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date: 21 September 2018

Critical Perspectives on the Political Economy of Higher Education in India and Globally

Summary and Keywords

There are two alternative perspectives on higher education, one of which sees it as a means of augmenting the recipient’s employment prospects and earning capacity through the imparting of skills, while the other sees it as fulfilling a social role beyond merely supplying skilled personnel. While the conversion of higher education into a commodity that is sold for profit in commercially run private institutions is in sync with the first perspective, the second demands that education should be primarily the responsibility of the government and should be mainly publicly funded. The second perspective informed the anti-colonial struggle in the developing world and the policies of the dirigiste regimes that came up post-decolonization. But under the subsequent neoliberal regime, the first perspective has come to the fore, and there has been a significant commoditization of higher education. This has the effect of excluding large numbers of students from deprived backgrounds from the ambit of higher education, of constricting free and creative thinking, and consequently of destroying rational discourse and giving free rein to fascist, semi-fascist, and fundamentalist forces that can do great damage to the fragile structures of developing societies. An awareness of these dangers is necessary if appropriate interventions to prevent such a denouement are to be undertaken in the sphere of higher education.

Keywords: organic intellectuals, neo-liberal regime, commoditization of education, unreason, nation-building

Alternative Perspectives on Higher Education

There are two alternative perspectives on education in general, and higher education in particular. One sees higher education essentially as imparting a set of skills to the students; these skills, in a society where the demand for skills is expressed through the market, enable them to get lucrative employment on the job market. Implicit in this perspective is a commoditization of higher education, for if the products of the system are going to command handsome salaries, with the degree of handsomeness of these salaries itself being taken to be the main index of the success of the system, then there is no obvious reason why the system should be publicly funded and charge fees that are kept low.

Of course, if the fees are high, then only some can afford higher education while others cannot, so that having a largely private and commercially run education system, which is what commoditization entails, discriminates against the poor; but those who are in favor of privatization argue that this problem can be taken care of by having a certain number of government scholarships for impecunious students, in addition to a system of student loans. Such loans should not be too difficult to arrange if the system’s products are marketable.

Put differently, if higher education is seen basically as producing personnel for the job market, or, alternatively, producing commodities for the market in the form of skilled individuals, then there is no special reason why such commodities need to be produced in the public sector. Like other commodities, ranging from washing machines to automobiles, they could as well be produced in the private sector; and in that case there is no reason why its production should be governed by considerations other than those that govern private producers, which is to earn as large a surplus as possible. True, no private education provider admits to the fact of seeking to maximize surplus, insisting instead that all the surplus that is earned is ploughed back into the educational institutions themselves to enhance their quality; but just as the fact of a commercial firm ploughing back profits as investment into the firm does not negate the reality of its being profit-seeking, likewise educational institutions using their surplus for enhancing the quality of the institution does not negate their being profit-seeking and profit-making.

As against this, there is an alternative perspective on higher education that emphasizes its social role, its importance, in the context of post-colonial developing societies specifically, for “nation-building.” This sees education not as a transaction being carried out, in specific locations called colleges and universities, between the “buyers” of education, namely the students, and the “sellers” of education, namely those who set up the educational establishment and employ the teachers, but as an activity required by society. For this activity society must set aside a certain amount of resources, not just because it requires skilled personnel, but, above all, because it requires intellectuals who play a vital role in its sustenance, its wholesome development, and the defense of its freedom.

This perspective sees educational institutions not as places where teachers impart “education” to students as a one-way transfer, but as places where both students and teachers are engaged in conducting a free discourse about society itself: how it is constituted, where it is heading, and how it should be made to change. The freedom of this discourse, and the lack of barriers to entry into it on grounds of social exclusion, are themselves seen to be guarantees, of a kind, of democracy and freedom in society at large. This perspective does not deny the necessity of “skills,” of say an engineer or a doctor, for social development, but it looks at education in a manner that transcends mere “skill” transfer.

Two points should be clarified here. First, the different perspectives are presented here in a stark and stylized manner. In practice, of course we typically come across admixtures of both. Nonetheless, a conceptual distinction is important; even to see the admixture as an admixture, we need to have the two contrasting perspectives at the back of our minds. Second, it may be thought that while the second perspective, namely a view of education as a social activity rather than a mere transfer of skills, may be more relevant for the social sciences and the humanities, the first is what basically underlies education in the natural sciences, engineering, and medicine; in the case of these latter disciplines, societal matters can scarcely be said to enter into what the students need to learn.

