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Home > 2021 > What is Ailing the Institutions of Higher Learning in Kerala? | Chathukulam (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 1, New Delhi, December 18/December 25, 2021 (double issue)

What is Ailing the Institutions of Higher Learning in Kerala? | Chathukulam and Joseph

Friday 17 December 2021

by Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph

Abstract

Leftist intelligentsia in India have always been portrayed as upholders of academic freedom. The Left academia along with the critics of the current political regime at the Centre have vociferously campaigned against the attempts to scuttle academic freedom in India. However, the recent standoff between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan over political interference in university appointments indicate the deficit in university governance and erosion of academic freedom even under the left regime. Such unhealthy developments can hurt the fight against the suppression of academic freedom and weaken the fight of intelligentsia and academicians for securing academic freedom in institutions of higher learning across India. 

Introduction

Institutions of higher learning including universities in the country are subjected to unsolicited interference from the part of governments in power on academic and non-academic issues. Majority of the appointments, especially top post appointments like that of Vice Chancellors are highly politicized. Such political appointments not only curtail academic freedom but also the overall academic excellence of the universities, knowledge — product and their institutional autonomy. It also leads to “rent — seeking culture” within the academic community and also promotes unhealthy favoritism and nepotism in staff appointments and student admissions. Universities have now become cradles of malpractices and with the excessive political interference the institutions of higher learning have been reduced to another ‘party organ’ as in the case of Kerala. But what no one is discussing is that it is deficit in university governance that is ailing the higher education sector in the state. Another important matter that needs to be discussed is that the deficit in university governance is leading to erosion of academic freedom in institutions of higher learning. Even the latest standoff between Kerala Governor and state government has exposed the deficit in university governance and its negative consequences including excessive political interference is undermining the autonomy of institutions of higher learning. Governors in the past has also locked horns with the respective state governments in Kerala over nepotism, political interference in the appointment of Vice Chancellors and for pulling up various lapses in the university administration. For instance, former Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam was the Kerala Governor, he took various steps to cleanse the rot that has set in the higher education sector in the state over the years withstanding the political pressure [1]. At a time when the higher education sector in Kerala is transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy, the need of the hour is to strengthen the university governance and administration by wiping out the political interference. It should also be noted that academic freedom of institutions of higher learning can be ensured only when there is a strong university governance that can stay away from the clutches of politics. The party hegemony over the administration and governance of institutions of higher learning should be stopped and only then Kerala can accomplish its dream of becoming a knowledge-based economy.

Is it Deficit in University Governance or Is it just a Political Standoff?

All is not well in Kerala these days. On one side, the state is battling the Covid 19 pandemic and on the other side, the LDF government ruling the state is getting embroiled in controversies one after the other. The latest among this is the rift between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan over the increasing political interference in the functioning of universities to impinge upon the autonomy of higher education institutions in the state. Though there have been widespread accusations against the LDF government for rampant nepotism in various appointments in universities especially back door appointments to the kin of party leaders, it is for the first time, the Kerala Governor, who is also the ex-officio Chancellor of State Universities decided to openly confront the state government in this matter [2].

It all began after the present Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan wrote a strong worded letter to CM Vijayan expressing his displeasure over the political interference in university matters and the Governor in his letter made it clear that it was impossible for him to continue and perform as the Chancellor of the universities in the given situation and demanded the government divested him from the post of Chancellor (George, 2021). It has been reported that the Kerala Governor was upset with the reappointment of Kannur University Vice Chancellor, Gopinath Ravindran for another four years [3] (The Hindu, December 11, 2021). As per the norms of University Grants Commission (UGC), a Search Committee for appointing Vice Chancellors should submit a panel of three to five candidates. However as per Kannur University norms, even the name of one candidate would suffice. When Gopinath Ravindran was first appointed as the Vice Chancellor in 2017, the University norms were followed but while reappointing the rules and norms were twisted (ONMANORAMA, December 14, 2021). The problem here is that though a three-member Search Committee was constituted to select a new Vice Chancellor for Kannur University for shortlisting the candidates, the Search Committee was disbanded after Kerala Governor accepted the state government’s recommendation to reappoint Prof Gopinath. Meanwhile, the Kerala Governor said that he was forced to reappoint the Vice Chancellor under tremendous pressure and added that he had to withdraw the process to select a new Vice Chancellor. It has also been revealed that R. Bindu, Higher Education Minister in the LDF government also intervened in the reappointment of Vice Chancellor in Kannur University. It has been reported that the Minister wrote a letter to the Governor and asked him to cancel the notification he has issued to appoint the Search Committee and reappoint the Vice Chancellor (Times of India, December 14, 2021). Though back in 2009, the University Grants Commission (UGC) came up with VC appointment reforms to restrict a second term to ensure incumbents are not susceptible to political pressures, the recommendations were later shelved owing to pressure from state governments (Kumar, 2010). As a result, some may argue that, there is per se nothing wrong in the reappointment but the problem here is the political interference in the reappointment and how it worsens the deficit in university governance. Meanwhile, on December 15, 2021, Kerala High Court has dismissed a plea questioning the reappointment of the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University (The Indian Express, December 15, 2021). Though it might offer some relief to the state government, addressing the deficit in university governance is of great importance and more discussions and debates on this issue is needed.

