Education’s ‘non-profit industrial complex’

(An edited version of this book review was first published in Business Standard.)

“How do we make sense of the enormous expansion of educational institutions and desires to access these spaces despite them being exclusionary, disciplining and alienating? How do caste-blind assumptions and caste-driven practices impact everyday schooling and institutional cultures? How do educational ideals such as equality, autonomy and respect begin to change as they begin their institutional lives?” writes Shivali Tukdeo in her book India Goes to School: Education Policy and Cultural Politics (2019), published by Springer. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore where she has been researching social exclusion and changing modes of public education in India, with special attention to new policy regimes and how these are shaped by international development discourse as well as nationalism.

What makes this book riveting is Tukdeo’s view of policy as socially and culturally constructed. She draws on feminist, post-colonial and anti-caste literature to critique policy frameworks that masquerade as apolitical while they diligently serve “neoliberal directives…using technological interface and the rhetoric of efficiency and transparency.” She writes scathingly about “the non-profit industrial complex,” which has been responsible for mainstreaming “capitalist solutions to social problems” by replacing mass struggles for social change with donor-driven agenda. The broader context is a diminished role for the state as provider and manager of education, and ample opportunities for private players to be involved in administration, curriculum design, assessment and teacher education.

(Cover image: Springer)

Apart from undertaking an extensive review of academic literature and policy documents concerning her area of research, Tukdeo has also spoken to people on the field. She reports a conversation with a municipal school teacher who said, “We are not sure if we will have enough supply of chalk for next week, but there will always be an organization visiting us, teaching us how to manage our classrooms, how to improve, develop leadership skills.” Tukdeo learnt how educational reforms introduced in government schools are often invasive and top-down as they have become spaces for experimentation by start-ups, foundations, and various kinds of non-state actors. Unfortunately, this book does not engage with how students and parents perceive these reforms.

Tukdeo is concerned about the impact global integration has had on education in India, where it is being increasingly “thought in terms of employability, certification, authenticity and validation.” She makes a reasonable argument about being wary of policy ideas that are presented as easily translatable across cultural and political contexts, particularly those generated by the World Bank, OECD and UNESCO. Her book examines the intellectual hegemony inherent in the specific targets set up by Education for All, and the generic standards laid down in the Millennium Development Goals. She writes, “The continuation of target-driven programmes in India points out the steady gain of ground by neoliberal ideas of good education…the poor are constructed as aspiring and entrepreneurial, almost removing poverty from its material and historical determinants and transposing it in the realm of business opportunities.”

Tukdeo has also studied the engagement of diasporic groups in fundraising for educational interventions in India. According to her, their work is based on the assumption that access to schooling will overcome inequality, enhance civic participation, and grow an educated workforce that will secure India’s national interests. However, they shy away from acknowledging the kind of politics this work is informed by and feeds into. Referring to the work of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, she remarks, “What is crucial here is how education and development have become vehicles to consolidate the base for the Hindu right, and Ekal schools essentially provide a cover for transnational Hindutva organizing.”

She also writes at length about Asha for Education, which started as a student group at the University of California Berkeley and grew into an organization with multiple chapters worldwide. While they funded projects on primary education, infrastructural support for schools, and matters of community development, they tried to project a stance of political neutrality when other organizations working on South Asian issues reached out to co-sponsor film screenings or organize rallies to talk about state-supported violence, attacks on activists and journalists, as well as corporate takeover of public resources. They made this choice due to their obligations to donors, and that makes Tukdeo ask: Is it possible to be a fundraising organization and be critical?

Tukdeo’s book could not have come at a better time. It invites the reader to think about how education policy is a tool for creating consensus around ideas of citizenship. These are some of the questions that came up in my mind as I was reading: What does nation-building mean in the contemporary moment where citizens are not up against colonial oppressors but against democratically elected leaders who slap sedition charges on students upholding constitutional rights? Will excessive privatization in the education sector further marginalize Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim students or will it open up the space for dissent and protest? How beneficial is our critical consciousness if it does not give us the tools to build alternatives?

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