Autonomy plus accountability

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Autonomy plus accountability

Wednesday, 25 November 2020 | Devender Singh Aswal

Autonomy plus accountability

The liberty of the Vice-Chancellor of a university is not a shield against malpractices. In a democratic set-up, all individuals, no matter how high an office they hold, are accountable

Disciplinary action against over a dozen Vice- Chancellors (V-Cs) of Central Universities (CUs) over the last few years has been a cause of consternation. However, the polarised politics of universities views this from diametrically opposite prisms. While a larger segment hails it as much-needed spring cleaning, some consider it a pernicious design to whittle down institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The overall spectacle is worrisome and needs to be seen in the correct perspective, albeit in a detached manner.

The office of the V-C is an exalted one, and  the academia views him as a friend, philosopher, guide and the high priest of the temple of higher learning. The constituting Act and the statutes, Ordinances and regulations of every university vest the V-C with certain powers and autonomy so that s/he executes her/his office efficiently and faithfully. The autonomy of the V-C is not a shield against accountability. In a democratic set-up, all individuals, no matter how high an office they hold, are accountable. In fact, higher the station, greater is the public scrutiny.  

The Constitution of India guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws. It is unsparingly unexceptional as the President of India, too, can be impeached by the Parliament for violation of the Constitution. All public functionaries and public bodies are ultimately accountable to the legislature through the Minister-in-Charge.

The Indian higher education system, which is the second-largest in the world, comprises 54 Central Universities, 411 State  Universities, 123 deemed universities and 282 private universities. The V-C is the chief executive and the administrative head of the university. A great responsibility, therefore, lies with the V-Cs in terms of the implementation of the national higher education policy, institutional reforms, nurturing the spirit of enquiry and research, building an ecosystem of innovation and adoption of international best practices of good governance.

According to the University Grants Commission’s (UGC’s) handbook, “the V-C has to evolve as the leader of a symphony orchestra” with the attributes of developing teams and teamwork. S/he also has to build partnerships and collaborations delicately interwoven with collegiality, friendship and intellectual engagement. This goes hand in hand with devising a deliverable action strategy, ensuring accountability of the self and various governing bodies of the university and steering an institutional monitoring and evaluation mechanism on the university’s performance, built on transparency. An ideal V-C is a great visionary, a true leader able to procure willing cooperation of the teachers, a constant source of inspiration to the students, an ace administrator who is able to maintain a conducive educational ecosystem, and is well-acquainted with the latest developments so as to bring global visibility to the university.

Plus, s/he must have the highest level of competence and her/his integrity must be beyond reproach. Like Caesar’s wife, the V-C must be above suspicion. S/he must execute her/his office faithfully and diligently and ensure that the provisions of the constituting Act, statutes, ordinances and regulations are fully observed.  S/he must make various appointments as per procedure, delegate powers for day-to-day work to the officers of the university and audit their performance and exercise all administrative, disciplinary and financial powers as defined in the statutes and ordinances.

In fact, the catalogue of duties of the V-C is vast and varied, which adds a certain aura of reverential mystique to the office. S/he represents the vibrant face of the university, engages in constructive stable policy dialogue with the Government, other universities, research funders and academia. It’s for these reasons that the V-Cs are selected by the Visitor (the President in case of Central varsities and the Governor in case of State Universities) from the panel recommended by the search committee. This committee comprises three to five members who are persons of eminence in the sphere of higher education and the choice of the V-C is based on rigorous screening of the academic attainments and administrative experience of the people on the panel.

Interestingly,  the V-Cs, who faced the axe, were appointees of the same Government. A critical scrutiny of the disciplinary proceedings initiated against the V-Cs broadly falls into four categories: Allegations of financial irregularity;  allegations of dereliction of duty and defiance; wrongful appropriation of funds and academic fraud.

The Visitor does not initiate disciplinary proceedings against a V-C suo motu, but on the aid and advice of the Ministry of Education or the concerned administrative Ministry. This is because Central universities relating to maritime, agriculture, aviation, sports education, and so on, fall outside the domain of the Education Ministry. The trigger point for initiating disciplinary action is provided by the media, complaints by legislators, students and teachers and in some cases, the Chancellors themselves have demanded enquiries against the V-Cs. So, the Visitor is duty-bound to refer the complaints to the administrative Ministry for ascertaining facts and considered advice with respect to the corrective action required to be taken.

Some glaring examples of acts of omission and commission deserve mention. President Pranab Mukherjee approved the sacking of the V-C of Visva Bharati university, Sushanta Duttagupta, for alleged irregularities in appointments and flagrant violation of financial rules. The V-C of Pondicherry University, Chandra Krishnamurthy, was removed for alleged academic fraud (that is claiming to have written three books though an enquiry allegedly revealed authorship of only one). The V-C of Mahatma Gandhi Central University, Arvind Agrawal, allegedly resigned when governments sought his comments on the allegations of fudging vital information in his C-V.

Similarly, amid a spate of questions in Parliament and public complaints about financial and academic irregularities, the V-C of Allahabad University, RL Hangloo, allegedly resigned before the Union Government could initiate punitive proceedings. The V-Cs of HN Bahuguna Garhwal University, JL Kaul, and Manipur University, AP Pandey, were sacked for alleged financial irregularities and long absence from duty. The V-C of Tripura University, V Dharurkar, resigned when a sting operation showed him receiving alleged bribe.

In cases where the V-Cs appropriated funds for purposes other than the approved budget heads, the enquiries were closed as there was no personal pecuniary gain or enrichment. The cases of Dinesh Singh, V-C, Delhi University and Talat Ahmad of  Jamia Millia Islamia fall in this category, both of whom were known for their competence and integrity. The V-C of Jamia Hamdard, Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain, a deemed to be university (self-financed but partly funded by the UGC), has been suspended by the Chancellor following the decision of the UGC to set up a fact-finding committee to probe allegations.

The Centre has no say in the appointment or removal of the V-C of a deemed university. In a recent case, the Tamil Nadu Government ordered an inquiry against Anna University V-C, MK Surappa, following complaints of alleged financial irregularities and malpractices in semester examinations and re-evaluation, even though the DMK has demanded his sacking.

The burning question is whether stringent disciplinary action against the V-Cs impinges upon the autonomy and academic freedom of the universities, which are emulated as role models and occupy a place of pride in the academia globally? Will these penal actions  impact, dilute or undermine the autonomy and freedom of the institutions of higher learning? Autonomy and academic freedom are crucial to the well-being and smooth functioning of universities and key to attaining excellence in a globally-competitive environment.

The National Education Policy, 2020, lays great focus on the autonomy of institutions of higher learning, making every college in course of time an autonomous, degree-granting college and making India a global hub of education. It is, therefore,  the right time to ponder and look to the future as autonomy is not a goal to be pursued in itself, but a fundamental pre-requisite for universities to be able to develop strategic profiles, operate in a competitive environment, deliver on their very important societal duties in an ecosystem of transparency and accountability.

The veneer of autonomy cannot conceal or camouflage acts of omission and commission. A zero-tolerance approach towards corruption demands that the Government be swift and surgical to weed out corruption or unethical practices. The import of the oft quoted statements “minimum Government and maximum governance” and “light but tight regulations” is loud and clear.

(The writer is former Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha and an author)

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