Private-public divides


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DEBATES about the perceived crisis in higher education are structured by a tension between questions of accessibility and a concern for quality. While many may agree that there is a crisis, there is considerable disagreement about the nature of this crisis and its solutions. The privatization of higher education is offered as one solution to the crisis.

This essay examines renewed debates in the 1990s about the privatization of higher education in Kerala. This will entail an assessment of a prior history of various kinds of privatization, including the emergence of what are called ‘parallel colleges’, and an articulation of the specificity of this new moment of privatization within the educational field.

It will be argued that while questions of supply and demand dominate privatization efforts, it is equally important to pay attention to the status of the ‘political’ within these debates. Usually this aspect of the debate centres on how much blame for this crisis should be placed on the pervasive presence of student (and teacher) politics, usually tied in varying degrees to the politics of major political parties.

Generally, the arguments against the ‘politicizing of higher education’ are tied to causal explanations which link this politicizing to the disruption of a proper academic life and therefore the lowering of academic standards. In order to apprehend these shifting debates about privatization, it will be necessary to examine the nature and deployment of the distinction between a notion of ‘private’ and its opposite ‘the public’, and the relationship of this distinction to the ‘politics’ at stake in these debates.

Let me begin with an account of some ‘politics’ which I hope will help locate and frame my discussion. In July 1994 a group of middle class businessmen belonging to a consumer organization staged a jatha, a political procession, in front of the state secretariat in the capital city of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. They drove cars, motorbikes and scooters, not only because they had the financial means to do so, but more pointedly, in order to assert their ‘right to use the roads.’ This was part of a larger mobilization to initiate what they called an ‘anti-bandh culture’ in the state. Along with a petition filed before Kerala’s High Court asking that a court injunction be issued against the frequent bandhs initiated by political parties, a conference was organized in which speakers condemned the violence done to people and property under the ‘cover of democratic dissent.’

Today’s bandhs ‘victimise the public’ and ‘are no credit to civilized society.’ People observe bandhs by not going to work or school and by closing down shops, not because they necessarily approve of the protest but often because of fear of violence. By forcing people to stay indoors, bandhs are not an expression of democratic rights but violate the people’s ‘fundamental right to move about freely.’ The blame was squarely placed on the left parties.

The leader of the then opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), veteran Communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, fired back. He stated that bandhs were an expression of the people’s fundamental right to protest and that to ban them was ‘fascist’. Whether they were legal or not, agitation would always take place. Asked about the violence associated with strikes, he stated that it was a part of the struggle itself.



This rather striking contestation about the forms of Kerala’s political culture, in fact about the idea of ‘politics’ itself, brings to light a set of cultural and political struggles crucially tied to notions of ‘the public’ which I would like to explore further. The politics of anti-politics is mapped onto a set of left/right political distinctions, pitting middle class businessmen, driving down roads lit by the headlights of their cars and scooters, against the ‘sardarnakar’ or ordinary folk, walking the roads lit by hand-held torches. The idea of the public being contested here is both literal and conceptual. Literally, it is about the functioning of roads, shops, schools, and workplaces. These places of the public are linked to the conception of a space of the public, through the language of rights, democracy, the people, property and politics.

What is being contested here are two notions of the public – one civic and one political. Central to the constitution of a civic public is the erasure of the political through the assertion of the well-mannered and orderly use of this public space and by the respect for property by those deemed to be citizens. Crucially, it defends the rights of its citizens to consume public space, seeking redress in a consumer forum. The lack of freedom is linked to ‘staying indoors’, the inability to ‘move around freely’ because of fear of violence.

In this conception, the public of the people has been forcibly privatized, in fact incarcerated, in the home by politics. While the privacy of the home is an incarceration, the privacy of the market is glossed over as the freedom to choose. The privatizing logic of the market asserts itself through claims on the public through the logic of consumption where the freedom of consumption is linked with the freedom to move uninhibited through public places. In this way, the ‘public citizen’ articulates with a ‘private consumer’.

