Social Justice through Public Education in Indian Universities: A Case of Apples and Oranges*
‘The focus of discussion in this brief review would revolve around the superimposed terms of social justice through interventionist public policies enacted by the government and how such measures legitimize restrictions on liberty and the equality of opportunity. The solution that, if offered to this abysmal issue, is largely based on privatization.’
In 2017, a report by All India Survey of Higher Education has critically reported that there is a 38% proliferation in the private education sector in terms of higher study circles when compared to a systematic and steep decline in the public educational institutes. Conflating this novel statistic to the rapid increase in the enrolled candidates for higher education in the nation goes on to show the positive aggregate trickle-down-effect of privatization.
Within the last few years, the debate around the commodification of the commons, especially in the context of higher education, has intensified in the intellectual congregation. This is primarily due to the University Grants Commission Graded Autonomy Regulations (GAR) (notified through the union-gazette, 12 February 2018), which effectively calls for greater autonomy in institutions, self-reliance, incentive structure, and work-intensive emoluments.
This mechanism for one set of scholars ensures that the largely deteriorating public education system in countries like India can benefit from the pooling in private capital assets and, in turn, become a viable and efficient market. Contrastingly, on the other side of the spectrum, though with some merit, some voices have vehemently criticized this move as being ostensible to the public-private liquidity and untenable on the lines of impaired justice, genetic disability and lack of fair opportunity.
What is wrong with Indian Higher Education System?
Before moving on to the epitome of this contentious debate, what needs to be clarified is the role of privatization itself in the realms of higher education. Unlike the primary education system, which is compulsory in India, higher education is something that is left to the choice of the individuals. Although there isn’t any compulsion, the government does promote/market higher education. Consequently, it maintains public institutions with a large chunk of funding, tax credits, and fee-subsidy dedicated to such institutions.
Despite the country spending 3% of its total GDP on education in 2018–19 or about 5.6 lakh crore, the public higher education still fares worse on an aggregate scale in comparison to private education, in terms of quality, facilities, and overall scope of development. Although there is no conclusive data worldwide, the US and even in smaller countries like Bangladesh, have a robust private education system in place, and compared to the public education system is rolling out a higher number of graduates with better chances at employability.
Coming back to India, three areas where public institutions have been historically favored is the accessibility to the poor, transparency, and lower fee-structure, even though reports clearly say that graduates coming out of private institutions are overall in the majority when compared to public institutions. Nevertheless, there are other interlinking factors to this scenario of private institutions faring poorly on these three broad parameters, i.e., transparency, fees, and accessibility.
Firstly, because they are regularized by an excessive license raj (downgrading the choice of students and maintaining competitive course curriculum);
Secondly, because public institutions do not have the liability to maintain a dynamic growth or radical development and thus are immune to competition despite receiving regular funding out of public taxation, and;
Thirdly, because private institutions are not allowed to procure profits, there is a rapid decline of new players hopping into the market and weeding out monopoly holders who might have exorbitant fees and have become incompetent with time. This, in turn, leads to the continued existence of dilapidated private and public institutions in perpetuity.
Social Justice as a Logical Paradox
To narrow down the order on behalf of the contrarians, the major thrust of the argument against privatization of education is based on three significant limbs:
Taking further cues from Kenneth Galbraith ideas against private capitalism, which were centred on counter-productivity, socialists have come to argue that a freer education (and this does not mean freer in the sense of financially free education) which does not ensure equality, is bound to fail in the long run. The equality in this context signifies the sidelining of meritocracy in favour of optimum diversity and equal opportunity for all. Now there is a catch when we talk about sidelining of meritocracy and creating a bubble of equal opportunity.
Even in layman terms, sidelining of meritocracy in a system eventually dilapidates it, as there is a long line of supply but with little or no demand. In simpler terms, the market demands graduates not based on their diversity but rather on performance. Hence, if we make the system independent of meritocracy, it will create a chain of individuals and institutions, who will remain disinterested in achieving excellence, as there is no system of reward.
