Don’t meddle with university autonomy

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Don’t meddle with university autonomy

Thursday, 25 May 2023 | JS Rajput

Don’t meddle with university autonomy

Bitter feuds have been witnessed in the appointments of VCs. Chief ministers want to control the appointment of VCs as well as the university itself

It is well-established that universities and institutions of higher learning grow in credibility and acceptability when they enjoy real and effective autonomy in performing their well-articulated task of preparing young persons with a fulsome personality for the future and simultaneously creating the future of the nation. Towards these avowed objectives, the academics there need to put their intellectual prowess in full concentration in the deep study of existing knowledge and wisdom, critical analysis of existing practices in pedagogy and possible improvements that could ensure better pedagogy of the transfer of knowledge to young learners, generation of new knowledge and skills, innovations and exploration of ways and mean to utilize it all in the welfare of mankind. The key word is autonomy, availability of adequate resources, and non-interference from external sources that invariably intrude simply because of their positions of power and authority in varied contexts.

 The system of state governance and civil society have a responsibility to ensure the smooth functioning of these academic and intellectual pursuits in present times, defined by the march of humanity towards a knowledge society and knowledge economy. It is worthwhile to recall that this is no new proposition. It was the basis of the traditional Indian system of learning and gaining knowledge; in the Gurukula system. The Gurukulas were places of great societal reverence, even kings and emperors entered these premises only after seeking due permission of the Chief Acharya; the Kulapati or Kul Guru; and considered themselves fortunate to take dust from their feet. The state and community ensured the availability of necessary support of varied kinds. In the context of the current times, one could think of some major internationally recognised universities, and it would invariably emerge that it was autonomy that paved the path for their progress and growth and for the outstanding contributions of their products in the field of knowledge.

Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, University of California, Berkeley, and a few more are globally acknowledged for their seminal contributions. There is no role of the State in their functioning or appointments.

India had experienced it in Nalanda, Taxila, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, and others. It has recent examples of the initial years of growth and excellence witnessed in BHU, Kolkata University, Allahabad University, Delhi University; and a couple more. These acquired credibility, acceptance and a unique culture of work specific to each one of these. These were fortunate to have Vice-Chancellors of the stature of Dr Radhakrishnan, Sir Ashutosh Mukherji, Pundit Ganga Nath Jha, and other luminaries of outstanding stature. It was the stature of the VC that doubly assured non-interference in the university's autonomy. It made all the difference. Now, India could boost more than 1100 universities. The growth in numbers, necessary and inevitable, has certain unwanted imperatives as well. The challenge is the quality of the learning imparted. 

Things are very different times in the context of the autonomy of universities as also in the level and credibility of the academic leadership in most of the universities. Dr Radhakrishnan was convinced that: "Education is a universal right and not a class privilege." Simultaneously he also had very clearly stated how significant it was to value talent and merit in universities. The following words of Dr Radhakrishnan present one of the finest articulations that could comprehensively guide the functioning of India’s institutions of higher learning: “Intellectual work is not for all, it is only for the intellectually competent. 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.

We have made short work of tests of intellectual competence to make peace with every kind of social and political pressure.” It was Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru who spoke on how necessary it was to ensure proper academic functioning of the universities: “A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.” And both of these stalwarts were expressing themselves some seven to eight -decades ago! It was a different age of value-internalization

 The pursuit of excellence suffers on several counts both at the school level and also at the university stage. The common factor is the dearth of appropriate and committed academic leadership that could command respect because of competence, commitment and performance. There are severe issues of vacant positions and commercialization which just cannot be ignored. Several instances are being reported on the disturbing state of affairs in the universities funded by state governments. The credibility and quality of professional contributions of a university are primarily linked to the vision and foresight of its leader; the Vice-Chancellor! 

States normally have the Governor as the Chancellor of state-funded universities, and private universities select their own Chancellor. Usually, the office of the Chancellor of state-funded universities initiates the process of the selection of VCs. The first step is the appointment of a search-cum selection committee for the same. The Chancellor's nominee on the committee is also designated as the convener; there is a nominee of the state government, a nominee of the UGC, and a nominee of the Executive Council of the concerned universities. There could be minor variations in the composition of the committee depending upon the relevant State Act. The proviso of the Governor ex-officio becoming the Chancellor intends to wean the selection process away from political influences, as also from any other external pressures. It worked well during the first four-five decades after independence, but not so now. 

During the last couple of years, some bitter feuds have been witnessed in the appointments of VCs in a couple of states where the elected chief ministers wish to control the appointment of VCs. Obviously; quality is not the concern in such instances. A pliant VC with desirable political moorings could be a great asset in so many ways that are by now well-known to all. In Kerala, the Chief Minister not only reappointed one retiring VC, but he also went ahead to appoint several more. The High Court cancelled all of these. The state of West Bengal has come up with legislation that would startle everyone concerned with education and universities. The state government of West Bengal would like to have search-cum-selection committee with a nominee of the chief minister, a nominee of the state government and also a nominee of the West Bengal State Council of Higher Education in a committee of five members that would include a nominee of the Chancellor and also the UGC! This is a candid and clear political statement intended to reduce the authority of the Chancellor in appointing a reputed academician to lead the university.

It is beyond common sense why there should be three nominees of the state Govt. Such trends deserve to be checked seriously.

(The works in education, social cohesion and religious amity)

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