UNION Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, known more for his controversial remarks, occasional bouts of activism and subsequent compromises, once again revived the debate on the state of the country’s higher education when he said there was little possibility of cutting edge scientific research happening in a government set-up and that institutions like the IITs or IIMs were doing well not because of their quality of research or faculty, but because of the quality of the students.
“There is little scope for world class research in the kind of government set-up we have in our scientific institutions.There is hardly any research happening in IITs or IIMs. The faculty in these institutes are not world class. It is the students which are setting the high standards in these institutes,” he said, adding, “It is difficult to attract good talent in a governmental set-up. It is even more difficult to retain such talents if you manage to attract them. This is true of the CSIR laboratories as well.”
Backing Ramesh to the hilt,, Union Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal questioned whether India had any world class institutions.
“In the situation today, is even one of our institutions world class? If it is world class, it must be in the top 100, 150 institutions in the world. That is not evident,” Sibal said.
In a prompt response, alumni associations from IIT Delhi and IIT Kharagpur demanded higher salary and perks for IIT teaching faculty to attract new minds in faculty to sustain IIT brand globally.
“Opening of new IITs by government without recruiting new faculty has already burdened the existing faculty in IITs. Almost every citizen in the country is paying education cess to ensure that our gurus (IIT and other teachers) are paid well. Most of the IITs are already facing faculty shortage,” said IIT Kharagpur Alumni Association member YPS Suri.
“The current pay scales of IIT faculty are so unattractive that a fresh graduate from IIT attracts more salary,” he said.
Programme director of the IIT Delhi Alumni Association VK Saluja demanded that the government make faculty salary levels inspiring enough to attract new minds. According to him, adding new IITs has made this problem more acute and hence the urgency of the matter.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister in his report card on the UPA Government’s completion of two years in office did not have much to write home about on the state of higher education and its administration.
Obsessed with only an issue at a time (corruption this time around), the media too glossed over this pertinent aspect.
A review of the developments in the past two years reveal the debilitating state of the administrative health of higher education in the country.
The chairman of the Medical Council of India, a senior functionary at the University Grants Commission, the head of the All India Council for Technical Education, the functioning of the National Council for Teachers Education have all been found steeped in corruption, and irregularities.
Serious allegations have been leveled against the vice-chancellors of major central universities such as the Vishwabharti, Shantineketan, Aligarh Muslim University and North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. The Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University, a central university, is alleged to have indulged in recruitment-related irregularities.
Both academia and intelligentsia have brought these issues to the notice of the Government both within and outside Parliament but it remains as nonchalant and indifferent about it as ever.
The UGC and the Central Vigilance Commission reportedly took note of all such irregularities, but these bodies do not have the teeth to do anything.
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is a highly rated institution for researchers, directly administered by the Union Department of Culture. Its director, a reputed historian, has been allegedly found to be indulging in irregularities, but even vociferous protests from a cross section of academicians have fallen on deaf ears.
While Sibal has been making a lot of hue and cry about reforming higher education, the ground realities tell an altogether different story. The bankruptcy of ideas with regard to the higher education and lack of political will and sincerity to bring about the much needed reforms appears all the more ironic.
The appointment and continuation in office of two Vice-Chancellors of two of the most prestigious and sensitive central universities is a case in point.
Prof A N Rai took over as Vice-Chancellor of the North Eastern Hill University in 2010 amid protests from the student community who opposed his appointment over his ‘tainted credentials’ in Mizoram University.
Rai has been accused by the Mizoram Students Union (MSU) of violating a memorandum of understanding (MoU) and misintepreting the eligiblity criteria of the University Grant Commission (UGC) for the appointment of lecturers.
The Mizoram University had signed an MoU with the MSU on September 15, 2009 that six qualified local candidates would be called for interview for recruitment in various vacant posts. However, Rai appointed non-local lecturers to the post, thus violating the MoU.
But instead of addressing the concerns of the students from the sensitive region, Rai has since been taken as an advisor to the National Advisory Council.
Most disconcerting is the issue concerning the AMU Vice-Chancellor Prof P K Abdul Aziz, who was appointed by the HRD Ministry 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’.
Subsequently, in April 2009, a ‘Presidential’ inquiry into allegations of financial bungling and general impropriety was initiated against Prof Azis in the wake of several memoranda by some members of the AMU Executive Council and AMU Old Boys Association to the then HRD Minister Arjun Singh and President Pratibha Patil. Arjun Singh has passed away since then but the probe is yet to make any substantial progress.
Unfortunately, the irregularities are being either ignored or downplayed despite the sensitivities attached with these universities.
According to insiders and students, irregularities have become the hallmark of entrance tests to different professional courses, conducted by the AMU, but no deterrent punishment has ever been given to any of the high functionaries. Irregularities in academic recruitments are a routine phenomenon.
No wonder, in his best seller, Imagining India, UID Project Head, Nandan Nilikeni has pointed out that most undemocratic exercise in democratic India is academic recruitments.
The Prof Yashpal Committee, appointed by the Manmohan Singh Government in its final report to the HRD Ministry too criticised the UPA government’s policy of setting up IIMs and IITs indiscriminately, saying that mere numerical expansion, without any understanding of symptoms of poor education, would not help.
Terming the government’s indiscriminate establishment of educational institutes as a “nervous and hurried response”, the panel said, “Creation of a few institutions of excellence and some central universities, without addressing the issue of deprivation that the state-funded universities are suffering from, would only sharpen the existing inequalities.”
Expressing concern on the mushrooming of engineering and management colleges, that had “largely become business entities dispensing very poor quality education”, Yashpal Committee lamented the growth of deemed universities and called for a complete ban on further grant of such status. Existing ones, the committee said, should be given three years to develop as a university and fulfil the prescribed accreditation norms.
Raising doubts about the source of funding of private education providers, the committee said mostly it was either “unaccounted wealth from business and political enterprises or from capitation fees”.
The committee said a plethora of regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE, NCTE et al be replaced by a seven-member Commission for Higher Education and Research (CHER) under an Act of Parliament. It has also recommended, obviously to buffer the new regulator against political pressures, that the position of chairperson of the proposed commission be analogous to that of election commissioners.
It also said that the jurisdiction of other regulators — Medical Council of India, Bar Council of India and others — be confined to administrative matters, with universities taking up their academic responsibilities.
The report recommended that IITs and IIMs should be encouraged to diversify and expand their scope to work as full-fledged universities.
On the contentious issue of the entry of foreign universities, the committee strikes a cautious note. “Giving an open license to all and sundry, carrying a foreign ownership tag to function like universities in India, most of them not even known in their own countries, would only help them earn profit for their parent institutions located outside or accrue profit to the shareholders. Such institutions must give an Indian degree and be subjected to all rules and regulations that would apply to any Indian university”.
Nilekani had cautioned in his book, ‘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 million dollar question is “as it deals with existential issues, is anybody in the UPA Government bothered about such fundamental concerns”?