Although, this does not mean that equal opportunity for all should not be provided. As we have seen that certain races and nationalities are being discriminated in terms of admissions and opportunities, it becomes a responsibility for the system that no individual is cut-off from any given opportunity based on caste, creed, color, race, and gender, etc. However, when we subject opportunities to only cater to the demands of diversification, it automatically creates a dependent system. We will see with an example of open admissions policy of the City University of New York [hereinafter ‘CUNY’], that how a dependent system, in the long run, fails to achieve the required success.
In 1975, CUNY adopted a policy of ‘open admissions ‘ (expansion of public doles and extension of seats based on identity notions), wherein admissions were based on ‘affirmative action ‘ and ‘upward social mobility.’ It was a policy enacted to ensure that no high school graduate is bereft of higher education, irrespective of the merit, social position, and the financial condition of the individual. This led to an influx of diversified racial and ethnic groups in the education program. Enrollments were enlarged to the extent that everyone was accommodated and the class size increased three notches higher to that of a regular program.
‘CUNY’s strategy for creating racial balance among its campuses had unfortunate side effects. First, it depended on the creation of identifiable sub-populations of severely underprepared students on the senior college campuses, thereby standing the concept of integration on its head and reinforcing the stereotype of the underqualified minority student. Second, it relied on a dangerous double standard in admissions. Whereas the regular senior college admissions standards were designed to provide students with an incentive to achieve a B average or a ranking in the top half of their high school class, the gave preference to students with D averages, perversely granting benefits to those economically disadvantaged students who did worst in high school……During the 1970s, the declining quality of the NYC public schools and the lowering of admissions standards at CUNY became locked together in a downward spiral. Public school achievement decreased during the 1970s, both in terms of the rigor of courses taken and in terms of the level of skill attained.
In 1974, unofficial estimates put 40% of the city’s 300,000 high school students two or more years behind grade level. According to a study conducted by The New York Times, the percentage of students entering their senior year of high school who had completed both algebra and geometry dropped from 40% to 33% between 1972 and 1978, and the proportion of students with two years of academic science courses dropped from 63% to 51% during the same period. School officials attributed the decline in rigorous courses to the initiation of open admissions at CUNY. To explain these declines, some charged that open admissions had devalued a CUNY education to the point that qualified students no longer wanted to apply’
In the aftermath of the introduction of open admissions, what followed was a large-scale degradation of the inherent value of the degree courses, students who lacked merit, and the creation of a large pool of graduates, who found it hard to sustain with an ever-competing market of employment. Because of no examination to enter the CUNY and less incentive for a viable career, later on, the overall qualified candidates (rich or poor) opted out of it.
Well, it can’t be neglected that certain strata of society, especially in countries like India are prone to the void called ‘inequality’. Hence, there is a requirement of a substitute that does not compromise on freedom and liberty but does ensure equitable access to resources. This is exactly where ‘ voucher ridden’ policies marketed by the great Milton Friedman comes in as the most justiciable method to ensure liberty, equality, and integration in the education market of India.
How Vouchers Can Help?
Voucher policy is something that already exists in India without the namesake because essentially policies such as ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao,’ ‘Right to Education’ (though in the context of schools) work primarily on the voucher-based system. Primarily, in the voucher system, the State’s coffers and private donations, ensure that the economically underprivileged sections of the society are given a voucher upliftment (which is nothing but a sort of subsidy for a relatively smaller underprivileged population sans the identity allocation) to pursue an education at the same level to that of the privileged classes. This ‘ choice based higher education’ naturally makes quality education accessible to all in comparison to other education subsidies and affirmative action. This, at the same time, weeds out bureaucratic intervention (or the possibility of corruption) and promotes the relative efficacy of the education markets.
On the other hand, widespread affirmative action, compulsory education, and government subsidies reduce the endeavor of the institutes to improve on quality and substance, essentially promoting a larger set of underqualified graduates that do not meet the needs of the job market.
