On August 9 in 1942,  Mahatma Gandhi started the Quit India movement and launched a civil disobedience movement against the British colonisers. On the 73rd anniversary of that day, students and activists from many universities across India marched on the streets of Mumbai to observe a Quit India Day of their time. The target, this time was the World Trade Organisation and its move to bring education sector in India under its purview.

Over the last couple of years, academics and activists in the country have been demonstrating against the international trade regulator and what they term as its “encroachment” on the Indian education sphere. The protests are set to only grow louder now that the December summit is fast approaching. It is in the ensuing Tenth Ministerial Conference that the Indian government is expected to finally finish negotiations and further open up the education sector to WTO’s General Agreement on Trade and Services or GATS.

This would mean that India will categorise education as a commodity under the WTO-GATS and the students will effectively become consumers of the same, something which even countries like Canada and Australia have refused to allow. There are fears that this move would lead to further dilution in the quality of education in the country. Many others are concerned that it could even result in the exclusion of those hailing from financially weaker sections from accessing quality education as the guiding principle will shift from inclusive education to profit-making by corporate houses who choose to set up shop.

Profit over welfare?

Explaining how WTO policies could end up determining India’s outlook towards education, Anil Sadgopal, academic and ex-dean of Delhi University’s Faculty of Education spoke to Catch News and said that the government would no longer be able to prioritise national institutions over the private ones.

“The government will have to provide the same facilities and grants to anybody seeking to provide [an] education service, as it provides to public-funded state universities,” he said. “Suppose the University Grants Commission gives a Rs 50 crore grant to the Delhi University for its library. It will have to grant the same to, say, a GE University or an Ambani university.”

An easier way to understand how profit making can undermine the objectives of a public education system is to imagine two courses, one of which is purely academic in nature and the other one is purely vocational. The universities, motivated by a desire to put out better placement figures at the end of the year, would incline towards offering more seats of the vocational course as opposed to the academic one even as both are equally important.

“Where will the fundamental knowledge of such disciplines come from? From Europe and America," said Sadgopal. "All research in fundamental knowledge will be patented there and sold to India, and we will depend on them.”

This has been a constant grouse of those opposing the government’s “offer” to the WTO. All India Students’ Association has been organising public meetings and pamphlet distribution drives in many universities in the national capital to raise awareness and rally support. In a note released by the student organisation on August 30, it blamed the Congress party for kickstarting this move and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for going into overdrive to ensure that the education sector makes a “complete surrender” to the WTO.


Indeed, it was in the year 2005 at the Doha Round of trade negotiations that the ruling United Progressive Alliance government started the process of bringing the education sector under the GATS. The government of the time, though, left the doorway open for more negotiations in the coming years.

The current government, academics claim, is set to put in a “binding commitment” to this effect as soon as December. If this agreement goes through, they warn, the government will be forced to allow “profit-driven” foreign corporations to set up educational institutions in the country which will not only undermine the quality of education in the country but free them of any accountability.

“These providers will not be bound to provide quality education in the country,”  the AISA note points out, citing a World Bank report published in the year 2000 that said well-known universities in the developed countries often set up “low standard” branches in the developing or backward countries. “They would have the freedom to make unbridled profits by charging high fee and cutting down infrastructural costs,” it added.

It is worth noting, however, that the National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Behari Vajpayee took a stance against this “commercialisation” of education back in the year 2001. The government opposed putting up education on the agenda for WTO negotiations claiming that the move wasn’t “acceptable” to it.

"We are strongly against any such move. Commercialising education is not acceptable to us," Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi had said then. "Education is not a saleable commodity, it is the fundamental right of every human being and each country has to formulate its own education policies as per the local culture and situation. It is not something where the same yardstick can be applied across the globe," he had added.