By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
The UNP-SLFP national government would go for more privatization in education and health sectors. This would adversely affect the lower strata of the society aggravating the problem inequality. How to face this challenge and protect free education and health is one of the issues that needs creative and novel answers.
One of my favorite books that is always on my table for easy and quick reference is Istvan Meszaros’s Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, the book that was loved and oftentimes quoted by Hugo Chavez, the beloved leader of the Venezuelan people. After the fall of the Soviet system, the issue as to whether a socialist transformation is possible had been raised not only by liberal writers but also by some Marxists. Many Marxists in Sri Lanka have already retreated to comfortable path of democracy and good governance. We are very much aware of the fact that even a left party or formation comes to power in Sri Lanka soon, that government cannot build socialism in the immediate future. The best recent example for this is that of Syriza government in Greece.
Any left government would immediately face what Walter Benjamin aptly called the “critical state of the present” in which the “status quo threatens to be preserved” by the operation of multiple factors that are supportive of the status quo. Chavez knew this very well so that he developed a long term strategy of transition carefully avoiding two weak pillars of the Soviet system, namely, the dominance of state capital and the absence of democracy. Meszaros’s magnum opus develops a thesis that a democratic system can be built moving away from the dominance of capital irrespective of the fact whether this capital is owned by the state or private corporations or individuals. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that this system is not yet socialism, as Marx defined it as the system of “associated producers”. In such a system, as Meszaeos has convincingly argued, capital ceases to be capital.
In this article, I do not intend to revisit the theory of building socialism as it is presumptuous to argue that socialism can be built in an immediate future in a small country like Sri Lanka surrounded by the ocean of capitalistic world system. Nonetheless, it does not mean that the left government in power is in a destitute situation because of the possible continuous attacks by international capital. Many part of the world has witnessed such attacks since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Hence the trajectory of social transformation to build a system of associated producers is not a straight path, but kinked one through rocks and mountains. As a result, you may go through Brest-Litovsk, NEC, buying time and other forms of retreats and reversals. The danger lies not by accepting them, but by rejecting their existence.
The focus of this article is very much empirical as it proposes to summarize the experience of one year period in the field of education. It is a very micro level experience so that its macro level application may be limited, even questionable. Nonetheless, it would enlighten the discussion of social transformation as it counters the neoliberal argument that has in vogue in many academic circles.
As I wrote in this column a couple of weeks ago, ‘the Sri Lankan discourse on higher education in the last decade or so has centered around three key issues. The first question has been focused on the inadequacy of higher educational opportunities that the state university system is capable of providing for young people who wish to continue their education after GCE A/L examination. The total yearly intake of the state universities are around 25,000 that is much less than the number of students who are qualified for higher education. The second issue is related to the quality of the degrees offered by the state university system. It has been said that there has been a gradual deterioration of the quality of university education so that the university degree holders are not fit well for the needs of the job market. The third issue [that is linked with the second] refers to the bias of the Sri Lankan higher education system towards social sciences and humanities. This bias has been seen as the main source of unemployment of graduates.”
“All three issues were oftentimes related to the inadequacy of government expenditure on education and higher education that stands at the moment less than 2 per cent of the GDP. So it is imperative to increase government expenditure on education and higher education above 6 per cent of GDP to improve the situation. It is a necessary condition. Nonetheless, mere provision of extra money will not be sufficient in resolving the above-mentioned issues. What is the solution suggested by Sri Lankan politicians? To what extent have their thinking been influenced by the proposals by international financial agencies? Engaging private sector in higher education has been proposed as a panacea for educational conundrum.”
