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Mainstream, VOL LX No 8, New Delhi, February 12, 2022

Rent Seeking Culture in Universities in Kerala: Challenges and Solutions | Chathukulam & Joseph

Saturday 12 February 2022, by Jos Chathukulam, Manasi Joseph

Abstract

Corruption in universities are common these days and authorities mostly turn a blind eye fearing backlash and political vendetta. However, with the recent arrest of a university staff on bribery charges in Kerala shows that such unethical practices can no longer be kept under wraps. This article also offers some practical solutions to reduce corrupt practices in institutions of higher learning.

Introduction

The higher education sector in Kerala has been embroiled controversies one after the other in the last few months. The latest incident to tarnish the credibility of the higher education sector in the state took place on January 29, 2022, when officials of the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) arrested an employee of the Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU), Kottayam, on bribery charges (The Hindu, January 30, 2020). Officials said that the accused C J Elsy had accepted Rs.15,000 as bribe from a student who completed MBA from a college affiliated to the university in order to issue a provisional certificate along with the mark list. Preliminary investigations revealed that the accused demanded Rs. 50,000 for the speedy issuance of the certificate but as the student told her the inability to pay the huge amount, the accused agreed to reduce the bribe amount to Rs. 30,000. The accused also demanded to pay the first installment of Rs. 15,000 on January 29, 2022. The MBA student did her course in 2014-2016 from a college in Kottayam and had already cleared arrears in seven subjects. The student appeared for a mercy chance in the remaining one paper last September. When the student contacted the section office over phone to inquire about her results, the accused lied to the student that she had failed in the exam and demanded a hefty sum as bribe to issue provisional certificate and consolidated mark list. Later the student found out that she has cleared the exams with 57 per cent marks and realized that the accused tricked her into believing that she failed. The student notified this issue to the Vigilance department and they caught the accused red-handed. According to VACB officials, the accused allegedly misled the student by taking advantage of the Covid 19 pandemic induced delays in the issuance of certificates and publication of results.

Deficit in University Governance 

Though the presence of corruption, dishonesty and fraud in institutions of higher learning are more common these days, it is for the first time that someone was caught red-handed while accepting bribes. Universities are rife with corruption and nepotism and the present situation is such that even to get admissions to colleges and universities or to get plum position in universities one has to grease the palm of anyone. Cash-for-Marks, is the latest among the evils/vices that has come to destroy the very credibility of institutions of higher learning. In February 2021, a section officer in Kerala University allegedly took bribes and corrected the marks or scores of the candidates and what was more worrying was that section officer was let away with a lenient punishment that too despite being a repeated offender (Kuriakose, 2021). Universities and institutions of higher learning in general have created many avenues to promote rent seeking culture within the academic community. There is a patron-client relationship between Universities and their affiliated colleges [1] including aided and self-financing institutions. For instance, when teachers recruited to affiliated colleges want proper recognition and acceptance from universities, they have to do a lot of paperwork and other formalities. Getting acceptance is not so easy and some might even get rejected in the due process and if not, there would be an inordinate delay in receiving a positive response. Such bottlenecks often pave way for corrupt practices and even college teachers are forced to give bribes to the concerned authorities to move their file in a fast-paced manner.

Then teachers from affiliated colleges are brainwashed into joining the dominant Syndicate group in the universities for getting their works done in a hassle-free atmosphere. Teachers have to take sides and be in the good books of the politically strong Syndicate for a flourishing career and those who wish to remain independent and neutral are not entertained for a longer period. By employing tactics like ‘missing file syndrome’, the political lobby within the Syndicate and service organizations will forcefully make those independent teachers also to be part of their political coterie.

 Then appointment of research guides has also become a platform for corruption. Anyone to be considered for the post of research guide, he/she should have worked as an assistant professor for two years and should have at least two research papers published in UGC CARE list and Scopus Index Journal after receiving PhD. However, in reality universities are compromising on the quality of researches. For instance, in 2021, it was reported that the university Syndicate in Kannur university decided at a meeting that faculty members would be granted guideship on the basis of their research papers, without insisting on their publication in prestigious journals (The Hindu, December 18, 2021). The reason for such a suggestion was to increase the number of supervisors/research guides not serve the interests of some persons. There have also been instances where Syndicate members suggest students in their political camp to a particular research guide and then some teachers are given guideship at the recommendation of the Syndicate members. However, such unethical practices and moral turpitude point towards deficit in university governance.