This, however, is not correct, for two reasons. Firstly, even if, say, the physics taught anywhere in the world will have a substantial degree of uniformity, the specific society in which it is taught will certainly influence the emphasis given to different issues in the curriculum, if education is to serve a social purpose. And secondly, even physicists, doctors, and engineers are not mere repositories of skills; they are also intellectuals who must ipso facto have a social concern, and this fact must be reflected in the education they receive as physicists, doctors, and engineers.

Despite these clarifications, it may still be thought that the conceptual distinction between the two is overdrawn, that in practice it does not make much difference which perspective informs the higher education system. This however is incorrect; this distinction has enormous practical relevance.

If education has a social role, then obviously the kind of education being provided must vary from one society to another, in which case the nature of educational institutions must also differ across societies, at least in terms of what they specialize in, the curricula they pursue, and the themes that interest them. We cannot then visualize Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford as simply being “models” to emulate for other universities, say, in India or Tanzania.

To give an example, economic history as taught in highly prestigious universities in advanced countries does not even mention the issue of economic surplus from the colonies being appropriated gratis for their own use by the colonizing powers, while the literature of the anti-colonial struggle in developing countries has discussed it in great detail (Bagchi, 2006; Baran, 1973), which even present-day students in these countries must learn about. Now, the issue of such appropriation of surplus may be a matter of debate, but in an ex-colonial country where the current social structure is indubitably shaped by the past, the fact of this issue not even being mentioned should be intellectually unacceptable. Hence making syllabi in universities in these countries replicas of those in the universities of advanced countries would be wrong; it would in fact constitute nothing short of a carrying forward of the colonial legacy.

There is an associated matter. There is a tendency at present, reflecting the phenomenon of globalization, to see universities as being capable of being ranked linearly, which has the implication that the lower-ranked universities from developing countries should try to emulate the higher-ranked universities from the advanced countries. Indeed, even governments in several developing countries these days set up universities that explicitly seek to emulate those in the advanced countries, sometimes even by signing collaboration agreements with the latter. An acceptance of the second perspective on higher education entails a rejection of such linear ranking and hence a rejection of the kind of exercise that The Times Higher Educational Supplement undertakes in locating the 200 best universities of the world.

This is not to say that statements about the quality of universities cannot or should not be made. It is to suggest that the criteria for judging the quality of universities should be context-specific, rather than uniform for all universities across the world. Since everything, from the ranking of journals to the acceptability of papers for publication in the more “prestigious” journals to the decision regarding what constitutes “frontier” research at any point of time, is determined by criteria set in the academia of the advanced countries, making these criteria universal amounts in effect to an exercise of coercion on higher education in the developing countries, so that it detaches itself from its own social moorings. It amounts therefore to upholding the first perspective on higher education and denying its social role.

Exactly the same can be said about the “prestige” attached to awards, prizes, and such like. Such “prestige” serves to universalize the prevailing concerns and practices in the advanced countries to the developing world as well, and hence acts in the direction of detaching higher education in the latter from problems arising from its own specific social context. This is because if higher education in a developing country concerns itself with problems that arise in its own social context, then the practical chances of the work of a person associated with this higher education system, getting awards and prizes will be greatly diminished; the “prestige” associated with such awards thus serves to discourage the higher education system from linking itself to its own social context.

The perception of higher education as a homogeneous commodity detached from its social context is encouraged not just by such indirect means as the linear ranking of universities or the “prestige” attached to awards and prizes; it specifically informs the GATS provisions which actually treat education as a tradable commodity. The acceptance of GATS puts an imprimatur on the detachment of higher education from any social role.

The net effect of any such detachment, however, would be to produce a set of “educated” persons in the developing world whose primary aim in life would be to migrate to centers of learning in the advanced world. The reason is simple: if all such centers can be linearly ordered, then the best and the brightest in the developing world would naturally try to move to what are considered the best institutions in the world, which means to the institutions in advanced countries. And to the extent that not everyone can possibly succeed in this effort, those who stay on in their own countries would do so only as disgruntled academics, staying on against their will in institutions which all, including themselves, consider inferior.

