Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Who is the Knowledge Commission working for ?

From Zee News: Knowledge Commission against inviting foreign universities

The move to invite foreign universities to offer education in India today came under attack from Vice Chairman of National Knowledge Commission P M Bhargava who said it would lead to commercialisation of higher education.

"This move is to commoditise education. Education is not at all a commodity," Bhargava said at the seminar on "Education Commission: Revisiting the Commission's Premises, Vision and Impact on Policy Formulation," organized by National University National University of Education Planning and Administration here.

What is commoditization? Wikipedia has two answers. (It redirects commoditization to Commodification)
  • In the business world, commodification is process that transforms the market for a unique, branded product into a market based on undifferentiated price competition. Consumers usually benefit from commodification, since perfect competition usually leads to lower prices.
  • In Marxist political economy, commodification takes place when economic value is assigned to something that traditionally would not be considered in economic terms, for example, an idea, identity, gender.
I presume Dr. Bhargava did not mean the first option. So let us assume that he was using "commoditise" in the Marxian context. In simple terms this boils down to higher education being a public good & hence needs to be supported out of Governmental revenues.

Given that in India, access to even secondary education is extremely limited, [Refer page 5 of Secondary Education in India - Investing in the future By Wu & Dar] this subsidized higher education is unlikely to reach the bottom quintile and more likely to be grabbed by the middle class & the rich. So why is the Knowledge Commission fighting for the rich & middle class?

From the same article
"I strongly oppose the move of Commerce Ministry to invite the foreign universities into the country," he said.

Bhargava said the move will facilitate the second grade and third grade universities in abroad to come and set up their shops here.

"No good university will come. The second grade and third grade university will come and make profits in the name of quality education," he told a news agency later.

We have heard this story before. Remember the early 90's stories of Indian software engineers only working on low end maintenance projects? Or the early 2000 stories that only low end call center work is outsourced to India? What Dr. Bhargava says is likely to happen. The first that will test the waters are going to be younger educational institutions, those that have little to lose & a lot to gain. The Ox-Bridge/ Ivy Leagues will come in much later. But why should we quibble? Does the color of the cat matter as long as it catches the mice? If the new entrants offer value, they will have a market. If not, they will need to go back to the drawing board and rework their India strategy. Any one who is under the mistaken belief, that all a foreign university needs to do is to set shop in India and every one will flock to it, needs to read about the struggle of MTV, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut etc. to gain market share in India. India is an extreme value conscious market. You need to get your value proposition right to crack the market and the same will apply to higher education.

Who is the Knowledge Commission helping by keeping out foreign Universities? The immediate gainers are our private colleges, mostly owned by our ruling elite. They can continue getting away with providing third rate education in a controlled environment. The biggest losers are our middle class students ( who can't afford to study abroad) , our Professors ( who have fewer employment opportunities ) & our nation as the rich opt to study abroad spending over Rs 3000 Crores a year. So is the Knowledge Commission working to help India's elite maintain their stranglehold on education business?

PS : If Dr Bhargava is speaking in his personal capacity, then I would like to know why he thinks education should not be "commoditised" but egg/sperm donation can be ?


Anonymous said...

great piece... the problem is that even the so-called reformers cease to be reformers when it comes to their own departments.

RJ said...

Thanks. Yes, so true. For example, The Economic Times is a great advocate for FDI in ports, telecom & what not. but wants none of it in print media