Understanding the Common Universities Act

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The other day a friend whispered in my ear the news about likelihood of having a Common Universities Act in Jammu and Kashmir. This definitely made me conscious about some issues important to the ecosystem of higher education which must factor in the thought process of the architects of such an Act.

Already some state governments in India have appointed committees to draft common Public Higher Education Bills to overcome what are cited as discrepancies in working of central, state and private universities. However, the imperatives of New Education Policy (NEP,20) are cited as the main reason for having Common Universities Acts.

As an student of public policy I shall recommend that necessary feedback from universities of Jammu and Kashmir be obtained in such matters by ways as are deemed necessary. It is also necessary that experiences of other state governments too are taken into account.

In this context the State Public Higher Education Institutions Bill-2022 (State of Karnataka) needs to be considered so that the proposed bill will help raise popular perception and qualitative working of state universities in Jammu and Kashmir. This can be the meaningful way to implement NEP 20.

In April 2020 the Karnataka government appointed a committee under Dr Vasudev Kalkunte Atre (former Head of DRDO) to prepare a draft bill to replace the existing Karnataka State Universities Act. The committee submitted a 90 page report and many stakeholders and prominent academics have commented over different aspects of the Bill.

The draft Bill as usual refers to education as the single greatest tool for building a knowledge society and creating a pool of knowledge workers. The Bill in one sense points towards the much delayed implementation of lofty goals of social justice and equality.

The Bill without any ambiguity refers to the NEP20 as providing the main inspiration. The Bill and different expert commentaries on it need to be properly discussed so that necessary lessons are drawn from it. Some aspects of the Karnataka Bill include: appointment of Cice Chancellors, Board of Governors, Board of Management, the Academic Senate, which will replace the existing syndicate and academic councils in the universities in Karnataka.

The draft Bill also deals with the constitution of Board of studies, the appointment of faculty, Research Innovation and Consultancy Boards as a new body to be set up by the universities. Further, the matter of affiliation of colleges (which otherwise shall end by 2030) and issues related to finances of the universities are also covered by the new Bill.

The following points based on the recommendations of Karnataka Bill are submitted for the consideration of stakeholders who are concerned with the enactment of common universities ‘Act’ in Jammu and Kashmir.

First, the Karnataka Bill has been drafted keeping in mind the requirements of New Education Policy aimed at restructuring of positions and ‘Academic Bodies’ of a university. In our university system the Vice Chancellor always remains in the driver’s seat and in that capacity occupies highest position to furnish both academic and administrative leadership to the institution.

Unfortunately, the appointment of vice chancellors over the years have generated more heat than light given the challenges of higher education in India. The Karnataka Bill envisages that the Vice Chancellor of a university shall be appointed from out of a panel of names recommended by a “search-cum-selection committee” (SSC).

The search committee will consist of an educationist who can be a businessman-cum-educationist or administrator. The other members of the committee shall be a person nominated by Chancellor on the recommendation of state government, a member representing Board of Governors and one member from the Academic Senate.

Some experts have expressed their concerns over the likelihood of getting business operators into the search committees given the fact that corporate sector over the years has entered in the higher education sector and Indian state has little appetite to continue funding the higher education. The fact of the matter is that we need to seriously think over the entire mechanism of how vice chancellors are now appointed in Indian universities.

We need to learn from experiences of top class world universities when it comes to such appointments. My impression is that mere search for vice chancellor shall yield better results rather than having a “search-cum selection committee” which is in one sense the proverbial old wine in new bottles. A country which dreams of being a world leader must think of having good leaders for our educational institutions.

Second, with the establishment of Central Universities in almost all states providing better opportunities and facilities the state universities are increasingly facing shortages at the level of senior “professors”.

The introduction of career advancement scheme has virtually put an end to mobility of people from one university to the other in search of career advancement resulting in almost 40 percent vacancies at the level of professors in Indian university system.

The discrepancy in the age of superannuation (sixty two for state and sixty five for central universities) has made central universities within states as preferred destinations for senior professors.

The high end private universities in India viz, Ashoka, Jindal, Krea etc., are attracting the best faculty from state universities resulting into a sort of “Academic Darwinism” where there is survival of the fittest.

This has created a serious crisis at the level of leadership so much so that in many state universities inexperienced faculty members (Assistant Professors) are invested with the charge to guide Postgraduate Departments. According to a report ( Hindu, January,6, 2021) about 18 states in India have already implemented UGC recommendation enhancing age of retirement to 65 years. The implementation of NEP, 20 shall be mere utopia unless the discrepancy is not removed.

Third, the Karnataka Bill envisages the mechanism of Board of Governors (BOG) to replace the syndicate. In the BOG, the Vice Chancellor will be an ex-officio member with four other “eminent” persons drawn from different walks of life.The BOG shall be the final authority and will make all appointments and take all decisions regarding governance of a university.

The Bill states that chairperson of the BOG will be from amongst eminent persons in the field of Education, Arts/Humanities/science/technology or drawn from public life. Some academics in Karnataka have expressed concern over the last aspect in the Bill- drawn from public life – apprehending that same may be used by powers to undermine the autonomy of universities.

The composition of Board of Management (Executive Body) will also be on the same lines like that of the BOG. Mercifully the Karnataka Bill at least provides the saving grace to the Vice Chancellor to choose his Registrar.

Fourth, the Karnataka Bill has not brought the private universities under its ambit for unknown reasons. We have seen the growth of private universities in India and Indian state for multiple reasons has been encouraging private players to come in higher education arena.

It is necessary to develop an oversight mechanism for such universities when it comes to admission and fee structure. This is essential to create an even space for students admitted in private universities with poor and disadvantaged family background.

Lastly, the Karnataka Bill identifies the source of finances for universities ranging from grants from UGC and the state government, donations and endowments etc. The fact is that state universities in present context cannot have any other source of funding other than those identified in the Karnataka Bill. In fact, even these sources are dwindling for many reasons.

With affiliation system ceasing in 2030 as per the NEP,20 another source of funding to public universities will dry up with loss of affiliation fee.

Moreover, if all senior professors go at the age of sixty two the government departments such as UGC, DST, CSIR or Dept of DAE allotting projects on the strength of senior professors will have real difficulty putting university finances in more dire state. Recognising the critical role of education for India’s economic development the “Education Commission” (1964-66) recommended allocating 6 percent of the national income to education. The NEP 20 cannot be implemented in real sense without sufficient public investment in education.

Professor Gull Wani is Honorary Senor Fellow Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social sciences, New Delhi.

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