There would thus be two kinds of academics produced in the developing countries if the first perspective gains currency, namely, those who migrate to the advanced countries, and those who fail to do so and remain as disgruntled academics, suffused with lack of confidence and a permanent sense of inferiority. This would greatly impair the higher education system in these countries. To be sure, this might not constitute an immediate crisis, but it would be observable over a prolonged period, and would not be any less of an infirmity for this reason.

The Gandhi-Tagore Correspondence and the Social Role of Education

The question of the social role of education came to the fore during India’s anti-colonial struggle, when its leader Mahatma Gandhi asked students to leave their colleges and universities and join this struggle. Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned Bengali poet, who himself had started a unique educational institution (now a university) with his Nobel Prize money, had expressed surprise at Gandhi’s call. In a country where so few had access to education in the colonial era, to ask students to leave educational institutions appeared to him utterly unwise, since they could serve the country better by getting educated and using their learning for the country rather than remaining uneducated or semi-educated. Gandhi’s reply to Tagore focused on the fact that the education being given in the colleges and universities in the colonial era aimed to produce servitors for colonial rule, and that, in a country fighting for freedom, students should abandon that role.1

Gandhi, in other words, was emphasizing the social role of education. If one takes the liberty of rephrasing the Gandhian position by borrowing a Gramscian term (Gramsci, 1971) and adapting it into the colonial context, the colonial education system according to Gandhi aimed to produce “organic intellectuals” of the colonial order. In order to free themselves from this exercise and become “organic intellectuals” of the Indian people, striving at that time for freedom from colonial rule, students had to actually give up colleges and universities. Gandhi himself was to start a set of institutions where those who had abandoned education at officially recognized colleges and universities at his call could resume their education, but such resumption was to be done in an entirely different manner and within an entirely different intellectual ambience, which the institutions set up by Gandhi sought to create.

The need for producing “organic intellectuals of the people” striving for freedom does not end with the end of colonial rule; it continues as the newly decolonized countries seek to fashion themselves into modern democratic nations ensuring a certain level of material well-being for their populations. But producing such “organic intellectuals of the people,” which the second perspective sees as the aim of higher education in developing countries, necessarily entails that higher educational activity should occur largely under the public sector (and in such private institutions which are set up for philanthropic, as opposed to commercial, reasons), and should be publicly funded. This follows from the fact that it sees education as having primarily a social role (producing “organic intellectuals of the people”), even when those through whom this social role is achieved, the products of the higher education system itself, have to present themselves before the employment market for getting a job. Appearing before the market for a job, as will be argued later, is not synonymous with being a commodity-seller.

What the dirigiste regimes that came up in developing countries after decolonization sought to achieve, in accordance with this perspective, was the development of higher education primarily under the aegis of state-funded institutions (in addition to the philanthropic institutions that already existed in the form of missionary and private-endowment-funded institutions). The fees were kept low, which allowed access to higher education to students from impecunious families; affirmative action, in the form of reservation of seats for segments of the population which had for long faced social exclusion, was enforced; and the contents of the syllabi and curricula were developed with an eye on the existing realities, and independently of what prevailed in the universities in advanced countries.

It is often argued that the post-colonial dirigiste regimes tended to overemphasize higher education to the detriment of primary and secondary school education, devoting a comparatively larger sum to the former while being niggardly with respect to the latter. This argument misses the importance of the social role of education. These regimes in many instances must indeed be faulted for the persistence of illiteracy and the lack of basic education among the people even after years of independence. But the paucity of funds for this purpose cannot be attributed to the emphasis on higher education. Educational expenditure as a whole has been generally neglected in developing countries, barring exceptions like Cuba.

The need in these societies was to increase this total expenditure. To say that they emphasized one segment of the sphere of education at the expense of another, and that the emphasis should have been reversed, is to miss this point. In India, for instance, against the target of 6% of gross domestic product which an independent commission set up by the government had recommended as the desired level of government expenditure for the education sector as a whole (Kothari et al., 1966; Tilak, 2007), the actual expenditure has been around 4%. The niggardliness, in short, has been towards the education sector as a whole, and blaming the emphasis on higher education for the neglect of primary and secondary education is erroneous.

Indeed, the importance of higher education cannot be overstated for a developing country. In the absence of a proper higher education system, a country becomes dependent exclusively upon other countries, typically the advanced countries, for ideas. And such intellectual parasitism is incompatible with freedom, with the objective of escaping the hegemony of others, which the anti-colonial struggle placed before the people. It follows therefore that developing countries, if they are to fulfill the promises of the anti-colonial struggle, have to devote much larger shares of GDP to education as a whole and to provide quality education under the aegis of the public sector without converting it into a commodity, which is what commercially oriented private enterprises provide.

