Mess in higher education: Students, teachers bear the brunt

Numerous regulating bodies add on to the problems as universities find themselves gripped with various crises, ranging from crises of quality, access and inclusion to the crisis of inadequate faculty

NH photo by Vikrant Jha
NH photo by Vikrant Jha

Furqan Qamar

There are three main goals of higher education. One is expansion, to keep meeting the increasing demand for education. But even if expansion is achieved, not everyone gets automatic access to education due to various barriers; for example, historical barriers in the case of SC/ST communities.

Hence, the second goal is inclusion, making education accessible to everyone. And the third and the most important goal is to ensure quality education. Even if higher education has capacity and is inclusive but lacks in quality, it is of little or no use. I would say there is a crisis of quality and crisis of access and inclusion as well so far as higher education in India is concerned.

The most serious crisis assailing Indian higher education is the crisis of faculty. No university can prosper without good teachers. There is a need for teachers in large number and also for teachers with quality and commitment.

The recent trend we have seen is a large number of faculty positions remaining vacant. So, universities are resorting to filling up positions with guests/contractual/ad-hoc kind of arrangements which leads to compromising with the quality of teachers. If the quality of teachers in compromised, it has a far-reaching effect. And of course, teachers on contractual/ad-hoc basis are extremely vulnerable.

Yet another crisis is that of university autonomy, a crisis of freedom of the students and the teachers on campuses. By freedom I do not mean freedom to do whatever you want to do, but freedom to do what universities are expected to do. Theoretically, everybody accepts the idea that a university should be a place to generate knowledge, research and should be able to give something back to society as well as learn from it. But practically, there are interferences, political, bureaucratic and external interference on the working of the universities.

There is also a crisis of leadership. Who are the people who are being selected as vice-chancellors? Who are the leaders of the institutions? It is their quality which is going to guide the universities to the right path. But somehow this quality is not good, and we see many manifestations of this crisis of leadership.

Finally, there is an over-reach of regulatory bodies. There are too many regulators, each issuing various kinds of guidelines which keep nibbling at the autonomy of universities, and which do not necessarily have anything to do with the enhancement of quality of the universities.

Contracts and ad-hoc appointments seldom attract good talent. That has been my own experience as the Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

Initially, we advertised 70 positions of teachers on contractual basis since we did not have a visitor’s nominee at the time. We received about 600 applications for 70 posts but we could barely manage to fill up just 15 posts. Within a few months, however, we got the visitor’s nominee and again advertised the 70 posts on permanent basis. This time we received more than 6000 applications. Good and qualified teachers obviously don’t want to waste their time in part-time positions.

Let us face it. Every Government and every political party has tried to influence universities and interfere in their functioning in the states and by the Centre in central universities. Enlightened leaders have struck a sense of balance while others have tried to mould universities in their own imagination. The present government, for example, maintains that universities must have national flags, there must be nationalism in the curriculum and it is the Government which also seeks to define nationalism.

But when democracy matures, governments keep changing every now and then. Every government may try to bring in its own core beliefs to shape universities. The challenge therefore is how do we insulate higher education from political changes. How do we ensure that the universities are left alone and are funded and empowered enough to keep on doing what they are supposed to do, without political fear or favour.

There is an over-reach of regulatory bodies. There are too many regulators, each issuing various kinds of guidelines which keep nibbling at the autonomy of universities, and which do not necessarily have anything to do with the enhancement of quality of the universities

How VCs are appointed

Technically for the appointment of the vice-chancellor in central universities, there is a search committee; two members are from the executive council of the university and one member is nominated by the president and that nomination is always through the MHRD.

Technically, this process sounds good. But the process works only if these three people, the members of the search committee, are of very high integrity. They have to be beyond being compromised, influenced or pressurised. If that does not happen, then the kind of people that they will select or recommend will be due to various biases and influence. They will just do things the way their masters want them to.

That brings me to my next question. It is widely being claimed from professors and students across universities that the roles and powers of the leadership; the VC, the executive council (EC) and the academic council (AC), have been curtailed in the last few years.

One of the primary roles of the vice chancellor is to ensure that the acts and ordinances of the university are implemented earnestly. The acts and ordinances provide for all the powers, roles and the responsibilities of various decision-making bodies like the Executive Council, the Academic Council etc. Therefore, the least that is expected from the vice-chancellors is to ensure that these bodies function the way they have been envisaged in the constitution.

For example, when notices are sent by MHRD or the UGC or the state governments, they should be discussed in the Executive and the Academic Council and these bodies should have the right to decide if the recommendation needs to be implemented or ignored. If the composition of these bodies are compromised, or if the vice-chancellor is such that these bodies are not permitted to function well, or if they are not listened to, this is a flaw in the system.

Funding universities

Funding can always be used as a lever to tilt the kind of development that will take place. Funding is used as a lever to direct change; for example funds can be selectively granted for certain courses over others, like this Government has done in the case of Sanskrit. But it is not always the case that the government is willing to promote even that particular course.

I had organised a round-table discussion with vice-chancellors of the Sanskrit universities across the country. I was aghast to learn that teachers in most of these universities were still being paid between 20,000 to 25,000 Rupees as salary for the last fifteen to twenty years, and they have continued serving the university in the hope that they would become permanent.

This government may have increased the pace of this process, but it started in the early 90s. The focus (financial investment) was then more on primary and secondary education than on higher education. The financial investment on higher education by the government did not increase in proportion to the increasing demand. Most universities, therefore, are forced to promote self-financing courses. Even Jamia and DU have self-financing courses and colleges.

But in 2007, the then government realised the importance of research and higher education in national development. In the 11th five-year-Plan, allocation for higher education increased by 14 times. Allocation for higher educatiom alone was increased by nine times.

The subsequent 12th plan was not as generous. The 13th plan has been completely non-significant. Now universities are encouraged to take loans instead of grants. The General Financial Rules of 2017 stipulate that all public funded institutions shall increase user charges in order to become self-sufficient in due course of time.

Teachers in most of the Sanskrit Universities were still being paid between ₹20,000 to ₹25,000 as salary for the last 15 to 20 years

Is there a solution?

Instead, universities should be left to themselves. There is a need for increased public investment in higher education. I would say that 6% of GDP must be allocated to higher education. We are raising 3% cess on education, I would suggest that this should be over and above the funds gathered from 6% GDP.

Secondly, the Government needs to place total ban on filling up faculty positions on contractual or ad hoc basis. All teachers must be appointed on regular basis so that the best possible faculty can be recruited for higher education.

Thirdly, instead of universities asking the bodies for funds before taking any decision, there should be a norm-based funding. Instead of approval needed for every small issue (leading to interference of UGC into academic decisions of universities), some guidelines should be laid down by the UGC for funds and grants and all proposals fulfilling those guidelines should be passed. Let there be a national consensus on what these norms should be. The universities functioning within these norms should be left alone to make their own decisions. Only then higher education, research and development of the nation can be assured.

The kind of courses a university wants to offer should be a decision of the university alone. Decision on curriculum, syllabus and research should be left to the universities. No reward-punishment should be used by the government to condition the functioning of the universities.

Furqan Qamar is Secretary General, Association of Indian Universities

As told to Vikrant Jha

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