As a matter of fact and to answer this hypothetical bubble of social justice in education, Dru Stevenson puts it this way,
‘Believing in free markets does not necessarily mean believing that all goods and services are best provided by for-profit entities. Certain useful institutions originated in the nonprofit (religious) sector; they often work reasonably well as projects of philanthropists or volunteer organizations’
Hence, private education based on free-market culture is not exactly a money minting and corporatist caricature but rather a more emphatic pursuit of liberty and integration through government subsidies working only at the most marginal level of poverty, something which Friedman too suggests in his monumental essays.
The net social assessment in terms of privatization turns out to be positive if seen through the lens of Nozeckean Entitlement Principles and Formal Equality of Opportunity. Every social animal in this country is no doubt born with certain genetic disabilities and social limitations, but privatization ensures that every creature of this inequitable society is safeguarded against all forms of biases (extending formal equality of opportunity; for ex: ensuring that ‘everybody’ starts at the same line in a track and field race) and in the meantime if someone still falls short, the State would step in through vouchers to help the individual attain parity.
To put it differently,
‘The “economics of education”, a newly-founded discourse, view education as a vehicle for “human capital development”-a solution both to economic growth and economic mobility of individuals and families’
On the point of Academic Fallout, the argument for the progressivists is even weaker. To make a more coherent counter to this, Frank Chodorov, the contemporary and protégé of the great Albert Jay Nock, argue that markets within an educational regime ensure pluralism and would curb academic fallout occurring due to social imbalance and discrepancies existing in the social structure of hierarchies.
‘He reasoned that all education involves ideological choices, from what to put in and leave out of the curriculum to the best methods of teaching. Markets in education would allow families to pursue the education that worked best for them.’
Hence a market in the education sector would ensure meritocracy and homogeneity of talent groups through a private system of judgment. Such a framework would ensure that there is more integration among the various social group in strata’s of education, thereby ensuring that there are no sum zero clashes and exclusionary emotions.
On a summation of this modern debate of virtue, one can argue that a dependent system like India is still not ready for a more developed private education sector, but to raise a counter in terms of efficiency and segregation is a farfetched idea. The forms of privatization differ among critics like Rothbard (radicalism) and Friedman (partial-interventionism) and also take different shapes in terms of how much funding is dedicated to each type of voucher schemes.
Though, a central theme that runs through the concept of privatization per se is an escalation of the educational market in terms of efficiency of the system, ensuring quality education through voluntary competitive markets, developing emphatic homogenous educational circles.
“*Just a desk; some inexpensive supplies; maybe a few textbooks, or maybe none, if the program is entirely digital and online, the way mine is. Because freedom is a good thing, you see, and to be free you can’t rely on other people. Self-reliance is everything. The parent who demands that his child be given special attention by a high school teacher, says Paul, ‘is making a big mistake’.” See Ron Paul, The School Revolution, A New Answer for Our Broken Education System (Hachette UK, 2013).
 Joel Samoff, Socialist Education, 35(1) Comparative Education Review (Feb., 1991), pp. 1–22.
 Peterson, Robert, Unfair to Young People; How the Public Schools Got the Way They Are, Youth Liberation Press in conjunction with the Wisconsin Alliance First Printing, (June, 1975).
 Sanford Schram, Neoliberalizing the University: Implications for American Democracy 157–171 (2016).
 Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani Advisory Task Force, Report on The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift 22–34 (June 7, 1999).
 Walter Block, I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians 195 (2013).
 Milton Friedman & Rose Friedman, Free To Choose: A Personal Statement 150–189 (1980).
 Joseph L. Bast, Why Conservatives and Libertarians Should Support School Vouchers, 7(2) The Independent Review 265–276 (2002).
 Joseph L. Bast, Using Vouchers to Reform Schools: A Reply to Conservative and Libertarian Doubters, 17(2) Journal of Private Enterprise (2002).
Originally published at http://thelawblog.in on June 30, 2020.