State universities as centres of politicking

State universities as centres of politicking

It was a sad day indeed when the Karnataka State Universities (KSU) Act made the minister for higher education the pro-chancellor of state universities. It was a blatant assertion of the government’s stranglehold on higher education. It also spelt the death knell of academics with the entry of politicians into the sacred portals of universities which are temples of learning and not politicking.

Even when it was promulgated in 1976, the Act made sure that the universities would be subservient to the government by investing the Chancellor, who represents the state, with enormous powers to approve or overrule the decisions of all other authorities, including the Senate, Syndicate, Academic Council. In the process, it diminished the role of those authorities and centralised important decision making with the government. Nothing could be worse for the health of a university. Or, for the proper functioning of the vice-chancellor who was stripped of all executive powers despite being the head of the university.

Fortunately, there have been vice-chancellors who have been courageous enough to assert their views in the interest of academics. This probably led to the decision of making the minister for higher education a pro-chancellor which downgraded the office of the VC completely.

Unnecessary move

Although it is a fact that the state government has to exercise its authority, being the main funding agency of the university, its powers should be limited to the finances  alone. It should have no role in the academics, much less its governance.

When there were official bodies like the Senate, Syndicate and Academic Council, consisting of faculty members, with a vice-chancellor to hold them together, where was the need for the state to step in and interfere with their functioning?

Not happy with the powers it has enjoyed to appoint its own choice of members into those august bodies, it finally decided to play a more powerful  role by exercising its authority in the guise of a pro-chancellor who stood ranked above the VC. The fact that that office was to be held by a minister tells the rest. The recent unsavoury events in Bangalore University with regard to the appointment of registrars show the extent to which the VC’s post has been degraded in Karnataka.

BU is said to be the largest university in Asia with nearly 500 affiliated colleges and more than 50 post graduate departments. But quantitative strength alone does not make for excellence. On the other hand, the university is tottering under this excessive weight of 3,00,000 students in its affiliated colleges. Its gargantuan examination scheme is dogged by corrupt practices. Inefficiency and mediocrity have been the bane of this university. Its teaching faculty, with the exception of some outstanding teachers, leaves much to be desired.

Like all other state universities, it receives its main funding through an annual block grant from the state government. This is where the entire bureaucratic machinery of the state holds a whip over the university and its authorities, including the vice-chancellor himself. Since the state enjoys the powers of legislation to make rules and regulations, or change the KSU Act itself, the university is unconditionally subordinate to the government.

In 1979, the same state government appointed a review committee to examine the weaknesses of the state universities and to recommend reforms. Many eminent educationists and scientists were on that panel. Whatever happened to their recommendations? One of them specifically spelt out the decentralisation of universities and their affiliated colleges. In this context, the committee made a strong case about the role of vice-chancellors.

“He should have all the powers needed to function effectively”, it said in clear terms. It also added that utmost care should be taken while selecting vice-chancellors. Thirty years later, the state government has literally trashed that report by violating the office of the executive head of a university. It has also trespassed into a domain where it has no business. What more, it has given sanctity to such trespasses by making significant changes in the KSU Act itself. Although the VC has powers to make important decisions in the university, every decision is finally subject to the approval of the Chancellor, which means the state. In this context, we should note the comments of the Centre for International Higher Education on universities in India.

“India’s colleges and universities have become large, underfunded, ungovernable institutions. In many of them, politics has entered campus life, influencing academic appointments and decisions at all levels. The system provides few incentives to perform to the highest standards. Bureaucratic inertia hampers change. Student unrest and faculty agitation disrupt normal operations, delays examinations, foments tensions.”

Does this describe the state of affairs in Bangalore University?