Jesudas M Athyal

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Ethical and Economic Challenges for Education in a Globalized Era


Dr. Jesudas M. Athyal

(Associate Professor of Social Analysis,

Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai)




Education in ancient times was a relatively simple and straight forward affair. Education was accessible then primarily to the privileged sections of the society; the lower castes, untouchables, women and other marginalized sections were kept outside the purview of education. Social reformers in the modern period, however, added a liberative potential to education. Jotirao Phule who opened, in the 19th century, schools where women from all social backgrounds – Brahmins, Sudras and the Dalits – could study together and B.R. Ambedkar with his rallying slogan to the Dalits, “Educate, Agitate and Organize” are important names in this context.  


The globalization of education in our times, however, has thrown open a wide spectrum of possibilities for all sections of the society. While in the past, people lived in splendid isolation from one another, the modern age has thrown us all together in what some describe as a global village. While colonialism on the one hand, has shaken the foundations of the isolation of the religions and cultures of the East (such as India) and exposed them to the “global currents”, the tragedies of the modern world, notably, the threat of nuclear power, international terrorism and global warming to name a few, have created a sense of disillusionment in the western mind, turning several of them to seek peace in the ‘mystic’ religions of the East. Whatever that be, it is a fact that there is no going back to the splendid isolation of the past: we are all thrown together and therefore, need to explore the need to build up a community that celebrate our plurality.


This paper will examine certain specific challenges faced by the sector of education, especially higher education, in India in the globalized context. In an era of globalization, education and the provision of education, is increasingly seen as a commodity which is accessible to those who can afford to pay for it, a process which is often described as inevitable or irreversible. As a commodity, education is often guided by sound economic principles. It is argued in this paper that such commodification of education, in the absence of sound ethical and humanist principles, would undermine the very foundations of what education should be in a free, secular and socialist society envisaged by the Constitution of India.


The paper primarily addresses three areas of concern with regard to higher education in the modern times. These are: the erosion in the focus on humanities and social sciences in education, a pedagogy of the Subaltern sections of the society and lastly, Foreign Direct Investment as a specific area of globalization in the sector of higher education in India.



The crisis in Humanities


The focus on Humanities is integrally linked to a renewed interest in ‘humanism’ which can be traced all the way back to the Renaissance period. Humanism is generally understood as an ideological system that considers the human being as the measure of all things. The rudiments of humanism can be found in various ancient philosophical systems. The Greek Philosophy originated as an inquiry into the humanistic problems of knowledge and conduct as elaborated in the theories of Heraclitus and Parmenides. The Sophists and Socrates turned away from ontological and cosmological speculations regarding the constitution and origin of the external world and devoted their attention almost exclusively to the problems of human beings – to human knowledge and conduct.


Similarly, ancient Hebrew philosophy also represented a humanism which visualized the highest and the most desirable human state as a life in communion with God. As Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, put it:


God speaks to every man through the life which he gives him again and again. Therefore, man can only answer God with the whole of life – with the way in which he lives this given life. The Jewish teaching of the wholeness of life is the other side of the Jewish teaching of the unit of God. Because God bestows not only spirit on man, but the whole of his existence, from its “lowest” to its “highest” levels as well, man can fulfill the obligations of his partnership with God by no spiritual attitude, by no worship, on no scared upper story; the whole of life is required, everyone of its areas and everyone of its circumstances.[i]


While such a humanism falls short of the secular criterion in treating the human being as an autonomous and self-sufficient entity, it does place the total human being in a harmonious relationship with the rest of humanity, nature and the transcendental reality. Unlike the Sophist and the Socratic Greek theory of human beings, thus, the Hebrew thought represents humanism which is essentially theistic in nature.

