Twelve years after its establishment, the Vijayanagara Sri Krishnadevaraya University (VSKU), Ballari, is still an unfinished project. The university, which was bifurcated in 2010 from Gulbarga University, does not have adequate hostel facilities, a functional library or other basic amenities for students.
University syndicate member Basavaraj Poojar laughs when asked about the state government's decision to carve out Koppal University from VSKU Ballari. Basavaraj says “There is an acute shortage of teaching and non-teaching staff at the university. The Kannada department has no permanent staff, as is the case with several other departments."
Another syndicate member Padma Vittal says, "The university barely makes ends meet. In such a situation, if they decide to break and form a new university with almost no additional funds or redistribution of teaching faculty, how will both universities survive?”
During the last assembly session, Higher Education Minister C N Ashwath Narayan brought forward an amendment to the Karnataka State University Act 2000 to start eight new universities in the educationally-backward areas of Chamarajanagar, Bidar, Haveri, Hassan, Kodagu, Mandya, Koppal and Bagalkot districts. This was received with arguments, not just from leaders of opposition parties, but also his own party members and the Speaker, who questioned him on the need for new universities when existing ones are not functioning at a satisfactory level.
A majority of experts welcomed the state government’s move to decentralise higher education as per the recommendations of the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020, which envisions at least one multi-disciplinary higher education institute per district. However, they questioned the hurriedness with which the decision was made and the allocation of only Rs 2 crore as seed funding for each of the new universities.
With 33 state-run universities, 11 state-run deemed universities, 24 private universities, 11 institutes of national importance, and one central university, Karnataka has the fourth-highest number of universities in the country. At around 32 per cent, Karnataka's gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is above the national average of 26.3 per cent (as of 2018). By 2035, the Union Government, through NEP, wishes to increase the GER to 50 per cent across India. One of the methods it recommends to achieve that target is the setting up of new institutions and consolidating, expanding and improving existing higher education institutions (HEIs).
“The desire of the government is not wrong,” says S N Hegde, president of the former Vice Chancellors' Association. He is sceptical of the way it is being executed. “With an average of 50 per cent of sanctioned posts lying vacant across universities, and a budget allocation that is just limited to staff salaries and pensions, how can one expect the universities to become a hub of learning?" he asks.
In the Assembly, Ashwath Narayan had acknowledged that there were more than 2,300 vacant posts in the universities of Karnataka.
Hegde believes that politicians lack the vision for higher education and bureaucrats fail to understand the concept of universities. “Buildings alone cannot create a university, you need adequate resources to excel,” he says.
Vice-chancellors (VCs) and registrars of several universities confirmed to DH that they were running the show with only 40 per cent to 60 per cent of the total sanctioned posts, and by engaging guest lecturers.
Take for instance Raichur University, which was carved out of Gulbarga University in 2020. It should have at least 140 permanent staff as per the University Grants Commission (UGC) for its 20 departments. However, currently, of the 31 sanctioned posts, it has only two permanent staff, apart from the VC and registrar. The university has 88 guest lecturers.
Another example is Karnataka Folklore University, Haveri, which, after its inception in 2011, has not seen any recruitment through the government. From the VC to office staff, all have either been deputed from other universities, or are hired on a contract basis.
Similarly, the government has created only one post of VC for the Karnataka State Dr Gangubai Hangal Music and Performing Arts University, Mysuru, that was set up in 2008. The remaining teaching posts have been filled by guest lecturers.
The shortage of staff is not just limited to new universities, but also established ones. According to a former VC of the University Of Mysore, the oldest university in Karnataka, there is at least 60 per cent vacancy in teaching and non-teaching staff.
“The thinning of teaching staff due to retirement and the failure to fill the post had a direct impact on the quality of education, as the university slipped from an A-plus grade in the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) to an A grade," says the former VC.
Mangalore University, too, slipped from an A grade to a B grade in the fourth cycle of NAAC in 2021.
Karnatak University, Dharwad, with a history of 75 years, has somehow maintained its ‘A’ grade in spite of a staff crunch. Of the 578 sanctioned teaching posts at the university, 347 are vacant. All three universities rely heavily on guest lecturers.
A serving VC, requesting anonymity, said the quality of learning would definitely get affected if the universities depended completely on guest lecturers. This is because guest lecturers are not eligible to take up sponsored research studies, one of the main sources of funding for research at universities.
