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The Commoditization of Education

By Prabhat Patnaik

One of the most striking features of the current Indian scenario is the commoditization of education, which means not only that the labour power of those who are the products of the education system becomes a commodity, but that the education itself that goes into the production of this commodity becomes a commodity. The education system becomes in other words a process for the production of a commodity (the labour power of those who receive education) by means of a commodity (the education they receive).

The question immediately arises: those who receive education have always sought employment, i.e. joined the labour market to sell their labour power. Their labour power in other words has always been a commodity. What difference does it make if the education that goes into the formation of this labour power itself now commands a price instead of being provided virtually gratis? In other words what difference does the commoditization of education make to the pre-existing situation? If anything, some may argue, it only streamlines the production of the final commodity, namely the labour power of the educated. So, why should one make a fuss over the commoditization of education?

The answer lies in the meaning of the term “commodity”. Everything that is supplied for exchange does not ipso facto constitute a commodity. Karl Kautsky in his book The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, written in 1887 (and revised in 1903), at a time when he was the outstanding exponent of Marxism after Friedrich Engels, makes an extremely important point about what constitutes a commodity – namely that for the seller of the commodity it does not provide any use value, in the sense of satisfaction or utility, but constitutes exclusively an exchange value, i.e. command over a certain sum of money. (This perception of the “commodity” incidentally strikes at the very root of bourgeois economics, according to which everything exchanged in the market is supposed to be a source of “utility” for both the buyer and the seller).

One can extend Kautsky’s definition to say that for the seller of a commodity, who thus perceives it only as an exchange value, the input used in its production also does not constitute any source of “satisfaction” or “utility”. A steel manufacturer, for instance, does not derive any personal pleasure or satisfaction from the pig iron that goes into steel making; he looks at it entirely in terms of the money paid for it relative to its appropriateness for steel making, i.e. entirely in terms of how much of surplus in the form of money it will enable him to command in the market from the sale of the final product, steel.

When this stage is not reached, as for instance in the jajmani system in traditional India, we may at best have preliminary forms of commodity production, or imperfect commodity production, but not authentic commodity production. When we talk of commoditization of education, therefore, we are really talking about the making of education as an authentic commodity, where those who receive this input look upon it not as a source of pleasure, or of learning, or of cultivation of the mind, but exclusively in terms of the amount of money it can help the recipient to command in the market. Education is getting commoditized in India today in the sense that it is being seen, as pig iron in the above example, entirely in terms of the amount of exchange value that it will enable its recipient to command as a consequence of its being used as an input. And its supplier correspondingly attempts to provide this commodity called education, which is perfected to act as such an input, at a price that fetches him the maximum profit.

Now, this commoditization of education also means that the labour power which the “educated” sell on the market is getting refined too into an authentic commodity from the somewhat loose form it may have had earlier (of which being occasionally absent with impunity, some flexibility in the duration of the periods of break for tiffin or toilet, etc. are examples). This authentic commoditization is the direct result of the hegemony of international finance capital, of the fact that the “educated” now sell their labour power in a market dominated by international capital which sets the “norm”. Little wonder then that our neo-liberal rulers get so exercised over whether Indian universities figure in the top 100 of the world, according to some metropolitan agency. These ranking agencies, like the credit rating agencies, provide information to international capital about the quality of the labour power of the “educated” that they would be purchasing; and our neo-liberal rulers, keen to convert the country into an entity for provisioning the needs of international capital, get dismayed if the quality of its labour power is “downgraded” (exactly the way they get dismayed when its credit-rating gets “downgraded”). Needless to say, the neo-liberal rulers are keen to expedite the process of commoditization of education to cater to the needs of international capital.

The question may be immediately asked: what is wrong with the commoditization of education? There are five obvious and immediate problems with it, all of which ultimately add up to the fact that it perpetuates, and dialectically accentuates, human unfreedom. The first and the most obvious is that education as a means of introduction to the grandeur of ideas is replaced by education as a means of money-making, and this latter obsession is something that the recipients of education are coerced into internalizing by the immanent logic of commodity production. This internalizing however is a loss not only at a personal level for those who so internalize, but also at the social level.

