Time for a new approach

Time for a new approach

In recent months, there has been a good deal of debate on the procedure for and delay in the appointment of judges of higher courts. Another issue of equal importance, but much less discussed, is the inordinate delay in the appointment of vice-chancellors (VCs) of universities, especially in Karnataka. As a consequence, quite a few state universities are presently functioning with 'in-charge' arrangement, for periods ranging from a few months to one or two years. Whereas judicial vacancies have jeopardised the legal system affecting lakhs of litigants, doldrums in the higher education sector has drastically impaired the academic pursuits of multitudes of students and teachers.

Besides, the prevailing 40-45% vacancies in faculty positions across universities has caused further deterioration in the quality of teaching and research.

Currently, the following modality is adopted for appointment of VCs as per the provisions of Karnataka State University Act, 2000 (cosmetic changes proposed in the amended bill of 2017 although 'readily approved' by the legislature, are yet to get the assent of the governor):

Nominees, one each of the concerned university syndicate, state government, the chancellor and the UGC, together constitute a search committee to screen the applications (received through government circulars to universities and advertisements), prepare a panel of three eminent academicians and submit it to the government which, in turn, recommends a candidate to the chancellor for appointment as VC. The chancellor, however, can opt for a fresh panel if not satisfied with the first one. In any case, the chancellor has to take the final call "in concurrence" with the state government.

In the last few years, VC selection has, unfortunately, become vexatious, controversial and intricate, presumably because of political interest, communal consideration, regional bias and 'other hidden factors'. As a consequence, the appointments are often delayed or deferred because of non-agreement between the government and the chancellor on the choice of the candidate. It appears that in the present circumstances, there is no feasible solution on the anvil to break the imbroglio and hasten the process, as was done in the past several decades and until the late 1990s. Therefore, it is expedient to put in place a new mechanism to render the selection more participative, speedy, transparent and merit-based.

There could be several suggestions for overhauling the present system. The government will do well by constituting a committee to bring forth a set of new norms after soliciting opinions of all stakeholders.

It should be emphasised that the exercise to select a VC is not to be treated as one to merely fill the vacancy but to identify a leader and a scholar par excellence with visionary plans and missionary zeal. Having highlighted the current impediments, I propose the following novel approach for appointment of VCs:

  1. Both applications and nominations must be invited through advertisements in leading national and regional newspapers.
  2. The Search-cum-Selection Committee (SSC) must comprise three-four eminent persons of high integrity in the field of higher education or science and technology or industry or management or public administration or such other domains. The Syndicate/ Executive Council/Board of Governors should constitute this committee after wider consultations and due deliberations. Composition of the committee is crucial. It should be made public, as was recently done by Anna University, Chennai.
  3. The first meeting of the SSC could shortlist about nine eligible candidates, keeping in view that the final panel will have only three persons. This task is really tedious and time consuming as the number of applicants exceeds 100 these days.
  4. The second meeting of the SSC should focus on finalising a panel of three most distinguished candidates, justifying the choice of each.
  5. The panel so prepared should be referred to the university Academic Council (AC) for approval. If there is no unanimity, the issue could be settled by voting.
  6. With the approval of the AC, the panel should be forwarded to the chancellor for appointing one of them as VC. It is important to ensure that the chancellor is a separate authority for each university, and not the governor of the state. This arrangement already exists in private universities as well as central universities. It must be obligatory on the chancellor to invite all the three persons in the panel for a meaningful dialogue to ascertain their competency to lead and govern. It is pertinent to mention that a recent national survey conducted by the Association of Policy and Public Awareness has revealed, shockingly, that in the last 15 years more than 75% of those appointed as VCs lacked both vision and academic recognition.
  7. The entire process of selection of a new VC should be completed 4-6 weeks prior to the expiry of the term of the incumbent.
  8. The principal secretary of the Department of Higher Education should oversee and coordinate the various steps involved in the selection of a VC.

Of late, there have been certain new initiatives in the governance of higher education. For instance, the new IIM Act, 2017, empowers the Board of Governors (BOG) to appoint their director as well as the chairmen (this authority was earlier vested with the MHRD). Second, the IIITs were recently delinked from the President of India as visitor. The President is no more the authority to appoint their directors and chairmen. Third, in the case of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the SSC submits the panel of three-four candidates to its BOG for approval and onward transmission to the Cabinet Committee of Appointments to select one.

A committee of outstanding academics and enlightened people, if called upon by the government, should certainly be able to evolve a new mechanism for the appointment of VCs in good time. The overriding objective of the new approach must be the restoration of autonomy to universities, in which the VC has a pivotal role to play.

(The writer is former vice chancellor, University of Mysore)

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