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UPA-2's negligence of higher education

June 15, 2010 20:26 IST
It might have been a good idea to avoid political subservience of higher education and to ensure its autonomy, but recent experiences demand immediate reforms.

The provincial universities have already been lost at the hands of unscrupulous politicians, the central universities are fast moving towards deep degeneration, writes a disillusioned academic.

On completing a year in the second stint of the United Progressive Alliance government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made public the assessment of his government. But both the media and the prime minister glossed over one pertinent aspect of Indian life -- the state of higher education and its administration.

A very high functionary at the University Grants Commission, the chief of the All India Council for Technical Education, the chief of the Medical Council of India, the functioning of the National Council for Teachers Education have all been found steeped in corruption, and irregularities.

There have been allegations leveled against the vice-chancellors of historic central universities like the Vishwabharti Shantineketan, Aligarh Muslim University and North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. The vice-chancellor of Allahabad University (now a central university, and once called 'the Oxford of the East'), is alleged to have indulged in recruitment-related irregularities. A parliamentarian raised the issue in the Lok Sabha, but the government remains as nonchalant about it as ever.

The UGC and the Central Vigilance Commission have also taken note of all such irregularities, but these bodies do not have the teeth to do anything.

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is a most prestigious institution for researchers, directly administered by the Union department of culture (currently under the prime minister). Its director, a reputed historian, has been found to be indulging in irregularities, but angry protests from a cross section of academicians have fallen on deaf ears.

In short, the administrative health of higher education is extremely worrying.

Is the UPA-2 government really sincere about addressing these issues? Going by the official pronouncements, it is really addressing these issues. The National Knowledge Commission, abolition of the UGC and few other such regulatory and funding bodies to merge them in one body of higher education and research, and the draft proposal of the Foreign University Bill are a few steps in the government's efforts towards reforming higher education.

The ground realities are, however, far from satisfactory. Valid questions are being raised whether mere re-creation of the regulatory/funding bodies can really serve the purpose.

There was talk of creating a special tribunal to adjudicate litigation pertaining to higher education, there are also proposals to have all-India competitive recruitment tests for non-teaching officers of universities, but the government is willfully allowing vested interests to keep such proposals confined merely to the level of ideas.

Ironically, such undesirable things prevail when the prime minister happens to have been a professor in one of the most reputed institutions of higher education, and the minister concerned happens to be a noted lawyer.

Their apathy for reforms in higher education and their neglect in nailing vice-chancellors and other high functionaries of the universities can be gauged easily by looking into the bizarre developments that have recently taken place in some of the above-mentioned universities.

The vice-chancellor of NEHU has been taken as an advisor to the National Advisory Council. Most disconcerting is the matter concerning the AMU vice-chancellor. It is necessary to note that these two universities are supposed to be essentially taking care of the alienation felt by some weaker identities of Indian population groups.

Despite the sensitivities attached with these universities, the irregularities are being either ignored or downplayed.

Bureaucrats at the Union human resources ministry overlooked the current AMU vice- chancellor's academic and administrative credentials and approved his appointment in 2007.

The Principal Accountant General (vide AB(C) 09-10/ 249 dated 17-11-2009 to HRD ministry) indicted the VC, the registrar and the finance officer for gross financial embezzlement and other irregularities. It says, 'There is a complete collapse of financial management in the university and the VC and the registrar instead of stopping this frequent financial irregularity themselves became a part of this'.

Insiders keep crying for appropriate punitive action. A judicial inquiry has been instituted reluctantly by the government. It has avoided sending these functionaries on leave.

Almost every entrance tests to various prestigious professional courses, conducted by the AMU, sees one or the other kind of irregularities, exposed through the Right to Information Act and the courts, but no deterrent punishment is being given to any of the high functionaries. Irregularities in academic recruitments are more like a routine.

Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani in his popular and influential book, Imagining India, has rightly pointed out that most undemocratic exercise in democratic India is academic recruitments, to which it should be added, only surviving autocratic medieval monarchs in the Indian democracy are vice-chancellors of central universities.

While there are Constitutional provisions to impeach the President and Chief Justice of India, there is no such provision to remove a vice-chancellor of a central university.

It might have been a good idea to avoid political subservience of higher education and to ensure its autonomy, but recent experience demands immediate reforms. The provincial universities have already been lost at the hands of unscrupulous politicians, the central universities are fast moving towards deep degeneration with an increasingly large number of pliant vice-chancellors. The teachers' 'movements' are concerned only about their pay and perks; they hardly bother about academic improvements.

Obsequious obedience and slavish allegiance to the vice-chancellors, with most outrageous forms of sycophancy and flattery for self-promotion are the order of the day at universities. In fact, they are the only way of going higher in academics.

Even the best academicians are alleged to be involved in favouritism and nepotism, not to talk of petty victimisation of those who dare to disagree with them. Fearless violation of rules, statutes, and ordinances are increasingly becoming the norm of the day.

When academics cynically use political opportunism and self-promotion, then one can easily imagine what impact it will have on the prospects of higher education in India! This degeneration is manifesting at a time when India is hopeful of emerging as a knowledge economy.

Nilekani warns us, 'Reforms in higher education can not be bargained away -- they form the bedrock for a vibrant economy, the place from where we can, given the chance, build powerful and sustainable new ideas for our future.'

The point is: Do Dr Singh and his vocal HRD Minister Kapil Sibal care about all these issues?

The columnist is a professor at AMU who wishes to remain anonymous.

A concerned teacher