The political public is supposed to assert itself through the management of disorder in these public spaces, the disruption and sometimes destruction of property rather than its orderly consumption according to the rules of the market. For the civic public, the limits of a genuinely democratic public is violence and the fear of it. For the political public, on the other hand, violence per se is not a limit. Justifiable violence is at the very heart of politics. The public is not constituted by lack of fear and by well-mannered behaviour, but rather by the ‘right to protest’ as a measure of popular expression and legitimacy.



This ‘anti-bandh’ movement was predictably unsuccessful and by the end of the same year, Kerala was in the grips of a major set of agitations surrounding one of those crucial sites of democracy – education, or more specifically, colleges. The rest of this essay will examine these contestations in light of the history of higher education in the state, in particular the relationship between education and Kerala’s political history. Education has been both an object of contestation within this history and has provided important public places for the development and enactment of a vigorous political culture. At both levels, the distinctions between private and public have been crucial.

The state of Kerala enjoys a unique reputation in India and the world as a ‘development miracle’ in the areas of healthcare, education, food distribution and land reform. Very high levels of literacy, low infant mortality, high access to qualified healthcare, extensive participation by women in education – all serve as hallmarks of a ‘Kerala model’ of development. The uniqueness of this ‘model’ is constituted by high achievements in the ‘physical quality of life’ coupled with a very low per capita income. What are its causes? Explanations have vacillated between benevolent governments initiating and implementing wise policies and popular, radical, progressive struggles which have demanded and ensured a relatively equitable distribution of basic resources.



Part of what constitutes this reputation is the state’s success at spreading education at all levels to a wide spectrum of the population. High rates of literacy, a widespread system of school education, and one of the least expensive systems of higher education in India proclaim Kerala an ‘education miracle’. The miracle, however, is contradictory. The success of primary and secondary education has greatly increased a demand for higher education during the last 25 years which the state has not been successful at meeting. Further, and this is a contradiction within the more general ‘Kerala model’, the economy of the state has been unable to absorb the vast numbers of graduates of this system. Chronic and high unemployment of the educated is a persistent and central feature of the economy of Kerala.

A disproportionate number of higher educational institutions are within the so-called ‘private sector’, something relatively unique within India. This private sector is varied and complicated. One kind of private education is the very powerful and widespread system of educational institutions controlled by the various Christian churches. Along with several schools and a college set up by the Maharaja of Travancore, western missionaries and Christian churches were among the first to set up schools and colleges in the 19th century. Subsequently private colleges grew to include those set up by the Nair Service Society (NSS), Sree Narayana Trust (of the SNDP Yogam), and to a lesser extent the Muslim Educational Society, the Devaswom Board, and a few individual managements.



The development and dominance of the private sector within higher education can be attributed to several factors. Most importantly, the demand for access to education was a central feature of popular struggles by anti-caste, social reform movements like the Ezhava-based Sree Narayana movement. The struggle for a putatively egalitarian public – the rights of lower caste groups to walk public roads, enter temples, go to school, and get government jobs – was a major object of political mobilization. Within the volatile coalition-based politics of the last several decades, the granting of sanctions for new schools and colleges for various constituencies has been a major way to attract votes.

The struggle to control these private institutions has been a central feature of Kerala’s politics for most of its history since its founding in 1956. The state has always subsidized private educational ventures. This has become even more pronounced in the post-Independence period. The contestations over the Education Bill sponsored by the Communist government of 1957-9 starkly reveal the dynamics of this persistent feature within Kerala politics. The Bill was intended to equalize pay scales between government and private schools and provide the state with some control over the large sums of money it was granting to private managements. It stipulated that private managements would only be able to hire teachers from a government list and that appointments would be rotated to provide opportunities for all major communities. For example, appointments would move from a Christian, to a lower-caste Hindu, to an upper-caste Hindu, and so forth. This opened up the prospect for more jobs for low-caste Communist supporters, notably Ezhavas.