Secondly, a commodity by its very nature is a finished, packaged thing; indeed, the more finished and packaged it is, the better it is supposed to be. Commoditized education therefore entails handing over packaged things called “learning” to the students, which necessarily precludes their asking any questions, being critical, engaging with the received ideas, and hence being creative and original. Commoditized education in short destroys creativity and originality. And the rot begins from school itself. When middle class parents (whose children are the only ones likely to be finishing schooling, even after seventy years of independence), express deep anguish that their child has obtained “only 98 percent” marks and not 100 percent, and when to prevent such a dire consequence they engage tutors to cram the maximum possible amount of “education” into their children, we already have a concept of “education” as getting hold of a package and delivering it as completely as possible in the examination hall.

The third obvious problem with commoditized education is its total dissociation from any social sensitivity. Such education in short is intrinsically incapable of playing any social role, of creating in the minds of those receiving education any concern for the “human condition” in general, or any awareness of the lives of fellow human beings. The role of education in “nation-building”, in inculcating in the minds of the young the values underlying the Constitution itself, namely democracy, secularism, social and economic equality, gender equality, and the transcendence of the caste-system, thus gets undermined.

This is not to suggest of course that all educated people in India have actually become devoid of these values; just that the education system itself ceases progressively to be the source of such values (and to the extent that capsules called “values” are dished out at the behest of some well-meaning Minister as part of the curriculum, they also become mere lifeless things to be swallowed and regurgitated, if necessary, at examinations). If a person who presided over the 2002 pogrom against the Muslims in Gujarat can be acceptable, reportedly, to large numbers of professionals, who would be considered the most educated section in India, then that certainly says something about the current direction of our education system.

The fourth obvious problem with the commoditization of education is that even this commodity becomes available only to a few. It excludes the bulk of the people from access to it, and hence undermines substantive, as opposed to merely formal, equality of opportunity. Substantive equality of opportunity can be said to prevail when the representation of various social groups within any selected set, say of doctors or academics or engineers or civil servants, is roughly in the same proportion as their representation in total population. To achieve substantial equality therefore affirmative action, like reservation of jobs for particular social groups for a certain period, becomes necessary. While this may superficially appear to be a violation of formal equality of opportunity, it is actually a means of achieving substantive equality of opportunity. And commoditized education entails a negation of substantive equality of opportunity, since only those who can afford it, get to buy this commodity.

A facile argument is sometimes put forward against this position by government spokesmen who claim that as long as credit is made available to anyone who is good enough to pursue education, there is no violation of equality of opportunity. This argument however is a facile one, both because not everybody in society is considered equally “creditworthy”, and also because the ability to bear the risk of educating oneself through borrowed money, in an economy where there is no full employment, is non-existent as far as the poor are concerned. And if a State could guarantee full employment (in which case large-scale credit-financed education could be a conceivable option), then that State would not let education get commoditized in the first place.

Indeed the fifth obvious argument against the commoditization of education consists in the fact that the withdrawal of the State from funding education entails a worsening of “dualism” within the education system, between a few elite institutions and the vast numbers of underfunded, understaffed and poorly furnished institutions located in peripheral regions. This is already happening in India to an alarming extent: the contrast between elite central universities on the one hand and miserably-staffed, miserably-housed, miserably-funded provincial universities on the other could not be greater.

We have in short two very distinct concepts of education in our context: one sees education as an activity which is entrusted by society to some people, who are funded by it, because the outcome of their labours in terms of advancing the frontiers of knowledge, cogitating over ways of removing the fault-lines in society, generating social sensitivity among students, and producing what, following Antonio Gramsci, one might call the “organic intellectuals of the people”, is considered essential for the progress of society and for the freedom of the human beings who constitute it. The other sees education as a package bought and sold in the market, which some people who can afford to pay for it buy in order to enhance their money-making capacity. We are in this country in the process of making a transition from the first concept, which, notwithstanding the fact that it was never actually realized, at least informed the thinking on education, including even official thinking, to the second concept.

The people of the country will be ill-served by this transition. In the absence of a group of “organic intellectuals of the people”, they would be forced either to reconcile silently to the burden of their unfreedom, or to express themselves through sporadic bursts of unproductive anger, which will provoke retaliation on the part of the State that can only accentuate their unfreedom. Education thus becomes yet another arena where the hegemony of international finance capital compounds the unfreedom of the people.

Photo: Occupy California

Prabhat Patnaik
 is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His books include Time, Inflation and Growth (1988), Economics and Egalitarianism (1990), Whatever Happened to Imperialism and Other Essays (1995), Accumulation and Stability Under Capitalism (1997), The Value of Money (2008), The Retreat to Unfreedom (2003), and Re-envisioning Socialism (2011).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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