Can higher education be revived?

BUREAUCRATIC BANE Even as foreign universities bag our students, the quality of our own higher education is plummeting, writes Vatsala Vedantam

Can higher education be revived?

A recent comment by a former Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University about the present Chancellor of the Karnataka state universities speaks volumes about the depths to which our higher education has plummetted. The charges levelled by him against the highest authority of the universities are shocking.

Although it is well known that corruption, nepotism and misuse of power are rampant in our higher education institutions, this is the first time that one authority has publicly condemned another. Although the role of chancellor is that of a figure head presiding over meetings and convocations, the Vice-Chancellor assumes a more dynamic position in guiding the affairs of a university including its academics.

The very fact that governors of states automatically assume the place of chancellors, whereas vice chancellors are carefully selected out of a panel of competent leaders who must guide the university on the right path in all ways, shows the importance of the roles they must play. We do not know whether the present chancellor strayed beyond his role to provoke that comment from a former academician. Whatever may be the provocation, it reveals ugly cracks in a house of learning. There are 16 universities in this state alone, including deemed universities. Now, with the establishment of more private universities, good governance is all the more imperative.

The present state of Indian universities – Karnataka is no exception – is dismal. They are established and their academics conducted in a haphazard and arbitrary manner. The authorities which govern them seem to have no idea about the role of universities. They have forgotten that these are places where minds are developed, intellect honed, and future leaders made. The world’s greatest universities have produced giants. Indian universities in the past did the same. In contrast, what do our present universities do? Departments are closed because the student intake is low. Lecturers and professors are promoted, not because they are competent and deserving, but because they are “senior” and age has to be respected! And, worst of all, the state government is trying to increase its stranglehold on universities which means that academics has given way to politics.

When bureaucrats rule and academics stoop in subservience, the first casualty is the student. The Karnataka Government sounded the death knell for higher learning when it made the minister for higher education the “pro chancellor” of universities.  It is bad enough to have a minister for education. As long as he is a figure head to be safely ignored, well and good. The same with a chancellor who also happens to be the handpicked authority to be the head of a state. Their positions in universities should be viewed as mere courteous accessories to lend dignity, not advice, to that office. The trouble starts when these dignitaries take their roles too seriously and start interfering in academic matters. The latest move by the government in the form of the VTU (Amendment) Bill, 2013 is an example of one such bureaucratic interference. The Higher Education Minister, who piloted this Bill, has actually declared that the state did not have enough powers to “correct erring officials” in the technologial university! This bill gives the government enormous powers  over all other university bodies.

The former vice chancellor’s outburst against the high handedness of the state in matters concerning higher education can be understood in this context. Although it does not take away the sad deterioration of values in higher education when one authority is forced to publicly denounce another. As far as the relationship between the government and the university is concerned, it is a fact that institutions of higher learning cannot function without the support of the government. Colleges affiliated to state universities have to depend upon the block grants given to them for maintaining their infrastructure and paying the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff members. If the government takes advantage of this dependence, and punishes colleges by arbitrary means like withholding grants and other methods, it ceases to be a friendly relationship. The very fact that governments wish to exercise complete control over universities goes to show that higher education has become just one more slave of the bureaucracy.

The proper maintenance of universities in the country is finally the responsibilty of the Centre. What is the purpose of a University Grants Commission? Is it simply to dole out the funds? Should it not ensure that those funds are properly utilised for academic purposes only, and not frittered away on unnecessary frills? The UGC is largely to blame in the present context. If it really fulfilled its role as the watchdog of academic matters, Indian universities would not have been in the shambles we find them today. But then, the UGC has also become a bureaucratic monster. Ensconced in an ivory tower and entrenched in meaningless rules and regulations, it has forgotten the very purpose for which it was established. In 1978, its own reviewcommittee had framed guidelines for all higher education institutions in the country, which if followed, would have made our universities some of the best in the world. They would have been committed to promote science and technology through cutting-edge research in various scientific disciplines.

They would have provided liberal support to affiliated colleges which prepare students for higher studies through their undergraduate programmes. They would have made higher education accessible to the weaker but merited sections of society by creating scholarships. They would have enabled their faculties to keep pace with the rapid strides made in other countries. Above all, they would have ensured that the next generation of citizens would contribute valuable inputs to society.

How far have our universities succeeded in achieving all these? They cannot, as long as their governance is marred by political chicanery. May be the former vice chancellor had a point there.

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