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It doesn’t make the grade

The National Knowledge Commission had also made important recommendations on expansion, excellence and inclusion. Unfortunately, Central Universities Bill 2008 comes as a great disappointment, writes NK Singh.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2009 22:47 IST
N.K. Singh

In his closing remarks during the conclusion of the recent Parliament session, the Rajya Sabha Chairman lamented the hasty passage of many important Bills, which resulted in a failure to discuss either their legislative intent or “hold the executive accountable.” One of the Bills for which time was allotted by the Business Advisory Group but could not come up for consideration was the Central Universities Bill 2008. Fortunately, it was not pushed through hastily. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha and was then sent to the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development (HRD). The intent of this Bill is to convert four state universities into central universities and establish 11 new central universities in Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, J&K, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

The General Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher education in India is approximately 11 per cent compared to 56 per cent in developed countries, an average of 36 per cent in countries in transition and about 22 per cent in China. The XIth Plan proposes to raise India’s GER to 15 per cent and 21 per cent by the end of the XIIth Plan. To meet these daunting targets, the government needs to dramatically expand the number of new institutions and also augment the capacity of the existing ones.

Having learnt from the past, it was expected that the new Bill would restructure the governance and decision-making process of the new universities to improve the quality of education and harmonise the twin objectives of significantly expanding access as well as improving quality. The National Knowledge Commission had also made important recommendations on expansion, excellence and inclusion. Unfortunately, this Bill comes as a great disappointment.

Consider the following provisions:

The Bill stipulates that during the transition, the first Court, the first executive council and the first academic council will be nominated by the central government (read the HRD Minister). But neither the Act nor the statutes specify the eligibility and qualification criteria. This is also true for appointments of heads of department by a selection committee;

The Bill confers sweeping powers on the Visitor to remove the Vice-Chancellor (V-C) for any misconduct or violation. However, it does not say that these powers should be exercised only in exceptional cases and the reasons for doing so need to be explained;

The Bill also provides for sweeping powers to the central government to give binding directions to the universities on any questions of policy. Besides what constitutes a policy issue lies in the interpretational domain of the Centre. This negates the concept of university autonomy that is needed to foster centres of excellence;

The role of the central government should be confined to nominating their representatives to the Executive and Academic councils. Curiously, such wide-ranging powers do not exist even in the Universities Act, which governs the existing Central Universities;

The Bill empowers the central government (read the HRD Minister) to appoint the first Chancellor, the first V-C, the first Registrar and the first Finance Officer, without reference to any search committee and stipulations about their qualifications. Besides taking such powers away from the Visitor and vesting it with the HRD Ministry for the first appointments reinforce suspicions on the politicisation of such appointments even in the formative years of these universities;

The Bill empowers the central government to constitute the First Court, First Executive Council and the First Academic Council without any reference to the eligibility conditions and qualifications of those proposed to be nominated by the central government;

Moreover, for the appointment of the subsequent V-Cs, the composition of a search committee would be dominated by the Visitor’s nominee (read the HRD Ministry), instead of nominees from the executive council;

The Bill provides for the conversion of four state universities into central universities without explaining the rationale behind selecting these universities. In the absence of any broad-based selection criteria, these selections smacks of lack of transparency and even discrimination.

The Central Universities Bill 2008 in its present form is a retrograde step. It negates citizens’ aspirations that contemporary legislations must reflect modern management and governance practices based on delegation and not old style regulations. It fails to signal any reform of our higher education system and more importantly, of investing them with the academic freedom and autonomy for encouraging research, fostering innovation and kindling the urge for excellence.

We must scrap the Bill. We should enact a new and modern legislation which can do the following:

Decentralise administration and governance so that individual schools and departments of the universities can take their own academic, administrative and financial decisions within the overall policy framework. In fact, each school needs to be seen as a university within the university;

Ensure minimal interference by the central government through the office of the Visitor on a day-to-day basis;

Can redefine the role, functions and convention of many offices often ceremonial in nature;

Provide a model of empowered governance within the university structure whereby top university management is free from day-to-day decision-making and administrative functions to focus on a broader vision and strategic policy formulations; and,

Create an environment which fosters creativity, innovation and excellence.

It is said that human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. Let us educate. It is never too late to begin from scratch.

N.K. Singh is a Member of Parliament