The ancient Stoics too had developed a humanism which placed the human in harmony with God and nature. Reason was considered as the highest virtue and a life in accordance with rational laws, the most ideal. Human existence should be intellectual, and all bodily pains and pleasures should be despised. A harmony between the human will and universal reason constitutes virtue. The Stoics thus developed a humanism based on ethical norms. On the other hand, the Epicurean philosophy was essentially materialistic and individualistic in nature. By freeing atomism of its original naivety, Epicuros made room for individual freedom in a law-governed universe, in a world ‘obeying the laws of nature’. This humanism too was rooted in ethical values as the rules of physical science were considered as subordinate to and dependent on moral science. However, the metaphysical and ethical aspects of the Epicurean humanism did not prevent human beings from being essentially “epicurean”, for,


his philosophy was the art of enjoying life; it had no concern for death or the power of the Gods whom he called the product of delusion; it was indifferent to the future, because there was nothing after death, the soul being a congerie of atoms which dissolved into its constituents.[ii]


In short, despite its spiritual and moral aspects, Epicurean humanism was rooted in the hedonistic, materialistic and atheistic streams of the ancient Greek Philosophy. Humanism, as it evolved into a well-defined philosophical system during the Renaissance, had a definite spiritual dimension as well. The supernaturalism of the traditional religious belief was opposed to naturalism. Human as well as universal nature, placed against the supposedly transcendental dimension, was projected as finite and blemished. Renascent humanism, on the other hand, held that “if God had made man after his own image, the flesh could not be impure; its desires could not be sinful and to satisfy them could not be immoral…”[iii]


What humanism did was not to negate moral or ethical values but to re-define them in the light of the emerging rational and scientific spirit. In tackling the moral as well as aesthetic question, however, renascent humanism did not fall back on the Greek or Christian philosophical systems of abstract speculation and spiritualism. Rather, the approach of the renascent humanist was practical. The humanists did not theorise about the relation between ethics and aesthetics; they lived a life which indicated a solution of the old problem. The essential characteristic of renascent morality was humanist because the human being was taken as the measure of all things and naturalist, because it was morality that does not shun but enjoy the goodness of nature.


In this long history of the development of humanism, where do we place humanities and the current state of affairs? In the modern  times, the humanities are generally described as those academic disciplines which study the human condition using methods that are largely analytic, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural and social sciences. The humanities generally include subjects such as language and literature, history, philosophy and religion. Humanities ask questions that concern the whole of life, not compartmentalized life.


One of the casualties as higher education emerged into “job-oriented courses” has been the marginalization of humanities from centre-stage to the periphery. The purpose of education is increasingly felt as acquiring certain skills to equip the students to sail through life successfully, and universities are seen as centres where these skills are perfected. Subjects that are considered normative – those that raise the “ought” question - are generally felt as irrelevant as they do not immediately provide a skill or solution. While financial grants are easily forthcoming for research into science - technology related subjects, those who choose humanities often languish for want of patrons to fund their study. Private firms often provide funding for scientific research on the condition that they gain the right to control the dissemination of research findings. The justification for the production of knowledge today thus is justified by its ability to serve short-term economic interests rather than the advancement of knowledge in the broadest sense.


The present state of the humanities needs to be seen in the context of the link that existed between humanism and humanities in the earlier centuries. Humanism during the period of Enlightenment was integrally linked to the development - outside ecclesiastical and theological control - of a scientific and rational spirit in education. In the context of dogmas and dead rituals, scientific knowledge was seen as a window that lets in the fresh air of free thinking and liberation. There is a direct contrast between such an integral link between humanism and science – one reinforcing the other - and the present condition whereby science and technology guided by commercial considerations are virtually displacing humanities from the scene of higher education  While conceding that in a country such as India where unemployment is a major social problem and therefore, the preparation for jobs need necessarily be an essential component of education, there is still the need to provide a larger humanist dimension, lest education becomes skill-oriented but devoid of normative values that raise the why and ought questions of education.   


The Pedagogy of Subaltern Affirmation


Current discussions on education increasingly focus on the various socially divisive factors in our midst: the huge gender divide that often deprives the girl child of the facilities of higher education, the class- caste exclusion that cuts much deeper and sharper in our society and other such divisions. The neglect and negation of education to the subaltern sections does not only happen at the levels of higher education but is inbuilt in the content and methodology of the culture of education in this country.


