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Save university education: Keep politics away from the vice chancellor’s office

Given that the NDA government has shown no inclination to discontinue the UPA practice of granting vice-chancellorships as political practice, the top-down slide of university education might continue

opinion Updated: Feb 23, 2017 21:51 IST
A file photo of Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar. The government has thought it fit to have JNU headed by a person not from the scholarly rigours of fundamental sciences or the social sciences but instead with a mere technical background.
A file photo of Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar. The government has thought it fit to have JNU headed by a person not from the scholarly rigours of fundamental sciences or the social sciences but instead with a mere technical background. (Burhaan Kinu / HT Photo)

Higher education in India is widely believed to be in crisis. The University system, in particular, is dogged not only by issues of access and quality but also suffers profoundly from failures of administration.

In recent years, several vice-chancellors have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Chandra Krishnamurthy, erstwhile VC of Pondicherry, had to ingloriously quit sometime in 2016. Her forced resignation, it must be pointed out, was not only a result of an agitation by students and faculty. Rather, the tipping point followed from the findings of a high-level probe, which found her guilty of academic fraud: involving claims about books she had not written and for listing a fictitious D. Litt degree in her CV. Earlier, in Bengal, Abhijit Chakrabarti, vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University, was compelled to exit office. While his failure to meaningfully respond to a molestation case sparked a loud and energetic student agitation, he added fuel to the fire by getting students beaten up by the local police. This January, in an act of foresight or pre-emption, the Rajasthan University vice-chancellor J P Singhal tendered his resignation a day before the High Court was to decide his fate over a petition filed by two Jaipur-based activists. The petitioners were questioning the academic worth of the VC, who had barely completed seven months in office.

One could perhaps dismiss these instances as anomalies, given that hundreds of vice-chancellors do survive their full terms. On the other hand, one could also argue that such inglorious exits are a mere sampling of an alarming and deeper malaise. Vice-chancellors, especially those in charge of central universities in India, it must be understood, enjoy considerable, if not, overwhelming powers. They call the shots not only in terms of promotions, hiring, granting leave, deciding on a host of minute academic and administrative matters but, significantly as well, are relatively insulated from most pressures by students and faculty. And how little disdain and respect they need show to deliberative bodies such as academic councils or executive councils was made most palpable by former Delhi University vice- chancellor Dinesh Singh. In a show cause notice issued to him by the human resources ministry on March 17, 2015, for example, one of the chief allegations was that he introduced the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) without ‘clearance from the academic council, executive council, university court and the visitor who, in this case, is President Pranab Mukherjee’.

Read: Bengal: VC of Jadavpur University resigns

Contempt for internal dissent within the university was taken to the next level in the drama that recently unfolded at Hyderabad Central University (HCU). Here the VC Appa Rao Podile, who has also admitted to having plagiarised, is widely believed to have successfully used the police and other strong arm tactics to sort out his ‘disagreements’ with the students and faculty members. In what is now well documented, the travails of HCU extend from caste oppression, violence, lock downs, suspensions and beatings; all crowned, furthermore, by a Bollywood style spectacle involving the disappearance and equally sudden re-appearance of the VC.

This is undoubtedly grim and disturbing stuff. Several studies have argued that the fate of the demographic dividend in post-liberalisation India critically rests on balancing three legs: a) employment; b) education and c) access to debt/loans. Some indication of what the future storm will look like when any one of the legs fall short is indicated in the now portentous mobilisation of the youth amongst Jats, Gujjars, Patels and Mahars. These farming communities have correctly grasped how critical education and not simply ‘skill development’ has become for the new jobs of the digital economy. More so, when a desired shift from rural to urban India is also a part of their aspirational longings. While thus far the demands of these farming communities and castes are couched in the language of access through reservation quotas within existing universities, it is a matter of time before this will quickly escalate into an even more aggressive demand for quality and meaningful education.

Given that the current Narendra Modi-led NDA government has shown no inclination to discontinue the previous UPA practice of granting vice-chancellorships as political practice, the top down slide of university education might helplessly continue. But this is playing with fire, especially when ‘quality education’ as is well known cannot be generated overnight.

Read: A first: Bihar VC aspirants told to give property details

The Modi government, however, must also be faulted for adding a second more troubling ideological thrust to some of its appointments. The notable case in point being that of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has earned the NDA government’s wrath for having a critical and immensely respected Left scholarly legacy. The current JNU vice-chancellor, it must be noted, is essentially an electrical engineer by training and, bluntly stated, has a CV indicating an academic lightweight especially when contrasted to the richer and heftier academic accomplishments of many within the JNU faculty. Put differently, the government has thought it fit to have JNU headed by a person not from the scholarly rigours of fundamental sciences or the social sciences but instead with a mere technical background. Sadly, the consequences are for everyone to see. JNU students and faculty remain in protest mode having to deal with, as many reports suggests, a hostile administration that shows scant respect for the university’s unique academic cultures of dissent, debate and dialogue.

Clearly, while the JNU vice-chancellor can perhaps expect to override challenges from his students and faculty, given the trust and support he enjoys with the government, it nonetheless begs the important question of whether this is how India wishes to handle its higher education challenge?

Read: Pondicherry varsity vice chancellor sacked after allegations of plagiarism

On the other hand, if the office of the vice-chancellor is genuinely going to be turned around to be part of the education solution, then the government should urgently set about attempting two major structural changes. First, evolve a credible metric for assessing the vice-chancellor’s performance in terms of enabling his/her university to generate quality academic output. At the moment, strangely enough, while faculty and students are subjected to a range of evaluations the very top position is beyond any assessment. Secondly, the selection of a vice-chancellor should also be dependent, at least in part, on an electoral college comprising only academics that is his or her peers. This should somewhat attenuate the current bureaucratic and political hold on the system.

The education stakes in India are very high, needs urgent solutions and failure is not an option.

Rohan D’Souza is associate professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.

The views expressed are personal