A VC claimed that the government is not hiring permanent staff as a means of cost-cutting. The difference between what a professor takes home, (Rs 2 lakh per month) as opposed to a senior guest lecturer (Rs 32,000), is vast.
Former Higher Education Minister Basavaraj Rayareddy says, during his tenure, he could not fill vacancies as there were irregularities in the appointments because of VCs, Court injunctions and cases related to reservations.
Year after year, the state government’s allocation for education is increasing. In the financial year 2021-22, the Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai-led government allocated Rs 29,688 crore for education, which increased to Rs 31,980 crore in 2022-23. Though it seems to be a 7 per cent increase in spending on education, the devil lies in the details.
According to the state budget, the education department is estimated to spend nearly Rs 28,347 crore this year on schools and higher education, out of which Rs 16,667 crore will be spent on elementary education and only Rs 3,649 crore on universities. Further, nearly 70 per cent of the allocated funds will be spent on salaries and pensions of present and former staff. Allocations for the infrastructural, research and maintenance needs of universities are sorely missing in the budget.
“This year, we have received Rs 6 crore in development funds, using which we have to take care of infrastructure requirements, administrative work and research,” says University of Horticultural Sciences Bagalkot VC K M Indresh.
VCs and registars of Rani Channamma University in Belagavi, Tumkur University, Hampi University, Raichur University and others say they hardly get any funds from the government to pursue research work. Researchers have to fend for themselves to generate funds for their work.
Karnatak University Dharwad VC K B Gudasi says that due to Covid and other financial constraints, even the UGC, Department of Science and Technology, Indian Council of Science Research (ICSSR) and other central agencies have reduced their funds for research.
Karnataka Research and Development task force chairman and VC of KLE Technological University, Hubballi, Ashok Shettar, explains that India is currently investing nearly 2 per cent of its total GDP on research, and the state government’s contribution in this regard is close to nothing (0.6 per cent of the state's GDP). In contrast, developed countries are investing nearly 6 per cent of their GDP, he adds.
“We cannot expect our universities to become world-class with such a low allocation of funds,” Shettar says.
The story of Karnataka State Akkamahadevi Women's University is another example. “Except for salary and pension grants, the university does not get any other funds. Our hands are also tied in terms of research, as nearly eight science departments do not have permanent staff and guest lecturers do not get research funds,” said VC B K Tulasimala.
For the 30 departments, the government has sanctioned 103 posts (as per UGC norms it should have been a minimum of 210), out of which 63 are filled. 130 guest lecturers teach here.
The problem is not limited to research as universities, affiliated government colleges, and post-graduate (PG) centres are also facing an acute shortage of funds for the expansion of infrastructure and maintenance of buildings.
A former senior officer at Karnataka State Open University says that several institutions, especially government engineering colleges, do not have labs to conduct experiments.
Through the 'Aptamitra' scheme, the students of government colleges which lack laboratory facilities visit private universities to complete experiments.
Pradeep C M, a student in Mandya says they have to visit the government engineering college in K R Pete for their lab work, where they are treated poorly. “Due to limited science equipment at my college, we end up learning only three or four experiments. This will have an adverse impact on our performance in exams and also on our future,” he says.
There are also 10 government engineering colleges in Karnataka, whose power supply is regularly disconnected as the government has not cleared pending bills for over three years. Devagiri Government Engineering College, Haveri, and engineering colleges at Challakere and Chitradurga are supposed to pay an amount in excess of Rs 5 lakh each to the power distribution companies. “There have been months together when there is no power supply to our colleges, resulting in students unable to complete laboratory experiments,” said a staff member from the Devagiri college.
As this is the status of our higher education at present, experts question the state government's decision to start eight more universities without recruiting new human resources, or building new infrastructure, lacking an additional budget.
“We should concentrate on strengthening our existing universities by providing them funds for better facilities like hostels, classrooms, study materials and resources,” says Hegde.
Former Higher Education Minister Basavaraj Rayareddy says the state government has to allocate at least Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore for each university to fulfil its objectives. “With Rs 2 crore, you cannot even build a primary school. Then how can you plan a new university?” he questions.
Rayareddy also blames the rampant corruption in universities as one of the main reasons for their present condition. “The affiliation fees that colleges pay and the examination and other fees that the university receives are enough for their self-sustenance. However, due to poor management of finance and pilferage, the universities are facing a funds crunch,” he says.
The VC of a university says that the decentralisation of higher education is welcome. However, given the financial constraints, the government should look at digital-based distance learning, which requires less infrastructure and manpower.