The opposition to this Bill came primarily from the Christian managements who opposed government interference and saw it as a threat to their rights as religious minorities. It was perceived as an attempt to taint education with a ‘certain political ideology’ and as a threat to secularism. The Nair Service Society (NSS) led by Mannath Padmanabhan at first supported the Bill. But when it was clear that the main beneficiaries were to be Ezhavas, he joined with Christian forces to bring down the government. Schools were closed and students mobilized. In July 1959, after many deaths and arrests, central rule was imposed and the Communist ministry dismissed. Many of the provisions of the Bill were not implemented.



Teachers, organizing themselves into trade unions, were through various agitations able to force the government to adopt a grant-in-aid code in 1962 which made provisions for the state government to provide grants to private colleges so as to equalize pay scales. This also allowed the government to refuse aid to colleges which did not conform to norms for reservation of seats for students belonging to scheduled castes, tribes and other backward communities. This, however, did not alleviate the tensions between private managements and the teaching and non-teaching staff. Issues remained including the security of tenure, retirement benefits, and promotions.

As a result of these mobilizations, the ‘Direct Payment Agreement’ was implemented in 1972. All tuition fees and grants would be sent directly to the government treasury and teachers and non-teaching staff would be paid directly by the government. The government would also provide monies for library, laboratory and other maintenance expenses. Also, all appointments and admissions were to be subject to government rules. Roughly speaking, this is the pattern that prevails today.



From this brief sketch, it becomes clear that the ‘private’ sector that dominates higher education is both private and public. The private here is understood to be primarily the private of religious minorities and specific upper and low caste communities. However, the degree to which they are strictly private is undermined by the structure and extent of state funding and the affiliated university system that allows the government to control appointments, admissions and curriculum.

While pointing to the dominance of the private sector in higher education in Kerala, I have tried to complicate our understanding of this private by demonstrating the ways in which this private is crucially entangled with the state. However, there is another kind of private which has also prevailed and coexisted with the private understood so far as communities which exists outside the state.

This is the private understood as the market. This private colludes and collides with both the private of communities and the public of the state. The private market exists in two senses in the educational field. First, despite the control exercised by the state over putatively private educational institutions, ‘private donations’ for job appointments and ‘capitation fees’ for student admissions are rampant and common. Clearly, the presence of the market is a factor which introduces another privatizing dimension into the educational field.



Another, and for my purposes here, more important kind of private market for education is the widespread presence of what are called ‘parallel colleges’, institutions that are completely outside the ‘private sector of education’ outlined above. These are the numerous colleges housed in a few rooms of a building or in a thatched hut often surrounding the regular colleges to which they are ‘parallel’.

These colleges are the result of policies designed to deal with the question of accessibility to higher education. The question of whether higher education should be granted to all who are eligible and desirous of it has never been fully confronted. While the Education Commission of India, 1964-66, stated that higher education enrolments must be tied to the labour market, the commission also suggested the creation of a parallel system of correspondence courses, evening colleges, and private registrants for university examinations for those unable to attend regular, formal institutions.

In Kerala, parallel colleges emerged and expanded during the 1970s after the Kerala and Calicut universities began private registration in 1971 and 1976 respectively. Tutorial colleges had existed in Kerala prior to this. These institutions offered part-time tuition to school and college students in arts, commerce and science. Most parallel colleges combine such tutorial functions (mainly for high school students) with that of a private college which offers regular courses that are offered in formal institutions for which private registration is allowed (usually only for arts and commerce subjects).

While the state has allowed the number of formal educational institutions to expand dramatically in the last 40 years, it has clearly not been enough. Private registrants make up as much as 40% of the total enrolment of students in regular colleges. Estimates have placed the number of parallel colleges at 5000, serving a student population of 100,000. Parallel colleges are clearly a major part of the private market in education.



While many have bemoaned the inability of Kerala to attract productive industries which might alleviate chronic and high unemployment in the state, the one industry that does thrive is education. It is estimated that parallel colleges alone provide employment to about 100,000 teachers. However, these teachers and staff are among the most exploited within the educational field with high student-teacher ratios, very high teaching loads, very low salaries, no benefits, lack of job security, substandard working conditions, and sometimes even various kinds of bondage.

