Unshackling varsities

Such politically active teachers and employees are seldom able to attend their respective workplaces, let alone perform their duties relating to teaching, research and extension effectively.

Unshackling varsities

[Photo : SNS]

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in his address to the nation in 1985, referred to education as an area which required urgent attention. This led to the New Education Policy (NEP) which was finalized in August 1986.

Prime Minister Modi, in 2022, held that NEP (2020) is essential to create the New India of the 21st century. We hope these are not voices in the wilderness, though there is always a surrounding cacophony that endeavors to drown the voices. They come from experts who seemingly believe it is necessary to go on reiterating a few indisputable propositions as parts of education policy.

Well, truism may not be disputed. What may be disputable, however, lies around the question of their relevance for finalizing what needs to be done. It is time to decide whether a large number of richly endowed world class universities will serve our needs in the higher education sector better than the small number of meagerly endowed universities that we have now.


Higher education today is confronted with a number of challenges in regard to its management in an effective manner owing to a number of factors including growing interference of government leading to a sharp erosion in autonomy, snowballing financial resource crunch chiefly caused by spiraling prices of goods and services, and fixation of grants by some state governments at previous levels, hike in different fees by the universities making it difficult for the poor to pursue it, privatization and even internationalization of education at a cost beyond the reach of commoners, and sharp deterioration in work culture.

Universities are so badly managed that quite often there are agitations on the part of students, teachers and employees leading to widespread indiscipline and chaos. Work culture among all sections related to management is seen at a low ebb.

Classes are not properly taken, and extension programmes are not properly taken care of in our educational institutions. Use of unfair means cannot be ruled out; question papers are leaked; evaluation is ever questioned; favoritism is distinctly visible.

The atmosphere is politically surcharged mainly because of the patronage enjoyed by the leaders of various political parties on the campuses. Even cases of forged degrees made available through employment of corrupt practices come to light.

In such a scenario, the universities today are found to be performing merely two functions ~ admission and examinations. The real functions of teaching, research and extension have been generally relegated to the background. This sordid state of affairs puts a big question mark on their very existence as institutions of higher learning, particularly from the standpoint of their role in promotion of human and social development.

Universities no longer remain autonomous institutions either academically or financially or administratively as they once used to be. State governments have acquired powers to frame even their courses as per their ideological commitments. Financially, decisions regarding annual grants-in-aid which might be a small portion of the expenditure are taken by respective state governments. As a populist measure, the state governments sometimes fix the fees to be realised from students pursuing regular as well as selffinanced courses. Moreover, again in order to gain popularity, governments sometimes sanction class III and class IV posts in bulk and even teaching positions without any obligation to meet the financial burden.

University campuses have been highly politicized. All the constituent elements of the university system ~ teachers, employees and students are associated with various political parties through their organisations ~ generally not on the basis of ideological commitments but on the basis of personal convenience, especially from the standpoint of their self-aggrandizement. Such politically active teachers and employees are seldom able to attend their respective workplaces, let alone perform their duties relating to teaching, research and extension effectively.

Most students are not interested in acquiring knowledge; they continue their studentship for students union elections or to occupy seats in hostels or to gain a certificate as a passport to a job.

University administrations being bound by legal provisions and precedents and being subjected to pressure of varied kinds are forced to adopt an apathetic attitude and as a consequence, either refrain from taking any initiative and doing innovative work or do only enough to sustain the system.

Use of the latest information and communication technology requires sound financial bases as also competent manpower. Unfortunately, in most universities either required financial resources are lacking or the teachers and staff who, in many cases, have been selected on the basis of considerations other than merit, are incompetent.

In the present era of globalization of education, there are distinctly visible two types of insidious opportunities for education at all levels ~ the first provided by renowned private organizations that charge exorbitant fees and provide quality education by hiring competent teachers and employees and making use of latest ICT; and the second offered directly by the government as part of fulfillment of its obligation to provide education to all who get enrolled. Since in pursuance of its policy of liberalization and privatization the state is gradually withdrawing itself from education to its citizens, and also since a major part of the budget is spent on payments of salary to staff and other infrastructural expenses, a nominal part is actually spent on education. Corruption in the entire machinery has further worsened the situation.

Moreover, the government aided universities are subjected to varied kinds of unwarranted restrictions which compel them to toe the line of government policy. The result is that they are not able to maintain the desired standards of education.

University autonomy may be restored by making necessary changes in the University Act and Statutes in order that universities as institutions of highest level of teaching, research and extension may be able to operate independently.

They should have full freedom to frame their academic programmers, conduct research and chalk out extension activities in accordance with their mission of national development.

They should be given a free hand in preparing their budget and identifying and mobilizing resources without contravention of the general laws of the land.

Educationists will agree that the university bodies should be supreme in academic matters. The university is not the tool of the government, still less it is the instrument of the political powers of the day. Sometimes, it is vulnerable to government blackmail because it has to receive financial support from the government.

We are reminded of an old proposal to make universities accountable to legislators regarding utilization of public funds placed at their disposal.

Though their accounts today are looked into by government auditors, they are not placed before the legislatures except in one or two cases. From time to time this arrangement has been criticized by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament.

But as the Education Commission has rightly held, a debate in a legislature on the financial affairs of a university will only make it an issue in party politics which is far from desirable.

All this is not to suggest that there should be not a check on how universities manage their financial affairs but to emphasize that any such control is best exercised by the UGC, which may devise a suitable system of internal audit.

It is time for a national debate on who should be a Chancellor or Visitor. Are Governors/ President of India capable of providing academic leadership to the university community?

The vital question is about the role of the UGC or the Association of Indian Universities on issues like autonomy, credibility of head of the institution, inquiry into functioning of the administration, academic freedom, and intellectual dissent. Has our intelligentsia given any serious thought to dealing with allegations regarding irregularities in our universities?

Many of our academics often willingly play into the hands of vested interests when they become vice-chancellors. Irregularities in faculty selection, violations of university acts, statutes and ordinances, and manipulations in regard to the functioning of academic and executive committees vitiate the academic atmosphere.

The real problem is that top jobs in universities are largely allocated on the basis of social background, political ideology, or personal bias.

When Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee became the VC of Calcutta University in the early 20th century, S Radhakrishnan was appointed the VC of Andhra University in the 1930s and Hansa Mehta took over as VC of Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda in the 1940s, no one asked where their affiliation lay. Only their scholarly accomplishments and institutional visions were taken into consideration.