In recent decades, feminists, Dalit activists and others have come forward with the plea to restructure the very content and process of education. The dominant groups have responded to this with an appeal to individual merit and academic excellence. This tension was visible in the struggles against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission appointed two decades ago to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination, and to set aside a certain portion of jobs and seats in educational institutions for them. The antagonism of the dominant sections towards the subaltern groups was visible with a renewed vigour in the more recent “Youth for equality” movement against the proposal to implement the benefit of reservation for the Other Backward Classes in central and private institutes of higher education. No one can sensibly deny the value of genuine merit or the importance of authentic excellence. However, such discussions are often defined in terms of performance in the examinations and the consequent institutional prestige. We need a pedagogy that is not biased against the subalterns but one that would affirm their identity and dignity.


While the traditional forms of marginalization and exclusion at the caste- class – gender levels are still a reality in large parts of the country, there is the need to be conscious of new forms of discrimination emerging in the context of modernization and urbanization. There is no doubt that rural India is the heartland of casteism and the primary context of the dehumanisation that Dalits and women experience. Today however, there is also the need to take seriously the rapid changes affecting all sections of the society and especially the Dalits. The traditional social location of the Dalits was the religion-tradition governed social structure set primarily in rural India. The ‘outcast’ social and economic functions of the Dalits such as menial and ‘unclean’ work, though considered as polluting, was essential for the society to function. Not only the ideology and theology of the oppressive structures but even subaltern currents like the Dalit movement operate within this framework.


While the process of modernization set in motion by the architects of independent India initiated the de-villagisation of India, it was only during the last two decades that rapid urbanisation has taken place in India. This has thrown enormous challenges before the subaltern movements of the country. The traditional paradigms of oppression and exploitation are breaking down, partly as a result of the socio-economic and political policies of modern India but more so because of the great exodus that has begun from the villages to the towns and cities.  According to U.N. Population studies, by 2030, two thirds of the Indians will be living in the urban areas.[iv]


Yet another factor is the process of liberalisation and privatisation initiated by the Indian government during the last two decades and the challenges they pose to the Dalits, women and other marginalized sections, both in urban and rural areas. Due to the new economic policies, there has been a renewed increase of mass poverty. In the villages, the traditional agricultural patterns are being rapidly replaced by monoculture plantations, aqua culture and floriculture, production not for the consumption of the local community or even for the local market but for export. Land alienation, loss of jobs, rising prices and decreasing government funding for basic amenities in health and education are all factors contributing to a rise of mass poverty once more.[v] While the new economic policies pose serious challenges for most sections of the population, it is undoubtedly the Dalits and women who are most affected. It has been shown that most Dalits feel that they have much to lose by liberalisation. According to a study done in the Economic and Political Weekly, “states like Andhra Pradesh have experienced what is known as the ‘casteisation’ of liberalisation…”[vi]


What are the implications of these rapidly changing developments for the Dalits and other subaltern communities? According to educationalist Rudolf C. Heredia, education, as one of the fundamental institutional systems of a society, has two basic functions which can occur in a variety of mixes: cultural transmission and cultural transformation. The first is concerned with transmitting the knowledge and values of the older generation to the young; this is basically a process of conservation and can lead to the support of status quo and eventually result in the stagnation of the social process. It can also be repressive for the non-dominant cultures and marginal groups. There is therefore the need to combine the first function with the second function, namely, a critique of the old and the development of the new. It is when the conservative function of cultural transmission is stressed to the negation of the liberative one of transformation that the pedagogy reproduces the dominant cultures while subordinating and co-opting the non-dominant ones.


In our country, caste dominance and oppression has been able to, through a process of absorption as well as exclusion, perpetuate itself over millennia, adapting to the changes around, but in the process preserving the essential hierarchy. It may appear that following the process of modernization and urbanization, the shackles of caste – gender discrimination have loosened some what, but the reality is that new forms of exclusion and oppression have replaced the old ones. While the location has changed, the realities remain the same, with little variation. As the Dalits move from the rural to the urban areas, they are able to overcome, to a certain extent, the shackles that bound them in a seemingly immutable and eternally caste-based social structure. That is a welcome development. The new situation however gives rise to new challenges. The migrating Dalits adding to the number of the urban poor located in the slums and pavements of the metropolis, the polarisation of slum dwellers in major cities on caste-region-language lines, the lack of employment opportunities for Dalits due to their inadequate educational background and the resultant new forms of exploitation and exclusion, are all factors yet to be fully explored by social scientists and educationalists.