Another issue that seems to have miffed the Kerala Governor was the amendment to the University Act, which reportedly took away the powers of the Governor (who is also the Chancellor) to appoint University Appellate Authority. Then came the LDF government’s move to facilitate the appointment of an academic of its choice as the Vice Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit by bypassing the selection committee appointed by the Governor, as per the UGC regulations (Vidhyadharan, 2021). The Governor, (who had to face criticism for succumbing to political pressure in the reappointment given to Kannur VC) reportedly returned the state government’s recommendation citing that it violated UGC norms. It is to be noted that only a few months back the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit got an A+ accreditation from National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). While all these issues indicate that the power of Governor as the ex-officio Chancellor was undermined by the state government to serve its own interests, the larger issue here is the deficit in university governance and thereby safeguarding the autonomy of institutions of higher learning and academic freedom. At a time, when Kerala is transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy and revitalizing its higher education sector, attempts that thwart academic freedom should be stopped at any cost.

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. The composition of the Syndicate in the state varies from university to university. For instance, some Syndicates may have a mix of elected as well as nominated members while others only have nominated members. It is through these nominated members political fronts in the state be it UDF or LDF find a way to protect their interests by nominating party sympathizers. For instance, when LDF government comes to power the nominees of the UDF government are replaced with LDF sympathizers and when UDF comes to power then their party members are given preference. To explain it further, assistant professors who are members of party-affiliated teacher unions have made the Syndicates as their haven and gets admitted to the Syndicate under ‘Eminent Educationist Constituency’. Instead of selecting eminent educationist, preference is given to those having affinity to the respective political parties in power without considering whether they have relevant educational qualifications and publications to their name. Then under the ‘Eminent Jurist Constituency’ party functionaries who have a namesake degree in Law are appointed and they roam like ‘Super Vice Chancellors’. The Vice Chancellors are sandwiched between these ‘Super Vice Chancellors’ and other Syndicate members and in one way or other these Syndicate members ensure that the Vice Chancellor succumb to the political pressure to approve the ‘wish lists’ of their respective parties [4]. 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. Even technical universities that stayed away from political nominees are forced to politicize their academic settings.

Is Campus Politics Worsening the Deficit in University Governance?

Political parties also use campus politics to directly and indirectly control the matters relating to the functioning and administration of universities. In Kerala, things are no different as the political vibrancy of the state is reflected in the college and university campuses in the state. In Kerala, Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Kerala Students Union (KSU), the student wing of Indian National Congress and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) are the major ones and the state has witnessed bloody clashes and violent strikes between these student unions. The students in these outfits are often used by political parties to settle scores with their rivals and to pressurize the university administration. Student leaders are beyond the control of universities and they have created an image that they are next to the political leaders in the state and national level and the university officials are often sacred to question these student leaders. For instance, it has been reported that certain student unions will allow only students who are members in their union or who are members of a particular political party to stay in university and college hostels. Even if higher officials in the university intervene in the matter, these student union leaders won’t pay heed to such interventions and would resort to violence and other intimidating strategies to silence those who question them. Instead of grooming them as responsible citizens, political parties often manipulate and influence these students’ leaders to resort to violence by offering money and promising a bright career in politics and other fields.

University Campuses Becoming Campaign Hubs in Election Season — Is it the new way of normalizing political interference?

Then in the recent times, political parties have turned campuses into election campaign hubs. This trend in Kerala was started by CM Vijayan ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections. Though poll dates were not announced when the CM was visiting the universities as part to discuss the future of higher education in the state, it was evident that it was a pre — planned exercise to woo students prior to elections. For instance, during the interaction with the students of Kerala University, The CM told student participants that the state government has fulfilled 570 of the 600 promises the LDF made in its 2016 election manifesto and added that he wants the opinion and suggestions of the student community for preparing the 2021 election manifesto. The CM said students are free to make suggestions and to place their demands in writing to the government for the betterment of higher education in the state. The CM also kept reiterating throughout his campus tours that his government sought to develop the state into a knowledge society by promoting academic excellence. While on the one hand some may say that there are good sides to it, it was more or less a calibrated move by the CM and his government to influence the student voters in institutions of higher learning. Such attempts are also crippling academic freedom. The main problem with these events is that it is done in an authoritarian fashion and instead of impromptu interaction with students, such events are in reality a scripted question and answer session to boost the image of the political leaders. While discussions are done in the guise to elicit views on the strength and challenges in the realm of higher education, in reality such calculated public relations exercise by politicians have led to curtailment of academic freedom.

