The submission of the Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) this June has been followed by the much-debated fee hike in JNU, raising concerns about the direction of reforms in the education sector. This is being seen as a further push towards commercialisation through a slew of regulations such as loans as opposed to grants becoming the major source of funding and a push towards self-financing, after the UGC directive in this regard. Over the last three decades, Satish Deshpande, Professor in the Delhi School of Economics, has focused on underlining the social function of higher education. Deshpande stresses that in the absence of redistribution of land or wealth, higher education remains the only tool available to the vast majority of Indians for social and economic mobility. Excerpts:

Is it not logical for publicly-funded higher educational institutions such as JNU to adopt a rational fee structure; after all those who can pay, should pay. The route adopted by institutions such as the IIMs certainly seems to have worked to sustain quality…

Any discussion about education cannot be divorced from its social function. Simultaneously, the sharp distinction between higher and basic education needs to be properly understood. The best that primary education can do is offer some escape from poverty; but by itself, it cannot offer what we call social mobility. Higher education alone has this very dramatic potential to offer social mobility in just one generation; the ability to traverse and ascend class barriers reflected in the success stories of a chauffeur’s son becoming an IAS officer or a security guard’s daughter becoming the top paid executive of a year.

But what is not often noticed that while higher education can overturn social hierarchies, it can also serve to sustain and consolidate social hierarchies. This is particularly true of India where the transition from ascriptive hierarchies (privilege of birth, caste hierarchies) to meritocratic hierarchies has been subtly achieved over the decades through higher education.

I’d like to elaborate this point a little further because this transition is absolutely critical in understanding the whole logic of quality/meritocracy/brand equity of higher educational institutions such as IITs/IIMs et al.

Essentially, children of the former social elite or caste elite had almost exclusive access to higher education in India which facilitated an almost organic conversion of their social capital from something like caste to merit. This made it very comfortable to digest that all the well-paid professionals – doctors, engineers, managers, top administrators – just somehow happened to be upper caste. They’re, of course, there because of qualification and not caste.

But there are a variety of reasons for this structural advance of meritocracy, the conversion of social capital into merit capital have not been properly understood.

During the Nehruvian era, there was an unmatched awareness and the ability among the upper caste to avail of the newly set up higher educational institutions, be it the publicly- funded universities or the technical institutes such as the IITs and the IIMs. Communities with traditional learning systems had an inherent advantage over others such occupational castes in this organic appropriation of higher educational institutions.

Simultaneously, it just so happened in an almost well-intentioned way that the great task of nation-building required a large mass of scientific and technical manpower and it absorbed those who were able to avail of this education in the newly-opened universities, IITs and IIMs.

There was a natural transition of social hierarchy into merit hierarchy and by the 1970s, you had this entrenched upper caste, middle class professional group that was convinced that their better, newer socio-economic stature had nothing to do with caste. It just so happened that 95 per cent-plus of this now-entrenched elite belonged to the social segment of the population that only accounts for less than 15 per cent. There was no conspiracy, it just so happened that on the whole, higher education solidified and modernised caste hierarchy in India. This historical perspective acquires a critical significance in understanding social mobility in India.

Social mobility requires resources. Among the resources that traditionally promise significant social mobility are land, wealth and, lastly, quality education. Which among these is the resource we in India are in a position to redistribute? There is no question of redistributing land. And given the entrenchment of the neoliberal way of thinking, there is wealth to redistribute either. It was definitely on the agenda in the 1960s’ and the 70s’ through progressive, almost confiscative taxation for the top income bracket. But that is unthinkable now.

Tax rates are low, especially on the rich. Theoretically in such a situation higher education is the only resource that is not in short supply and can be redistributed for social mobility. Therefore, in a country like India, it is of critical significance. But we see and can prove that, higher education has not given up its social function of helping to entrench the old elite. It is not a phenomenon exceptional to India; various countries in the world have witnessed it. But the problem in India is that even prior to this era, we already had an extremely exclusive social system where a small minority controlled every privilege. On top of that was grafted this technocratic, meritocratic hierarchy.

But doesn’t this historical perspective advance the need for more publicly-funded higher educational institutions, especially ones such as JNU where, unlike the IIMs, there is still scope for the disadvantaged to gain access and dignity?