Foreign Direct Investment


One of the areas with regard to education where there has been considerable debate in recent years is in the proposal to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) at the level of higher education. A Consultation paper titled, “Higher Education in India and GATS: An Opportunity” circulated by the Department of Commerce of the Union Government stated that the internationalization of higher education is occurring rapidly through the spread of international branch campuses.  The paper claimed that hundred per cent FDI in higher education services on automatic route is allowed in India.


What are the implications of the proposal for FDI in higher education in India? Would it enhance the quality of education bringing it on par with international standards, or will it be yet another neo-colonial invasion? In an article in People’s Democracy, Vijendra Sharma argued:  


Today, India is the third largest higher education system in the world (after China and the USA) in terms of enrolment which in 2005-06 was over one crore five lakhs. However, in terms of the number of institutions, India is the largest higher education system in the world with 17,973 institutions (348 universities and 17,625 colleges). Of these, there are 63 unaided deemed universities with enrolment of 60,000 students, and 7,650 unaided private colleges with enrolment of 31, 50,000 students. Thus nearly one-third of total students are studying in unaided private institutions. Therefore, the consultation paper concludes that unaided institutions are ‘growing rapidly’ and others are ‘not growing.’[vii]


It was noted that even with such a huge infrastructure in place, higher education in India is in a miserable state. Six decades after independence, higher education is still beyond the reach of most Indians. The quality of education offered by our ‘centres of excellence’ is far from the global standards required in such institutions. Enrolment in India has been below the average for most Asian countries. Even when compared with several other developing countries such as Malaysia, China and Brazil, India has one of the lowest public expenditure on higher education. The criticism therefore is that the commerce ministry in its consultation paper should have stressed the need to increase the public spending several times over. However, the paper that has been drafted to facilitate the entry of foreign education providers says, “there appears to be a case for improving the effectiveness of public spending and increasing the participation of private players, both domestic and foreign” (emphasis added). It needs to be noted that the ministry is in favour only of improving and not increasing the effectiveness of public spending.  


Educationalists such as Prof. M. Anandakrishnan (former Vice Chancellor, Anna University) point out that what could happen with the move towards FDI is the entry of some “second-tier and third-tier” institutions which attempt to sell their programmes, many of which have not even been accredited in their own countries. “Their motive is only commercial”, he adds. Our educationalists also point to a fundamental problem: the government has in the last 10 years almost abandoned the higher education system to the private sector. While the ‘social content’ that should guide the policies of the government has disappeared, the field has been left open for the private sector whose motives are primarily commercial.


The challenge before the UPA government therefore is to invest more in higher education, start more public funded colleges and universities and cater to the needs of our own people, particularly the marginalized sections rather than trying to be an exporter of higher education. We need to decisively abandon the policy of foreign direct investment in education and private universities. India must keep out education at all levels from the ambit of GATS. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the government takes care of public interests and act to protect public services like education from market forces that operate on purely commercial terms.


Globalization has thrown open a whole new arena for higher education to expand. Several aspects of globalization is to be welcomed. Globalization, however, cannot be a pretext for the government to abandon its social responsibility. Education is a fundamental right and there is the need to ensure that the whole society, not only the privileged sections, gain the benefits of higher education. The entry of globalization in India has meant greater opportunities, but for lesser people. Such an anomaly has far reaching consequences and would introduce new forms of inequality and exclusion in the globalized era.



            *          *          *     


(Presented at the International Conference on Reinventing Paradigms in Liberal Arts Education organized by the Women’s Christian College (Chennai) on 11 August, 2007).













[i] Adrienne Koch (ed.), Philosophy for a time of Crisis, New York, 1959, p. 191, (Quoted). 


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] M.N. Roy, Reason, Romanticism and Revolution (Volume-I), p.79.


[iv] The Hindu (Chennai Edition), 9th November, 2004

[v] Gabriele Dietrich & Bas Wielenga, Towards Understanding Indian Society (Tiruvalla: Christava Sahitya Samithi, 1998) p. 113

[vi] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “Affirmation without Reservation” in Economic and Political Weekly, July 3, 2004,    p. 2951

[vii] Vijendra Sharma, “Consultation Paper on Trade in Education Services: Higher Education in India and GATS: A Disastrous Proposal” in People’s Democracy (Vol. XXX, No. 44).


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