The ushering in of the neoliberal regime, however, has done precisely the opposite. Public funding for higher education has been restrained; even public institutions have been asked to become self-financing to the extent possible, with the introduction of “marketable” academic disciplines and degrees and “profitable” short-term courses; a burgeoning of private commercial, as distinct from philanthropic, institutions, has occurred, though their profit-seeking nature is camouflaged by the fig leaf of the claim that profits are being plowed back into the institutions themselves, and the fees payable by the average student have gone up substantially.

The rise in fees, even in public institutions, has necessarily meant the exclusion from higher education of students belonging to socially and economically deprived backgrounds (the two deprivations usually tend to go together). This constitutes a betrayal of the promise of the freedom struggle. It causes massive social resentment and puts a strain on the fragile structures of developing societies. In South Africa, for instance, the rise in fees owing to measures of “austerity” adopted in successive government budgets, under pressure from creditors, has led to greater exclusion of children from the black majority from institutions of higher education; in a society emerging from the trauma of apartheid, such exclusion, reminiscent of the days of apartheid, has become a major cause for discontent and has given rise to massive student protests (Booysen, 2016).

“Austerity” has not only meant higher fees; it has also resulted in a drastic lowering of quality in the publicly funded segment of higher education, thereby implicitly contributing to its privatization. The substitution of tenured faculty members by temporary ad hoc teachers who are paid only a fraction of the former’s salary for carrying the same workload and who therefore have to overburden themselves to earn an adequate income has been an important means through which “austerity” has lowered quality.

The argument that student loans can be used to pay enhanced fees does not cut much ice in countries where there is no guarantee of employment and where there is a great deal of educated unemployment. Indeed, the very fear of having to default on loans, owing to the absence of adequate employment at the end of the educational programs, prevents poor students from even applying for loans.

Neoliberalism therefore has been associated with a shift from the second to the first perspective on higher education, and hence with a process of commoditization of higher education. This is not an accidental phenomenon but follows from the very nature of the neoliberal regime. The fiscal constraint upon the state which forces it to cut back on expenditure on higher education and to leave the field to private players is a necessary feature of the neoliberal regime. Since such a regime is associated with a removal of restrictions upon cross-border capital flows, it cannot raise taxes for fear of driving capital, especially finance, away to other destinations, causing reduced investment and even a financial crisis domestically. At the same time, “fiscal responsibility” legislation enacted to boost the “confidence” of globalized finance, which typically frowns upon fiscal deficits, limits the extent to which government expenditure can be financed by borrowing. The resulting constraint upon the size of government spending as a whole impinges with particular severity upon social sector expenditures, because incentives must also be provided to private capital, in competition with other destinations to which it can move, for attracting it to invest domestically, and this claims greater priority in the government budget. Expenditure on education, including higher education, becomes a major casualty.

But it is not just the paucity of resources with the government in a neoliberal regime which forces the privatization and hence the commoditization of higher education. Such a regime is committed to privatization and commoditization in any case. Privatization of public enterprises and a whittling down of the public sector are an integral part of a neoliberal regime, and this applies to the sphere of higher education as well.

The Commoditization of Education

One effect of the commoditization of higher education, namely the exclusion of the deprived segment of the population, has already been noted. Even when students from this segment do get enrolled in institutions of higher education, the ones where they get enrolled, typically public educational institutions where relatively lower fees and affirmative action enable them to enter, are so starved of funds and facilities that the quality of the education they get remains abysmal compared to what the affluent students get. In India, for instance, while central government-funded universities continue to have standards that are reasonable, those funded by state governments, in whose case cutbacks on spending have been more serious, have lost heavily in terms of quality.