Universities converted into Party Societies

Increasing political interference in the administration of universities and institutions of higher learning has led to the alarming increase in corruption and nepotism. The visible presence of politically affiliated service organizations and student unions in the universities are the main culprits in this regard. The presence of politically appointed nominees is not limited to university syndicate but also to the nook and corner of universities. For instance, the politically favoured appointment is clearly visible in the case of Elsy, recently arrested MGU staff. Elsy joined the MG university as a peon in 2010 in the Department of International Relations at that time had not even cleared Class 10 exams. It has been reported that Elsy has a strong political background and is an active member of left leaning service organization and under the political influence she got job as a peon that too without even writing exam [2]. It has now been revealed that after getting appointed as the peon, the accused cleared the Class 10 equivalency examination of Literacy Mission, plus two (higher secondary examination) and later took a degree from MGU as a private student. In 2016, she was promoted as University Assistant at the MBA section of the MGU. The post offered to Elsy was a lucrative post that can easily facilitate a rent seeking culture. The fact that she continued in the same post for more than three years without even getting a single transfer itself raises so many suspicions that whether she was an informer to likeminded groups engaging in corrupt practices within the university under the political patronage. While there has been accusation regarding the discrepancies in her appointment, the authorities said that there was nothing wrong in Elsy’s appointment as it was done before the recruitment was handed over to the Public Service Commission (PSC). Right from peon to the Vice — Chancellor are largely politically backed appointment with few exceptions. Such a trend has converted universities into party societies (Bhattacharyya, 2009).

Politicization of the Syndicate in Universities 

Syndicate is the ‘larger policy-making body’ in the universities but they are not permanent bodies and only hold considerable power when they convene. Though Syndicates were earlier envisioned as “think tanks”, they have now been converted to ‘another party organ’ to exercise party hegemony over universities. It has been argued that ‘bureaucracy has a self — perpetuating tendency’ and similarly Syndicates, though it is not even a permanent body is self — promoting itself as an ‘extra constitutional body’ through the ‘self — perpetuating tendency’ and is giving a false impression that they are more powerful than the Vice Chancellor. Such an exercise is carried out by the government to take over the control of universities and by doing so the state government treats institutions of higher learning as a line department or as extension of the higher education department to implement policies according to the ruling party’s whims and fancies (Chathukulam and Joseph, 2021). Though Vice Chancellors have the powers to overrule the decisions made by the Syndicate, in reality they are not allowed to exercise the power bestowed upon them.

Party Affiliated Service Organizations

The party-affiliated service organization along with Syndicates have been converted into power centres in universities across the state. They more or less function as ‘fractions’ within a political party to protect their political and personal interests while some assumes the form of interest and pressure groups within universities. Be it in the appointment of party supporters, giving promotions or giving transfers based on the wish list of their appointees are all very much entrusted in the hands of these politically backed service organizations. Even if their appointees run into trouble, the leaders of the respective party and their unions will pressurise to get their favourites out of trouble and at times due to this the employees are often willing to become the scapegoats in the hands of party affiliated service organizations and unions. Women, who are party sympathizers are often recruited to last grade posts in the name of women empowerment. For instance, if the said university staff was not caught red handed, those in power would have projected this women as an example of women empowerment in Kerala. However, such politically backed appointments has nothing to do with real women empowerment and should be treated as pseudo-empowerment or disempowerment. Politicians these days are looking at universities as ‘employment centres’ to recruit those close to their political leanings and to protect their interests. Those recruited with political backing often function as informers and power brokers to their political masters.

Can Digitalization serve as an Anti — Corruption Strategy in Universities?

In the wake of controversy related to bribery and subsequent arrest of one of its employees, the MGU has decided to embrace technology and digitalization to reduce corruption and ensure credibility. The University is planning to roll out a facilitation centre on the lines of visa processing centres and it will use modern technology developed by Visa Facilitation Services Global (VFS). As per the plan, the university will establish a centralised front office for students on the lines of visa centres. In addition to that a fool-proof bio-metric system will be introduced to monitor the attendance of employees. While these announcements are good and promising, in reality Universities in Kerala are moving at a snail’s pace in digitalization. For instance, the websites of the major universities are not even updated and it often result in hardship for prospective students to find relevant information about the institution at the time of admission. Most of the websites have poor interface and accessibility issues. Universities are like a blank board when it comes to keeping up with technology and digitalization.