From this brief outline, it should be clear that the field of higher education in Kerala is a complicated one, peopled by differently positioned actors across the public/private, state/market divides. The privatization of higher education has been a long-standing and persistent feature within Kerala. Formal higher education is dominated by a variety of private managements with ties to religious minorities and caste communities, both advantaged and disadvantaged, who are beholden to the public state in very significant ways. These institutions are shadowed by the private market both in the form of donations and capitation fees and the presence of parallel colleges. As an important engine of Kerala’s ‘development miracle’, education as a public good is constantly haunted by the idea of education as a commodity. Development itself happens in the shadow of the commodity.



The current debates about the privatization of higher education in Kerala must be placed within an already existing context of a state-saturated private sector of education and an expansive and robust private, parallel system of education. These contestations escalated in 1994-95 when the ruling, pro-Congress United Democratic Front (UDF) government attempted to sanction new colleges which would be entirely self-financing, unaided but nevertheless under some measure of government regulation. It should be noted that while a few of the managements that had petitioned to be sanctioned were already existing parallel colleges, most were newly proposed colleges, including a significant number of engineering colleges. Therefore, the sanctioning of self-financing, unaided colleges would mark another development in the entangled public/private sector relations which mark the field of education in Kerala.

The then education minister, E.T. Basheer, argued that while nearly 40% of the state budget was being spent on education, it was still not enough. He argued that the state did not have the monies to expand the higher education sector and therefore private managements should, a role they had been fulfilling for some time now. While some had argued that self-financing colleges were elitist and would exclude the poor, he disagreed and stated that those who could afford to pay should have the opportunity to do so, something that would lead to healthy competition and higher quality.

The pro-Left Democratic Front (LDF) student and teacher organizations, led by the Students Federation of India (SFI) launched a broad and vigorous set of agitations to oppose what they called the ‘commercialization of higher education’, including an ‘education bandh’ which kept many colleges closed during most of November and December of 1994.



The private that the government was drawing on to further privatize higher education, in this instance, was both similar to and different from the private that had come before. If we look back to the agitations surrounding the 1957 Kerala Education Bill, the private which opposed the government was primarily the Christian churches. Here too we see the interests of religious minorities operating, though not the Christian churches. Once the opposition against the privatization efforts were launched, it was the Muslim Service Society which argued for the government’s position.

Muslim-dominated districts in northern Kerala have far fewer educational institutions and they would have been among the major beneficiaries of these newly sanctioned colleges. While the pro-LDF forces argued that the government had ‘communalized’ the matter by granting a disproportionate number of institutions to the community to which the education minister belonged and in order to appease the Muslim League, the MSS argued that the LDF was communalizing the matter by not allowing minority and backward communities opportunities to move forward.

However, there was also a new private actor on the scene that had not existed in quite the same way during previous moments in the long history of struggles about the public/private nexus which structures education in Kerala, and that is the non-resident Indian (NRI). Migrations from Kerala have been extensive and long standing, especially to the Persian Gulf. Remittances now make up about 30% of Kerala’s domestic product. The children of Gulf migrants are unable to study abroad since family visas are rarely given and there are citizenship requirements within Gulf countries that often restrict access to higher education. There is a demand on the part of NRIs to open new colleges for their dependents.

The struggle over NRI monies in education is revealed by examining a court case brought against the government by the state general secretary of the SFI. In this case, which the government lost, the Kerala High Court opined that the concept of self financing colleges under government control was illegal. The government had sanctioned two self-financing engineering colleges in which Rs 100,000 would be required as deposit for students admitted under an open merit quota. The dependents of NRIs were required to pay US$ 5000.



Originally, the state had decided that 50% of the seats were to be granted to an open merit quota, 10% for SC/ST with some scholarships available for those who could not pay, and 40% for NRIs and dependents. This was revised, under protest, to 75% merit quota, 10% SC/ST, and 15% NRI. The High Court decision stipulated that only 5% could be set aside for an NRI quota. It is clear, from this and other similar cases, that the attempt by some NRIs to lay claim to the educational institutions of the state has been a contested one.