But in addition to these obvious effects, there are certain less obvious ones that follow from the very nature of commodities, among which higher education is increasingly counted, and these affect the very nature of the higher education that is practiced. A commodity is a finished thing, a complete and neatly packaged object. The commoditization of education therefore increasingly turns education itself into a neatly packaged object that is imbibed by the students and regurgitated at the time of examinations. This goes fundamentally against what education is supposed to be, namely a process of inquiry, an open-ended quest that encourages students engaged in its pursuit to ask questions. The commoditization of education is thus fundamentally against the spirit of education. It destroys inquisitiveness, criticism, and creativity. It treats learning as synonymous with the acquisition of skills. Treating education as mere acquisition of skills paves the way for its commoditization, and the converse is also true: commoditization also paves the way for a treatment of education as mere acquisition of skills. The commoditization of education, by destroying inquisitiveness and criticism, destroys thought itself.

This is more a problem of developing countries than of advanced countries. The commoditization of education has proceeded with a vengeance in developing countries; while in the advanced countries private universities are still confined mainly to those run for philanthropic, rather than commercial, motives, in developing countries there is now a mushrooming of such commercial educational establishments. Precisely for this reason, the destruction of thought arising from the abandonment of inquisitiveness and contestation of received ideas characterizes higher education in developing countries more than in the advanced countries, which in turn further contributes to the intellectual parasitism of the former.

A second problem with commoditization of education arises for the following reason. While a commodity is both a use value and an exchange value in the eyes of the buyer, it is a pure exchange value in the eyes of the seller. It represents for the seller only a certain amount of money which it would fetch upon its sale. (Indeed, if it constitutes a use-value as well, apart from being an exchange value, in the eyes of the seller, then we have incomplete development of commodity production).2 Now, commoditization of education is invariably associated with the commoditization of the product of education, the person into whom education enters as an input. For such a person, therefore, education becomes purely a means of enhancing the exchange value of his or her labor-power, that is, of enhancing his or her command over the money obtained in exchange for this labor-power.

It is in this sense that, as mentioned earlier, the mere fact of the product of education having to appear in the job market, which has gone on for centuries, is not identical with the commoditization of education. The commoditization of education entails that in the eyes of the product of the education system, education is stripped of its use-value aspects; it no longer appears as a source of knowledge, as an entry-point into the grand world of ideas, as a provider of intellectual excitement. It represents merely the command over a larger sum of money.

This, to be sure, is a transformation that does not occur overnight. But it is a transformation that is immanent in the conversion of education into a commodity; it may occur gradually, but it occurs surely. The products of the education system, when it has been commoditized, are not just socially unconcerned, so that education ceases to play its social role; they, as commodities themselves into whom education has entered as an input commodity, become self-centered, self-absorbed entities that care little about society, about the plight of fellow human beings, and even about deriving any pleasure or excitement from the world of ideas.

This attitude towards education, of treating it as a mere means of enhancing one’s command over money, is manifested in a myriad different ways, but above all in the choice of disciplines to study. The social sciences and humanities, including literature and philosophy, and even the basic natural sciences and pure mathematics, tend to be shunned in favor of more money-fetching disciplines like medicine, commerce, management, and business administration. Only students who cannot get admission to these more lucrative disciplines find refuge in social sciences, humanities, and such other disciplines. The fact that the products of the latter disciplines are less marketable implies a lowering of the quality of the student intake into them, which in turn causes less resources coming their way, less faculty being recruited for teaching them, less scholarships and loans being given for them, less student intake even by way of numbers (except students who may be “marking time,” preparing for some other profession, even while being enrolled in such disciplines in order to have access to hostel rooms, library facilities, or other such advantages), and hence an atrophy of these disciplines.

But precisely because these disciplines are especially associated with critical thinking, their atrophy entails a demise of critical thinking. The preference by students for more lucrative disciplines is of course only one of the factors behind the atrophy of social sciences and humanities and hence of critical thinking. There is in addition the obvious ideological predilections of the private education entrepreneurs, and of governments as well, which devote the bulk of the truncated expenditure on higher education toward skill-developing disciplines rather than the social sciences and humanities, which are seen to be producing “troublesome” students.

The atrophy of critical thinking in developing countries arises of course not just because of changes in the sphere of education. There are deeper changes in society that underlie such atrophy, to which changes in the sphere of education are related; and these have to do with the fact that while the peasantry; the traditional petty producers like fishermen, craftsmen, and artisans; and the workers have faced difficulties during the period of globalization in developing countries (in India, for instance, there has been an unprecedented spate of peasant suicides in the years of neoliberal policy), the urban middle class over much of this world has done well out of globalization (Patnaik, 2016). This at least has been the position until now, before the effects of the global crisis have made themselves fully felt. The “financialization” of the economy, the outsourcing of a number of white-collar activities from the advanced to the developing world, and the “multiplier effects” of these have combined to create a number of new jobs for urban middle-class youth. Such expanding employment opportunities in somewhat better-paid occupations (though of course lower-paid than in comparable occupations in advanced countries, which after all is what makes outsourcing profitable) has made the urban middle class shed its critical role and acquiesce in the existing economic arrangements.