Conclusion

At a time when Kerala is making good strides in the higher education sector, the controversy surrounding excessive political interference in institutions of higher learning would appear as a blot on the achievements the state has made so far. However, the government and the higher education department can use the current controversy to address the issues raised by the Governor in a healthy manner by viewing it as a matter to address the worsening deficit in university administration and thereby to secure and protect the academic freedom of institutions of higher learning. The current controversy also throws light into the fact that how excessive political interference is destroying the foundation and structure of administration in universities. The need of the hour is to build institutions of learning that are equipped with autonomy of their own with a strong foundation to keep political influence at bay and to uphold academic freedom. At a time when the higher education sector in Kerala is transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy, the need of the hour is to strengthen the university governance and administration by wiping out the political interference. The academic freedom of institutions of higher learning can be ensured only when there is a strong university governance that can stay away from the clutches of politics. The party hegemony over the administration and governance of institutions of higher learning should be stopped and only then Kerala can accomplish its dream of becoming a knowledge-based economy. It should also be noted that private universities that are mushrooming across the state are offering quality oriented education that too without much political interference in the administration and functioning of the universities. There is no Senate and Syndicate to exert political pressure on private universities and students and their parents are also willing to spend any amount of money to make sure they get quality-oriented education in private universities. In the recent times, it has been noticed that parents are wary of sending their children to public universities fearing political violence in campuses and poor quality of education due to excessive political interference even in university appointments. Large number of students are already voting with their feet and leaving the state. This recent controversy should be treated as an opportunity by the Kerala government to minimize political interference in public universities for the better future of tomorrow’s citizens.

The recent controversy over the political interference is also an eye opener to the public who has little or no knowledge regarding the importance of universities and its role in strengthening the higher education sector. There are so many misconceptions about the universities among the general public, for some it is an institution that has many buildings like collectorate or other big government offices, for others it is a place where paper works are carried out and nothing more than that. The fact that universities are envisaged as institutions of higher learning and affordable platforms to conduct in-depth and quality-oriented researches has not been discussed or noticed by the ordinary people. It is the need of the hour to strengthen the university governance. The time has come for universities in the state to stop adhering to ‘Secretariat Manual’ for carrying out the administrative activities in the universities. The modern-day universities need up to date facilities and procedures to carry out the administration of universities. The biggest lesson the recent controversy in Kerala has to offer is that “Academicians should be given freedom and autonomy in running academic institutions and the practice of imposing party hegemony in institutions of higher learning should be stopped”.

(Authors: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Sri. Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru and currently the Director, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. He can be contacted at chathukulam[at]isec.ac.in ); Manasi Joseph is a Researcher with Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala).

References

  • Correspondent. (2021, December 14). Recruitment Norms Thrown to the Wind as Kerala Universities Accommodate CPM acolytes. ONMANORAMA.
  • Express News Service. (2021, December 15). Kerala High Court Rejects Petition Challenging Reappointment of Kannur University VC. The Indian Express.
  • George, Babu Sarath. (2021, December 10). Governor Lashes out at Higher Education Policy. The Hindu.
  • Kumar, Suresh D. (2010, August 2). UGC Backs Down on VC Appointment Reforms, Times of India.
  • Special Correspondent. (2021, December 11). Varsity Postings: Governor’s Letter Triggers an Uproar. The Hindu.
  • Times News Network. (2021, December 14). Kerala Minister R Bindhu Wrote to Governor Twice, Pushed for Kannur University VC’s Reappointment. Times of India.
  • Vidhyadharan, Sovi. (2021, December 11). Kerala VC Postings: Governor Sees Red over Government’s Interference. The New Indian Express.

[1In 2019, when the violence in University College exposed the malpractices in the university exams, the then Kerala Governor P Sathasivam has expressed his displeasure over the way things have unfolded at the University College in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and even summoned the Vice Chancellor and sought a report

[2Under the Universities Act, the Governor is the Chancellor of all the Universities in Kerala and in that capacity, the Governor has a direct responsibility as regards the proper management and administration of the Universities. As per the official portal of the Kerala Governor, “While as Governor he functions with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, as Chancellor he acts independently of the Council of Ministers and takes his own decisions on all University matters”

[3This is the first time in the state that a VC has been reappointed after the completion of his first term. Though the University Act has mandated an age ceiling of 60 for applicants, in the case of Prof Gopinath, who is now 61 was given an exemption. It has been alleged the state government had given Gopinath a second term as a gift for the alleged favoritism in shortlisting an associate professor in the Malayalam department, violating UGC norms. The associate professor is the wife of the CM’s private secretary. The said associate professor came first in the interview but the major allegation is that she did not have the UGC prescribed teaching experience for the post and she was given preference due to party connections.

[4The Syndicate members often translate through their body language to the Vice Chancellors that the political regime has chosen them not because of their merit and excellence but due to the leniency and generosity of those in power. It is being used as a tool to pressurize the Vice Chancellors for narrow political interests.

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