Taking a cue from the decade-old Punchhi Commission’s report to curtail the powers of the Governor in matters educational, the West Bengal Cabinet recently decided to appoint the Chief Minister as the Chancellor of all state universities, replacing the Governor. The government has repeatedly accused the Governor of acting as per the wishes of the Centre on various subjects including education.
The Punchhi Commission constituted by the Centre had felt that the Governor should not be vested with the power that was not vested by the Constitution as it would lead to a clash of functions and powers between the state government and Governor.
The West Bengal government had taken away the Governor’s authority in appointing vice-chancellors to state universities in 2019. In the same year, the confrontation between the government and Governor reached a stage when a fresh terms of engagement under the WB State Universities (Terms and Conditions of Service of the VCs and the Manner and Procedure of Official Communication) rules were laid to curtail the powers of the Chancellor.
It was decided that the Governor’s nod would no longer be required for a state-run universily to call a senate meeting. The rules also stated that the approval of the Governor would not even be required for selecting candidates for honorary degrees at a convocation.
The measure was obviously taken after the Governor tried to exercise his powers as Chancellor and meet the Calcutta University VC. To his dismay, he found the door of the latter’s room locked.
The Governor’s role in appointing out VCs has often triggered disputes with the political executive. While as Governor he functions with the advice of the Council of Ministers, as Chancellor he acts independently of the Council of Ministers and takes decisions on university matters. A controversy erupted in Kerala recently over the reappointment of a VC of Kannur University as that was against the decision of the Governor, the Chancellor of state universities.
The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed two Bills seeking to transfer the Governor’s powers in appointing VCs of state universities to the state government.
Admittedly, universities are run on public money and ought, therefore, to be accountable to society. They need to be man- aged like a corporate enterprise and become self-reliant. If universities are to be compared to the human mind, managing a university must be regarded as a great management challenge. However, it must be realized that a university is also an organization which must be efficiently managed with the right focus on its structure and changes must be systemic. In many developing countries, there has been a managerial revolution in educational institutions over the last few decades.
The situation, however, is not too conducive in West Bengal. Until not so long ago, the universities were dominated by the Leftist politicians. Many universities ceased to be centers of learning and research. The government enacted a statute in 1979 to induct politicians into governing bodies.
In the name of democratization came a free variant of politicization, whereby the ruling parties fill senates, syndicates, boards of studies, state councils of higher education, governing bodies and what have you with their henchmen.
The much sought-after paribartan took place and with the avowed objective of depoliticising higher education, the new government promulgated the West Bengal University Laws (amendment) Act, 2011.
Academics were upbeat to learn that the government intended to dissociate politics from the administrative setup of state-run universities, but the provisions of the Ordinance, when made public, proved disappoint- ing. Too much emphasis on nomination and bureaucratization in selecting members of important university bodies was a major shortcoming of the proposed Ordinance. Voices of protest were raised.
It may be apt to recall an extract from the report of the Bhabatosh Datta Committee (1984): “If regimentation and rules are over-centralised and overemphasized at the collegiate university level, the principles of production become subservient to totalitarian perceptions of national or regional effort. Such perceptions are a hindrance to endogenous and democratic creativity. This is the essential reason why academic opinion is opposed to party politics or bureaucracy controlling university
management in an over-centralised way.” Incidentally the report, let alone being accepted, was never made public by those who had set up the committee.
The following government Ordinance makes way for a larger representation of people from among those in superior administrative positions.
This again contradicts the Kothari Commission’s recommendation: “It is necessary to ensure that universities do not become administration or administrator dominated… The dominance, if one is to use the word at all, must be of the academic element and the principal function of the administration is to serve the academic interest of the university.”
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2012 runs counter to the government’s occasionally professed faith in the autonomy of institutions of higher learning. Chiefly, the Bill gives short shrift to the University Grants Commission. A government nominee ~ usually a euphemism for a political appointment ~ would be inducted into the search committee to select VC. And surprisingly, he would replace the UGC’s nominee, which would imply that the overarching educational authority will have little role in the appointment process.
Once in power, the present government managed to persuade Harvard professor Sugata Bose to chair the mentor group that was set up to transform Presidency University into a world-class centre of excellence.
Amartya Sen, too, agreed to be an advisor to the chair of the mentor group. Although the transformation process hit a funds hurdle, a faculty shortlist suggested that the institution did manage to stoke interest among the talented.
If Presidency could raise hopes of unshackling education from political fetters, events elsewhere could not inspire such confidence.
A stunning confirmation came in the form of a flying jar. A political personage, who headed the governing body of a college, had got into an altercation with a teacher. His arm allegedly caught the chin of the teacher who had dared to argue.
One still remembers how the former VC of Calcutta University, Santosh Bhattacharya, was harassed and heckled for daring to defy the line of the then-dominant ruling party.
Having “politicised” education and compounded the offence by inept handling of academic affairs, the situation has been brought to such a pass that it would not be unfair to suggest that West Bengal perhaps lacks human resources even to run the remnants of a ruined education system. However, there is a massive room for making a beginning.
The crux of the matter is that if the universities deserve a free hand in day-to day operations, neither the Governor nor the Chief Minister should meddle in their affairs. The shadowboxing between them reaffirms the competitive urge to call the shots. Let learning prevail.