Despite Digitalization Inordinate Delay in issuing Degree Certification

It has been reported that around 50,000 Degree certificate applications are pending in Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) that too despite adopting a digital fast track system. Students have to wait for a long period to get their Degree Certificate. The most affected by the inordinate delay in receiving degree certificate are students who wish to pursue their further studies in foreign universities and those who got job abroad. Though there is a fast track system to issue certificates in a time bound manner provided the student pays additional amount, it is also resulting in inordinate delays (Manorama Online, February 3, 2022).

Universities as Black Boxes

Universities are functioning as ‘black boxes’ these days. Up until now the general public was not much interested in what’s happening in universities and for them such institutions were like a ‘black box’. However, things are getting changed as more and more skeletons tumble from their cupboards. For the common people, the perception of universities as eminent centres of learning was something alien to them as they more or less viewed it as a stack of buildings spread across sprawling campuses.

Few Practical Solutions to Reduce the Corrupt Practice in Universities

1. Importance of Grievance Redressal Cell and Ombudsperson in Higher Education Institutions

Though University Grants Commission has recommended establishment of grievance redressal cells, students and faculty are unaware about it and even those who are aware are reluctant to make use of it. The system of addressing and redressing grievances and its importance have not been properly understood so far. In 2012, UGC came up with Grievance Redressal Regulations and it outlined the need to appoint an ombudsperson for redressing grievances of students. However, UGC dropped the ombudsperson regulation in its 2018 regulation following opposition from colleges and universities (Aman, 2018). To put an end to the exploitation of vulnerable students and to maintain transparency and credibility an ombudsperson for redressing grievances of students in institutions of higher learning is the need of the hour. These ombudspersons should be entrusted with sufficient legal powers to address the problems and concerns of the academic community.

2. Social Auditing in Universities

Institutions of higher learning, especially public universities should be subjected to social auditing. Citizens has every right to know what is happening in universities and how their money is being utilized.

3. Charter for Efficient University Governance

A charter outlining various measures for solving the deficit in university governance in a healthy manner is the need of the hour. The charter should treat the students and faculties as equal stakeholders in addressing the flaws in university governance. The charter should make clear that political interference should be kept to bare minimum and should strive to make universities as independent centres of learning and excellence.

(Authors: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. Email address: joschathukulam[at]gmail.com
Manasi Joseph, Research Associate, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala, email: manasijoseph[at]gmail.com)

References

  • Aman, Sadaf (2018, December 16). UGC does away with disputed ombudsman regulation, The New Indian Express.
  • Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (2009). Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 44, no. 9
  • Chathukulam, Jos and Joseph, Manasi (2021, December 18). What is Ailing the Institutions of Higher Learning in Kerala? Mainstream Weekly, VOL LX No 1.
  • Kuriakose, Renji (2021, February 6).Cash-for-marks scam continues as Kerala University authorities condone tampering,Malayala Manorama.
  • Manorama Online (2022, February 3). Fifty Thousand Degree certificate applications pending in Mahatma Gandhi university, Malayala Manorama.
  • Staff Reporter (2021, December 18) Kannur varsity decision on research guides stirs row, The Hindu
  • Staff Reporter (2022, January 30). VACB arrests MGU staff on bribery charges,The Hindu.

[1Under MGU, there are 9 Govt colleges and 10 autonomous colleges (both government and private). There is a total of 49 aided colleges and 120 unaided colleges under MGU.

[2In 2009, when the MGU issued a notification Class VII was the basic educational qualification but this was later cancelled by Left leaning syndicate with fresh conditions that those who had cleared Class 10 exams should not apply and written examinations were cancelled and only interviews were required and this reportedly helped many CPI (M) sympathizers including Elsy to get appointed in last grade posts. There are accusations that CPI (M) backed syndicate gave permanent appointment to 150 people as peons including Elsy in 2010.

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