university … in Kerala, we still have a strong feudal legacy. Getting out of that feudal legacy is a very important task in higher education … the arrival of a Central university could infuse a pan-Indian outlook in the State’s education system.