When there’s no accountability

| | in Oped
When there’s no accountability

Higher education in India suffers from lack of leadership that can truly create the right kind of environment and ensure politics is kept away from the vice chancellor’s office

Is it not disturbing that nearly one-fourth of the vice chancellors of central universities in the country are facing some sort of an inquiry? The list of completed or ongoing inquiries includes major players in higher education like the Aligarh Muslim University, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi University, Banaras Hindu University  and even Shanti Niketan!

Vice chancellor of Pondicherry was removed from the post after he was found guilty of having submitted forged qualification certificates. Winston Churchill once said it in full comprehension: “The price of greatness is responsibility”. Universities   become great when they excel in creating and disseminating knowledge, human values and above all, humanism and humaneness. Such a lofty objective cannot be achieved without the presence of iconic intellectuals and committed scholars in laboratories, libraries and classrooms.

Further, they need visionary outstanding academics of repute to lead these universities. This is what was achieved by Madan Mohan Malviya. He invited individuals to set up various schools of knowledge and a person of the stature of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to be the vice chancellor. Considerations of caste, religion or region were totally absent.  Yes, India could recall great contributions of vice chancellors of the stature of Ashutosh Mukherjee, Pundit Ganganath Jha, Zakir Husain, Triguna Sen, LK Srimali and others. None of the above was made to put up an application, give evidence of 10 years as full-time professorship! Neither were they interviewed by the search-cum-selection committee as is the practice in vogue at present. Things have changed and that needs no elaboration.

From about 20 universities to begin with, India can boost of nearly 800 at present. It is a large-scale expansion that was necessary; and inevitable; to accommodate the growing demands on the higher education system.  Absence of inbuilt safeguards in educational expansion is best exemplified by the current concerns on decline of credibility and deterioration in quality of education, right from the primary schools to higher education and research. If over 80 per cent fresh graduates in engineering and management are not found up to the mark in the job market, it is time for an incisive objective analysis and to take a fresh look on the prevailing deficiencies and emerging demands.

Universities are built around ‘the right people, the right environment and the right financing’! Radhakrishnan, the visionary scholar, had very clearly indicated “Intellectual work is not for all, it is only for the intellectually competent.” He further elaborated: “If our universities, which showed so much promise on the eve of independence, now appear to be in a state of disarray, it is because they have been increasingly invaded by masses of people who have no regard for intellectual competence or aptitude for academic work.” 

In the context of central universities, right financing is not much of a problem. Apart from Government grants, these could, with proper leadership, receive support from the alumni, industry and others who may be in need of specifically-prepared manpower. However, to create the right environment remains an issue. 

Advancing knowledge is the challenge before university dons, and that is what the nation expects them to be remaining busy with. This cannot be achieved even partially if bureaucratic incursions and political intrusions in university affairs persistently demoralise the vice chancellor! Recent alterations in the Institutes of Technology Act  have given them sufficient autonomy, which in simple terms means freedom from the stranglehold of the bureaucracy! It could lead to better appreciation of extending autonomy to State-funded universities and institutions.

The toughest challenge is to find the right person to head the university. Only a distinguished academic, who had not lobbied for the position, could function with courage and self-confidence. Only such a person could assert the ‘autonomy’ of the university, which is now more of myth than a provision of any consequence.  For the heads of universities, these are  the times of serious changes taking place and challenges emerging at an unprecedented pace all around. Universities have the responsibility to nurture ‘power of ideas’ and ‘power of imagination’.  From this, these would provide the necessary climate for the growth and development of curiosity and the resulting creativity.  The spirit of entrepreneurship and urge to innovate is impeded when curiosity and creativity are suppressed; knowingly or unknowingly! Universities become great when these are staffed and led by persons with vision, imbued with an urge to explore and innovate. Are such expectations really Utopian?  Probably yes, as sufficient ground exists for such apprehensions!

These are the days of intense lobbying for the vice chancellor’s position in practically every central and State university.  It is on the rise as the credibility of the process is diminishing fast.  The introduction of Academic Performance Index (API) has accelerated the prevalence of unfair practices in academia as evidenced by spurt of instant-acceptance journals and ever-increasing numbers of national or international seminars. Never before such a farce of seminars been organised as after the API. It is the number of participation and publications and not the quality that makes one eligible to move higher up the ladder. The basic principle for playing the leadership role revolves around the maxim that the job should go to the one who deserves it and not the one who demands it.  The damage that has been done to the growth and nurturance of academic leadership is now well-established and the ever-increasing number of inquiries being instituted against vice chancellors leaves no doubt about its total unsuitability.

Indian academics, right from schools to universities, are well-versed in successfully confronting deficiencies and even deprivations that they face regularly.  They do so because of their traditional commitment to the cause of preparing generations ahead and towards creating new knowledge. These unsung heroes are working in their classrooms, laboratories and libraries, guiding and mentoring young people without complaining about anything!  It is this category that would never apply and submit copies of high school mark sheets, face interview or approach politicians and others for favours! It is no longer a myth that unscrupulous practices are not barred! 

Some bold decisions on how to ensure right person at the top in universities must be taken without delay. Some of the changes that often emerge in formal and informal deliberations amongst academics deserve in-depth scrutiny. First accept that the existing procedures have failed. Next, the tenure of the vice chancellor should uniformly be of five years. The process to appoint the next vice chancellor must be initiated well in advance to ensure that the successor is known at least a month before the incumbent demits office.  Keeping top positions vacant disturbs the rhythm of the system and throws it into a state of uncertainty, which inflicts lasting damages.  In several cases, the Senate, Executive Committees, and Boards of Management must be freed from the presence of politicians. 

(The writer is former Director, NCERT and an educationist).

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