Consumerism leads to a negotiation of a contract between two parties who would want to define the terms of a purchase or an exchange of goods or services.
Knowledge is treated as a commodity whose exchange value is measured by comparing the cost of acquiring a degree with the financial earnings the degree supposedly enables. Classifying education as a commodity relies on the assumption that it restricts education’s task to measurable and often short-term financial yields.
The value of education becomes purely instrumental ~ a means to employment. Commodification also encourages appeasement of students in the short term by minimising their challenges rather than equipping them for the long term to face complex problems.
Incidentally, when the international community pledged at the World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA), held in Jomtien, Thailand, to do its utmost to make basic education available to all children and adults by the year 2000, the question of how to finance this endeavour caused a major debate among the more than 1,500 government officials and specialists attending.
After many years of massive investments in education, spending in this field has suffered from great cutbacks as the developing world faced an economic crisis marked by recession, debt and structural adjustment. As a consequence, many countries are now much farther from the goal of providing primary schooling for their children than they were a few decades ago, and literacy drives for adults are losing steam.
The Declaration called on governments to mobilize new resources for education within national budgets. “Time, energy and funding directed to basic education is perhaps the most profound investment in people and in the future of a country which can be made”, the Declaration said.
A number of World Bank studies show that economic returns from investment in education are higher than those from most other forms of investment. For example, four years of primary education was found to be associated with an average increase in farm productivity, all other things being equal, of ten per cent or more. And some major reports on education in the United States, quite some time ago, stated that mediocrity in education could imperil national prosperity.
The idea of linking education to human progress seems simple, obvious and commonsensical. Education enables people to be more productive, that is to understand a situation and make the most of it. As earnings grow, so do savings, so does investment and, in turn, so does the well-being of society in general. The Greek philosopher Plato recognised this more than 2300 years ago: “Education has an economic value… a a considerable part of the wealth must be invested in education”.
It is known that in the wake of the Second World War, the education sector came to be the focus of attention from strategic quarters in the advanced countries. However, education was never considered to be wrapped within a financial purview before the concept of “human capital” assumed a considerable shape.
A campaign for laissez-faire finance of education began to be conceived in the 1960s when Friedman’s strong advocacy that “individuals should bear the cost of investment in themselves” had its sway. He also favoured that existing state schools should be denationalised with a view to getting benefits contingent on the free play of the market mechanism.
Let us be reminded that the driving principle behind laissezfaire, an economic philosophy of free market capitalism developed by the French Physiocrats during the 18th century, is that the less the government is involved in the economy, the better off business will be and by extension ~ society as a whole. So, laissez faire is an economic philosophy of free market capitalism.
As time progressed, education came to be considered more as a private commodity, that expected parents to invest in it more and more. The traditional view that it was a publicly funded service gradually lost its significance. Its sole objective became a sort of human capital formation ~ as a key to economic growth. Things became more facilitated through multiple initiatives on the part of multilateral funding agencies.
A number of research organizations also joined with an agenda of neo-liberal ideas and policy. Education was rather compelled to be brought within free market forces. Education came to be viewed as an industry based on a production technology that comes in the purview of economic analysis which led to an obvious estrangement from the traditional ideas pertaining to the mainstream philosophy of education.
Small wonder then that there has been a mushrooming of privately managed profit-making institutions vying to offer courses which could yield placement for prospective students. Exorbitant charges bring them to the loan givers, and there lies the rub. To pay off these loans, they have literally to turn themselves into commodities, almost selling themselves to the buyer offering the best price. And, the process of commodification goes on.
Added to all this, the Government of India, in its budget, announced that FDI in education, in educational institutions, would be enabled. The foreign exchange laws would need an appropriate amendment to allow FDI in societies and trusts which are responsible for how educational institutions are presently set up. In this regard the government is also contemplating the participation by foreign institutions to set up campuses in India as part of existing universities or their own independent campuses in our country.
Years back also, publicly-funded institutions in India like the IITs, IIMs and medical institutes were major sites of brain drain without any restrictions imposed by the government. The market cannot be expected to have the same priorities that we as a nation and culture have in moulding our destiny and hence the state should be vigilant in ensuring that nobody exploits undue personal benefits out of the asymmetric freedom prevailing in the market.
Remember, even in a perfect market, man cannot become anything more than its best servant, for market rationality is the collective consciousness of each individual’s consciousness of what the market is. The argument for higher investment in education is ethical even more than economic.
What is needed is the revolution of the mind. What we need at the moment is a system that follows the rule; first do no harm. When fundamentally well-meaning institutions and people do stupid things, we worry. Kicking them in their teeth is stupid. But allowing their stupid business is seriously stupid. It is time to worry.
(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)