The urban middle class is a social segment of great importance in developing countries because of its articulateness and access to education. Indeed, many have seen it as a pillar of support for the post-decolonization dirigiste regimes.3 Its changed attitude, and acquiescence in the neoliberal regime, on account of the change that such a regime brings about in its economic fortunes is a major factor behind the demise of critical thinking in developing societies.

The demands of this middle class, and of others in emulation of it, have also contributed to the changes occurring in the education sector. It has been vocal in wanting a shift in the orientation of the higher education system toward producing the kind of personnel that international corporations and domestic big business would like to employ. It has, in short, been a force, together of course with these business interests, in pushing the higher education system in the direction of producing “organic intellectuals of globalized capital.” In this project, critical thinking not only does not have any role to play but is positively frowned upon. A powerful coalition of forces, from governments to globalized big business, education entrepreneurs, and urban middle class aspirants for the benefits of globalization, gets built up, which finds critical thinking altogether undesirable. And one important way that this hostility to critical thinking expresses itself is through the insistence that students should “shun politics and concentrate only on their studies.”

But along with the atrophy of critical thinking and the shunning of politics, there is also an end to any articulation of the problems of the peasantry, the traditional petty producers, and the working class. The vision that Gandhi projected during India’s anti-colonial struggle, of an education system that produces the “organic intellectuals of the people,” is replaced by one that sees the education system as producing the “organic intellectuals of globalized capital.”

The Spread of Unreason

The atrophy of critical thinking is closely linked to the emergence of fascist, semi-fascist, and fundamentalist forces all over the developing world which thrive on unreason. Again, to be sure, there are deeper social roots of this phenomenon, but the weakening of critical thinking in society; the gradual atrophy of rational thought; and the ready acceptance, without any evidence, of propositions which are based on prejudice have all contributed to it. Not surprisingly, those institutions of higher education in such societies which still retain a certain scientific temper and a degree of critical thinking have been the prime targets of attack by these forces.

There is a paradox here. Neoliberal economic policies are an accompanying feature of globalization, which is supposed to lead developing countries to “modernity” by opening a window to the world; by breaking down their closed, isolated, and self-absorbed character; and by unleashing the rapid development of productive forces. But since the neoliberal regime is characterized by a process of commoditization of higher education which undermines free and creative thinking, it actually ends up encouraging the most anti-modern, anti-democratic, and anti-rational elements in society (Panikkar & Nair, 2012); it ends up, in other words, with a denouement that is the very opposite of what it promised.

This is not an accidental occurrence. In developing countries, the anti-colonial struggle, which entailed breaking away from a globalization imposed upon them by the colonial powers, also necessitated uniting the people as a whole, people who belonged to diverse religions, ethnicities, and cultures. This required negotiations; it required a charter, like the Freedom Charter in South Africa or the Karachi Congress Resolution in India, which constituted a kind of “social contract” on the basis of which people could unite; and consequently it meant, necessarily, a shunning of mere metaphysical hyperbole in the discourse of “nationalism,” and an emphasis on democracy and rationality. This emphasis later found expression in the political constitutions that were drafted in several decolonized societies. In other words, breaking away from the globalization imposed by colonialism constituted the condition for ushering in democracy, an emphasis on rational discourse, and, correspondingly, a higher education system that cherished these ideals. It meant embracing what many would regard as the core values of “modernity”: democracy, equality, and reason.

By contrast, reabsorption into a later globalization that insists on turning everything into a commodity, and hence breaking the unity of the decolonized people as a whole by splitting them into diverse self-absorbed and self-centered commodity-sellers, who may come together as specific groups on the basis of particular religions or ethnicities and hence by claiming the superiority of their own creeds or breeds over those of others, necessarily goes against rational thought. Corresponding to it, there is also a commoditization of higher education that complements this process by discouraging critical and independent thinking, and concentrating solely on imparting skills without generating thought.

