As the ‘nursery’ of India’s political field, universities play a more important role than we think in our democracy. As political parties and ideological groups vie to establish influence among students and teachers, they seldom leave any stone unturned in their quest to groom and draw in future leaders and members. In the backdrop of this, the West Bengal government’s decision to pass a resolution making the chief minister the chancellor of all state-run universities has a deeper implication. Don’t forget, over a month ago, Tamil Nadu also passed a similar legislature to take appointment rights from the governor.
The appointment of the vice-chancellors is always contentious because every ruling government wants to run academic institutions as per its wish. That’s why institutions, and academia at large, always face political pressure from within and outside the campus. In this context, the appointment of the institution head is crucial because of their influence not only on students but on student politics, teachers’ unions, and campus activism.
The West Bengal and Tamil Nadu resolutions are a fresh hurdle in the already strained federal arrangement of the country with regards to the politicisation of education. It is very tough to believe that these moves were aimed at improving the conditions of academic institutions.
Why current systems don’t work
At the Centre, the president is the honorary head of most institutions. The president appoints the head of the central institution from the panel suggested by the central ministry. But at the state level, the governor is the chancellor of the state-run university. In some states, the governor appoints the vice-chancellor or head of the institution directly, while in others, they select from the panel suggested by the state government.
In some states, vice-chancellors change with the ruling party. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are examples of this. There are also instances where the governor takes into consideration the suggestions of the state government. However, in the last few years, many states have complained that their concerns were ignored.
These grievances also cause a stir on campuses and affect the state government for whom the universities are grounds for political action. Uttar Pradesh is one such example where the governor’s office issues circulars on recruitment and attendance which directly interferes with the functioning of the universities.
For all practical purposes, the authority of appointment cannot lie with a symbolic head who is not accountable. In most states, the governor has absolute authority over the appointment of vice-chancellors but has no direct accountability to the state government. This makes the state machinery ineffective in addressing issues in universities.
In a democratic setup, it is always good to give more power to an elected government in comparison to those who are indirectly elected or nominated. However, giving appointment rights to the state government will further pave the road to politicisation of academic institutions. This is not to say that the current model of giving absolute power to the governor without any accountability is ideal.
The policy road forward
Acting on the growing dissent against the politicisation of academic spaces, the National Education Policy 2020 has strongly recommended that more autonomy be given to academic institutions to run professionally. Even before the enforcement of the NEP, the Narendra Modi government passed the Indian Institutes of Management Act, 2017 to give the top management institution more autonomy to appoint their head through a Board of Governors (BoG). The Act, minimising the interference of the government, progress the education sector.
While the NEP 2020 has advocated for more autonomy for academic institutions, its practice has led to the discovery of new aspects. For example, though the IIM 2017 Bill was introduced with noble intentions, the provision of autonomy led to a lot of unanticipated discrimination and favouritism, for example, on the issue of reservation and the appointment of IIM Rohtak director. But the Act was one of the major reforms by the Bharatiya Janata Party government that has dared to give up its control over the premier institutions.
There is little doubt that the provision of autonomy to academic institutions is one of the international benchmarks of a good institution, but we need to balance it with our social realities. In our society, without accountability, autonomy can sometimes become anarchism. Governments need to take note of the peculiar situation of Indian institutions where increased autonomy has not been accompanied by equal accountability from the students. Students expect autonomy but lack accountability and transparency.
An alternative for institutions
In a democratic setup, accountability is key for any institution. They have to earn autonomy with their performance and conduct by involving students in the decision-making process and making the institution less hierarchical. Accountability and autonomy are necessary to curb the politicisation of academic spaces. However, appointing the governor or chief minister will only lead to the concentration of power in the hands of the figure not directly connected to the system. If we want our academic institutions to improve and feature high in the world rankings, we need to think beyond these options.
The need of the hour is to find a third way that pacifies all stakeholders and improves the academic integrity of India. The current BoG structure of the IIMs is one of the models—but we need more. The central model, while being more progressive, only gives nominal powers to the visitor—the president in most cases—but the state model is also imbalanced. Without accountability and quality, autonomy will not serve any purpose.
In such times, we need to work on an alternative system to improve the health of our educational institutions. We also need to understand that unnecessary political interventions will not help them.
Ramanand is with the Center of Policy Research and Governance. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)