People have taken up #March4Education demanding more financial support to higher education institutions, of which more universities is also an implicit demand.
The popular counter-argument is that only the school education should be fully funded, while the undergraduate and postgraduate education shouldn’t be funded and be left to market forces.
Merely reiterating that public funding should be restricted only till school education, and fund higher education in this day and age is a classic example of lazy thinking, intellectual hollowness and the lack of thinking beyond 101 textbook ideas. It perfectly fits what Hirschman once said that he hated:
“I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it’s necessary to have an “empirical lantern” or a “visit with the patient” before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case” Albert O. Hirschman
I had earlier blogged saying that it’s time to retire the idea of restricting the definition of basic education to only school education, and expand it to higher education too.
In the context of the #March4Education and its demands, I summarize my arguments in support of the protest and response to the criticisms to the protest.

Response to the argument that extent of funding should be based on externalities

A common response to demands for subsidized higher education is that — funding to schools has society-wide positive externalities while higher education has only private benefits, hence we should fully fund only school education. This is a flawed argument due to two reasons.
1) Primary rationale to provide free basic education is NOT the positive externalities of such funding. It was morality based. People didn’t sit down to calculate the economic costs and come up with the decision that education should be restricted to school level, based on these calculations. The rationale was more of a moral argument. It varies according to the thinker but the basic point is that education and healthcare are crucial to offset inequalities at birth. The strong moral foundations for these were established by thinkers like John Rawls, Amartya Sen etc.
The differentiation between moral argument and economic costs argument is important because the economic costs logic would mean that we merely stick to those calculations, keeping higher education underfunded even if such system doesn’t bridge inequalities at birth. The morality argument, on the other hand, extends the definition of basic education to higher levels, if the inequalities at birth are not served by a particular system.
The current debate should hence be seen from morality lens, which demands an extension of the definition of basic education to higher levels.
2) The earlier consensus of “free education till school” presumes a certain structure of the economy, which no longer exists now. In olden days, particularly the industrial era, school education could propel people from routine manual labour jobs to at least middle-skill jobs, that provide a decent life. This situation is changing due to what the economists call as the “job polarisation”, where the middle-skill jobs are disappearing due to both automation and increased skill level required to perform jobs of the modern-day economy. It is creating a situation where you do either a manual job or a high skill job, nothing in between.
In such situation, unlike earlier generations, school education is no longer sufficient to get a decent job. Even 10th graduates have to end up taking up routine manual jobs. The only way out is to get a job at the higher end, which mandatorily requires at least undergraduate education. Thus, undergraduate and postgraduate education has become the new equivalent of basic school education. This calls for an active role of governments in providing subsidized undergraduate and postgraduate education to people.

Need for subsidized higher education

1. As noted above, basic school education is no longer enough to bridge the inequalities at birth. Higher education has become essential and hence the definition of basic education has to be extended to higher levels and should be funded accordingly.
2. Earning potential in the Indian economy is nowhere close to the costs of higher education, for students to pay the full fee through loans: This is prominent in the case of humanities and arts education. Even for technical subjects, contrary to popular belief economy of India hasn’t bloomed enough to enable people to pay back the costs with their money. Check my earlier posts (here and here) on this in the context of IIT fee hike.
4. India misses out harnessing precious human resource at a crucial time: Till now, the value human resource created with investments in higher education couldn’t be utilized because of lack of appropriate conditions in India. Currently, we are at an inflexion point, where the increased entrepreneurship and innovation is starting to pay off, unleashing India’s potential. At this crucial time, if we bind students to education debt, it restricts their ability to take risks, thereby throttling India’s growth surge.
5. Good public universities are required even if private education is to be allowed: Even if private universities are to be allowed, good public universities are required to maintain the checks and balances. For our population, we are nowhere close to having enough high-quality institutions.
6. Fundraising of foreign public universities cannot be compared with Indian scenario: Some argue that foreign public universities also raise funds and hence Indian universities should also follow such model. It’s a flawed argument on two counts. One, foreign public universities receive funding from government till a threshold. The external fundraising is only for funds over that. In the Indian case, funding to public universities is way below the threshold. They are severely under-funded to the extent that some don’t have money even to pay for salaries OR most of the expenses go for salaries, leaving nothing for innovation. Two, Indian private economy is not vibrant with enough pool of individuals with surplus incomes who can fund the universities, as the billionaires of the US do.
7. Subsidized higher education is not a favour being done to students, it is both a human right and an investment for the future: These daysthere is an increasing section of people who are arguing in a condescending tone that “students in research universities are living off on the taxpayers' money”.They are even going to the extent of calling students as leeches.
This is exactly the kind of regressive mindset that views education as a liability and favour to citizens, and not as a right of people and investment for the future, that’s preventing focus on education in India. 

There are two problems with the “they are living off on our money” argument.

One, no one is doing anyone a favour. Education, even higher education is a right. If we encourage this “you are living off on my tax money argument” it is only a matter of time, we call school going students the same and sick patients in public hospitals, the same.
Two, what if the students turn back and ask such critics — “you are living off the inventions and discoveries made by the universities. Not just technical inventions, but also the social science academia which has contributed to the discourse on social norms, creating the progressive atmosphere for every Indian. Who is the funder and who is the leech in this case thenThe roles now seem reversed.

In summary, it’s time to make UG and PG education as part of “basic education” subsidizing them to the maximum extent possible. The demand for education was only in the academic corners and conferences rooms till now. It’s refreshing to see these demands take the form of a popular protest. Everyone should unequivocally support the broader essence of the #March4Education demands.

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