Of course, not all fascist, semi-fascist, and fundamentalist movements, especially in the developing world, can be treated as homogeneous. There are significant differences among them. The Hindu supremacism that we see in ascendancy in India and the Islamic fundamentalism that is sweeping the Arab world are vastly different in their contexts, inspirations, and attitudes towards the advanced capitalist world; they should not be conflated. But what all these movements have in common are three features: first, all of them have arisen on the ashes of the secular and inclusive nationalism that characterized anti-colonial struggles and underlay, more or less, the post-decolonization dirigiste regimes; second, all of them are suffused with unreason, with scant respect for rational discourse and for scientific evidence; and third, all of them are successful in mobilizing to a significant extent the support of skilled middle-class personnel. The fact that products of the higher education system, as it has evolved under neoliberalism, become votaries of various forms of fascism, semi-fascism, and fundamentalism underscores the connection between the commoditization of education and the spread of unreason.

Capitalist globalization, in other words, does not bring “modernity,” defined in terms of the core ideas of equality, democracy, and a belief in reason, to developing societies. It increases economic inequalities, and hence social inequalities as well; and it reinforces the prejudices and fissures of the old societies because of which rational discourse gets sacrificed. It is not by embracing capitalist globalization, but by reasserting the “social contract” on the basis of which these societies had acquired nationhood through their anti-colonial struggles, that they can come to “modernity” in the sense defined above. For this, however, a degree of delinking from capitalist globalization, in the form for instance of imposing capital controls, which alone can give an autonomy to the developing country’s state vis-à-vis globalized capital, will be necessary. Such a change is a matter of urgent necessity, for otherwise the spread of unreason and of sectarian movements based upon unreason will tear these societies apart, getting them bogged down in perennial strife.

Concluding Observations

Two important clarifications are in order here. First, the discussion of the political economy of higher education has inevitably reached a point which leads beyond higher education per se. A change in this political economy cannot be brought about merely through an intervention in the sphere of higher education. But does this mean that no intervention in the sphere of higher education is possible in the face of this political economy? The answer is that one can “throw some sand” into the wheels of the political economy of higher education that is dictated by globalization. To do so, however, one needs an awareness of this political economy; one needs, for instance, an awareness of the baneful consequences of the commoditization of education. The practical importance of this awareness must not be debunked by simply postulating a rigid and inexorable one-way relationship from political economy to developments in higher education.

The second issue can be stated as follows. This article has contrasted two alternative perspectives on higher education, one of which was inherited from the days of the anti-colonial struggle and was more or less subscribed to during the dirigiste period, while the other came into vogue during the period of neoliberalism. It has underscored the necessity of the first of these perspectives for the viability of developing societies, which is undermined by the second. The question may be raised: are we then supposed to return to the pre-liberalization dirigiste days? If that regime could not be sustained and had to yield its place to neoliberalism, then what is the point in harking back to the perspective on higher education that characterized it? The simple answer to this question is that the perspective on higher education upheld by the pre-liberalization dirigiste regime was not specific to that regime. This perspective on higher education can be carried forward by an alternative regime that transcends the neoliberal one, but differs nonetheless from the earlier dirigiste regime. Awareness of this perspective therefore is necessary, even though the regime that upheld it was superseded by the neoliberal regime.


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Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Noel-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.Find this resource:

Kalecki, M. (1972). Social and economic aspects of “intermediate regimes.” In Selected essays in the economic growth of the socialist and the mixed economy (pp. 162–169). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Kothari, D. S., et al. (1966). Report of the Education Commission 1964–1966. Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Education.Find this resource:

Panikkar, K. N., & Bhaskaran, Nair M. (Eds.). (2012). Globalization and higher education in India. Delhi: Pearson.Find this resource:

Patnaik, P. (2015). Defining the meaning of commodity production. Studies in People’s History, 2(1), 117–125.Find this resource:

Patnaik, P. (2016, Sept. 14). The logic of neo-liberal capitalism [Blog post].

Tilak, J. B. G. (2007). The Kothari Commission and financing of education. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(10), 874–882.Find this resource:


(1.) The Gandhi-Tagore correspondence on this and several other issues has been brought together in Bhattacharya (2005).

(2.) For a discussion of the meaning of commodity production, see Patnaik (2015).

(3.) The urban middle class was so important a pillar of the dirigiste regime that Michal Kalecki referred to such regimes as “intermediate regimes.” See Kalecki (1972).