Educational strategies of the two main parties that have now formed a grand alliance proposes privatization and commodification of education. In this article, my submission once again is that any attempt to commoditize education should be resisted and prevented. Education like health should not be reduced to something that can be bought and sold. These ‘goods’ are essentially different from saleable commodities. A recent book, The Developing World and State Education: Neoliberal Depredation and Egalitarian Alternatives edited by Dave Hill and Ellen Rossakam, has enlighten us on the dangerous impact on privatization and commodification of education. Why should we oppose privatization and commodification of education? John McMurtry has noted that education and unfettered capitalism and globalization hold opposing goals, motivations, methods, and standards of excellence. McMurtry concludes by suggesting that education and the market also have opposing standards of freedom. He further notes that private profit is acquired by a structure of appropriation that excludes others from its possession. The greater its accumulation by any private corporation, the more wealth others are excluded from in this kind of possession. This is what makes such ownership “private.” Nonetheless, Education, in contrast, is acquired by a structure of appropriation that is meant to not exclude others from its possession. On the contrary, education is furthered the more it is shared, and the more there is free and open access to its circulation. That is why learning that is not conveyed to others is deemed “lost,” “wasted” or “dead.” In direct opposition to market exchanges, educational changes flourish most with the unpaid gifts of others and develop the more they are not mediated by private possession or profit. If we go back to free education discourse in Sri Lanka in the 1940s, we can see that much before McMurty articulated these views, they were resonated in the Sri Lankan discourse.
While opposing privatization and commodification, should we advocate state control over higher education? The answer is: absolutely no. Since, early 1970s, we have witnessed bureaucratization and politicization of higher education in Sri Lanka. Higher education that was part of the Ministry of Education has been made a separate ministry with its own bureaucratic structure. Projects funded by international financial agencies have contributed in creating new institution under different names and specific functions within the Ministry of Higher Education. Setting up of private higher education institutions in fact enlarged the state machinery. The result was the loss of independence of state universities. This system has to be changed radically.
Tomorrow’s radical politics has to be very different to the radical left politics in the past. We have to do risky things critically rereading our pasts, and not to be a prisoner of them. This is an age of opportunity, not just retreat and defeat, if it can be seized. The idea of vertical controlled public sphere should be replaced by that of horizontally organized institutions that will threaten all sorts of monopolies and closed communities if its liberationist potential to be full filled. Here the experience of SANASA campus would be helpful in developing public education system that is neither private nor state. Moreover, it would contribute in decommodifying public “goods”. It may also throw light in rearranging the health sector.
In 2014, SANASA Campus was granted by the Ministry of Higher Education degree awarding status. We took our first batch of students numbering 50 in July 2014 to follow our B Sc degree course in Regional Science and Planning. It is trans-disciplinary course that allows students to discover how to analyze social space, diagnose spatial issues and to plan space for future. Gampaha Development Company (GDC) which is owned by SANASA primary societies took a bold and courageous step announcing that it would give 50 scholarships for the complete period of four years in spite of the high risk involved. Mr Lalitha Jayasooriya, the CEO of the GDC believes that the education and health should not be commodified like other commodities and those sectors should not be oriented towards profit. What did he expect by “investing” Rs 20 million in education? At a meeting last week that was organized to present regional development plans for SANASA primary societies developed by SANASA Campus students, Mr.Jayasooriya refused to use the word “investment” in the sense that is aimed at making monetary profit. According to him, it was a new design of public education. Community supports the student in advancing their knowledge while the students serve the community bringing back the knowledge to the community by joining with them in developing their plans of community development. It is a rolling plan. Students have just completed their first year. They did only one unit on planning under Mr Chandrasena Maaliyadda, the former Secretary of Plan Implementation and a unit on regional science. Second year they are supposed to follow compulsory units on Geographical Information System. It is rolling plan also in the sense the students will revisit their outline of the plan together with respective SANASA primary society when their knowledge on space and planning advanced in the process of learning and learning-by-doing. Mr Jayasooriya claimed that the “employability’ of these students will not be an issue when they completed their four year degree course as there are more than 250 SANASA primary societies in Gampaha district.
I have an opportunity to participate in this whole exercise. If I put it in the language that is familiar to me the Rs. 20 million is not capital. In Istvan Meszaros’s (Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition) term it is ‘beyond capital’ neither owned by private corporations or by the state. There is no concept of profit involved. What is involved here is mutual gains by both the students and the community. It is not the system of market that operates but in anthropological sense, a principle of gift.
As I mentioned earlier, it may be presumptuous to argue that this system can be applied nationally and globally in designing new future. Nevertheless, like TRADCO experience in Mexico tyre manufacturing industry, this may develop new hope for a better future.
*The writer is the Dean, Faculty of Management and Finance, SANASA Campus. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org