This new moment in the privatization struggles over education is marked by the NRI in general and specific ways. At a general level, the funds necessary for such self financing colleges and institutionalization of the already existing system of private donations are very often tied to NRI monies. At a more specific level, the attempt to produce an NRI quota is an attempt to lay claim to the state. The stark contrast between a reservation category like SC/ST and that of the NRI points to the increasing demands made on the state by social groups defined by their ability to consume. In a very palpable way, the private consumer is attempting to lay claim to the public.



However, advancing this claim is not simply about the logic of supply and demand. Central to this struggle about education as a public good or a private commodity is the status of the political. While I have discussed the ways in which education has been an object of political constestation, it is also true that educational spaces have been crucial spaces for politics.

Within the political culture of the state, the space of the college is a particularly charged one. Student politics is almost exclusively structured by the larger political culture. The structure of political organization is such that the college system, increasingly schools as well, is integral to the reproduction of the official political culture. Robin Jeffrey has identified schools and colleges, ‘an inseparable part of the Kerala model’, as crucial sites for the development of what he calls a ‘political public’. As he states, ‘...most Keralans have first encountered government – and, indeed, public politics – through a school system that has become the heart of the new Kerala.’

Other than the inability of the state to fund the expansion of higher education, the rhetoric of the new debates about expanding and giving autonomy to new educational institutions is organized around two sets of complaints. One, existing colleges adhere to an archaic and outmoded curriculum unable to cope with the new global economy and the international labour market. Thus, these new institutions want more control over curriculum. The second set of complaints is about colleges as hyper politicized places. From this perspective, colleges as spaces of civic virtue and public consumption of services are held hostage, incarcerated by politics, the endless, daily, weekly and sometimes monthly strikes, fasts and demonstrations. As a teacher I knew once put it, ‘It’s not democracy, but democrazy.’



The freedom to move through public spaces, as in the ‘anti-bandh’ demonstrations, and the freedom to consume public goods, like education – a kind of freedom which I have linked to the freedom of choice in consumption – it is these freedoms which confront the official political domain as its limits, within this discourse of anti-politics that underlies privatisation efforts.

A broad historical shift in the ideological production of the citizen in postglenoidal India is outlined in a recent work of Satish Deshpande. For the newly independent Nehruvian state, the paradigm of nationalism was one of a national economy that had to be built. The embodiment of this model of national development he calls the ‘producer patriot’. This model of the citizen, he argues, is being replaced by ‘the cosmopolitan consumer who has made the world his oyster.’ He identifies the NRI as the clearest representative of this cosmopolitan consumer, a ‘modern mythological hero for the Indian middle classes.’

My interest here is to examine the space between consumption and the state/citizen, but to do so in order to trace the contested faultlines that constitute this nexus in the hope of demonstrating how discourses of consumption, when conjoined with claims on the state, reconfigure ‘politics’, understood as an objectified domain of social action. For, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed, one of the central contradictions of global capitalism is that we are citizens and consumers at the same time and the relationship between citizenship and consumption is sometimes hostile and sometimes collusive.

The politics of education which this essay has examined exists at the intersection of this hostile/collusive space constituted by state/market relations. The struggle about what constitutes ‘politics’ happens through a struggle over the literal places of the privatized public as well as the publicized private spaces of education, and through how these are conceptualized.



In 1924, the satyagraha in the central Kerala town of Vaikom focused on the rights of low caste members to use the roads surrounding a temple. It was an important political marker in the creation of a putatively egalitarian public sphere. The 1994 attempt by middle class businessmen to erase the political by mobilizing around a rhetoric of anti-politics through the assertion of their rights to use the roads, provides a stark contrast. We must contest privatization efforts which deploy such a rhetoric to erase and deny the politics of the public sphere. This, however, does not mean a simple defence of the already existing political status quo. My attempt, in this essay, to explore a contestation about the very meaning of ‘politics’ suggests that we must not only defend ‘the right to politics’ but also work to revitalize and expand its structures and frames of reference.