What is important about JNU and other state universities generally is that despite being, on the whole, both intellectually being in favour of the status quo and furthering the transition of the social hierarchies, they have still emerged as islands where different social classes of students can enter and progress. This is where we come to the question of cutting back funding in higher education. This will not hurt the rich, who have other avenues; going abroad for higher studies, for instance, is normal in a section. It is the vast majority of the rest, for whom very few such islands of opportunity are available, who will be affected.

This systemic assault on publicly-funded higher educational institutions is actually independent of ideology, having started during the Congress regime. An attempt was made to turn the Indian higher educational system more like the US without considering the social realities. The existing institutions were apparently non-functional and they needed to create new institutions without going into the problems of why the existing ones were not functioning. What was needed was repair work as opposed to setting up new institutions.

Elementary logistical issues were ignored in the grand pronouncements of 30 new IITs, and so many other IIMs; you did not consider a basic logistical issue like what was number of faculty available and what was required. The thinking and solutions for higher educational institutions was taken away from the university systems, the teachers, academics, students and reduced to a managerial type of solutions that were neither relevant nor effective.

Thinking and planning for educational institutions came from outside the system, from the Ministry of Human Resource Development which started envisaging students as consumers who should get value for money. This is totally divorced from the reality that in any successful system, even in the US, private universities function through philanthropy not the market logic.

But with this government, the ongoing structural assault has been clubbed with an ideological offensive with a particular focus on humanities and social sciences where what they consider truth needs to be established. They want higher education to become like school education. They treat adults as school children who need to be taught how to behave. They want higher education to reproduce and magnify the dominant prejudices of the society – That we are a great nation, we worship women etc. This is not social science at all and this is where the particular pathology with regard to JNU needs to be examined.

JNU’s core competence is in the area of arts, aesthetics, humanities, social sciences. But rather than letting an independent institution with a unique subaltern culture encourage scientific temper, they would much rather dismantle social sciences and let everyone study engineering. As one can see, this has exceeded rationality in the case of JNU.

How do explain the gap between a general acknowledgement and desire among people for better and quality education and the actual delivery from both public and private institutions?

India is a unique country in the context of both higher and basic education sector where big opportunities have been missed. In the 1970s, despite an overwhelming socialist rhetoric, we did not create the most basic aspect of schooling in terms of a common school system that exists even in a country like the US. Because we allowed the hijack of the school system by select players, the middle class at that time opted out of the government school system. There was, consequently, no pressure from below for quality and the basic school system deteriorated to this point now that the most robust indicator of low economic status is children being sent to an ordinary government school. People take debts to send their children to private, so-called English speaking schools.

That has laid the basis for the hijack of the higher education system. There is this bulwark of insanely competitive examinations which act as ideological mote around the castle of caste. What is essentially a process of rationing has been disguised as a process of seeking excellence. There are only 10,000 seats and 4,00,000 applicants. You are going to have to say no to a very large number of people and that process of saying no has to be done in a socially and ideologically acceptable way. The competitive examination plays that role. From a pure scholastic point of view, there may be nothing to choose between the first 50,000, or at least the first 30,000. You conduct the same test another day, there will be different permutations and combinations among the same set of 30,000 students.

We don’t need to really labour this point; there are a number of studies to prove this. But the competitive exam is considered so self-evidently meritocratic that it has acquired an almost religious connotation. Ranking in examinations has the status of a sacred space which cannot be questioned.

The question here is who has the resources to get through to these examinations. We are no longer talking about competence. We are talking about resources, for instance, the money spent on the whole tutorial industry in Kota. It is not very difficult to figure that only a tiny fraction of the population will get through these examinations. It is next to impossible for the very poor to crack this system. That is one side of the story.

Globally, we’re at a phase where there has been a massification of higher education. Much large numbers are now able to enter higher education. There is an inevitably wide spectrum in terms of quality. You have lots of new educational institutions of uneven quality. The reproduction of elite still takes place through monopolising of quality education through competitive exams and other similar routes. Just the very fact that there are more higher educational institutions is no guarantee of social mobility.

In a country like ours particularly, higher education may turn its ideal or most desirable role inside out where not only did you not produce social mobility but you produced people with degrees which psychologically entitle them to a certain social status but in actual terms, no employment and no social status.

Being unemployed, for instance, with a BTech degree is different from being unemployed with a school giving certificate. This is a recipe for great discontent. This needs to get mapped onto some politically relevant protest. But that is the area where we are seeing a lot of innovation. Political system has managed to isolate itself from the discontent of this large number of people who are without jobs and opportunities. The absence of social mobility has no political consequence.