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Governance of Higher Education

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I have visited universities in Raipur, Bhopal, Lucknow and Mysore in the past couple of months. I have interacted with students, faculty and administrators in these institutions of higher education. Given the admission season and start of the new term, I have found excitement and hope amongst new entrants—youthful students, mostly girls. I have encountered somewhat cynical faculty and teachers, generally feeling that the days of the past were better, and not much hope for the future. I have come across university administrators and vice-chancellors generally hassled, over-stretched and mostly doing everything other than matters relating to teaching and research in their institutions.

When I stayed in some of the university guest houses, I found no internet access. In visiting libraries of some of them, the wi-fi connectivity was so weak that I could not even connect my laptop. The system of use of library was still managed through paper registers. The classrooms and auditoriums I was invited to give my lecture in had dusty chairs and tables, and cobwebs on ceilings. There is no point in talking about bathrooms; ladies toilets were found to be stores in a few places.

Lest you get the impression that my encounters were to under-funded, new and/or poor universities, I want to assure the readers that the phenomena described above are universal in this country. What surprised me most is that no one seems to be even trying to improve things—neither faculty, nor students, nor administrators, nor government departments responsible for funding them, nor central Ministry (or University Grants Commission). Most surprising is that general public, parents of students and civil society has not even paid attention to the goings-on in these institutions of ‘higher’ learning.

In this generally dismal scenario, the news about students of Film Institute in Pune asking questions about the composition and appointments to governing council provided fresh air. Irrespective of the outcome of their protest, students in this prestigious Institute are at least asking questions; it shows that they are bothered about the quality of their education and how it is impacted by the governance of their institution. This news reminded me of similar questioning that students at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur) had done more than 45 years ago (when I was the General Secretary of the Students Union there). The occasion was annual convocation, and the protest was against the presence of then American Ambassador as a Guest of Honour, since American government had taken a hostile position against India preceding the Bangladesh liberation struggle. When the student union later convened a national debate on “Power flows from the Barrel of Gun”, leadership of the Institute was again visibly upset.

About the same time, students gathered country-wide to support the call for ‘total revolution’ of Jai Prakash Narain. Hundreds of social action groups emerged under the banner of Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini (Student youth struggle brigade) following the emergency in 1977-80 period. Campuses of universities were alive then, and students were the vanguard of debates and dialogues that blurred the boundaries between the classroom and the canteen. Issues of national and international relevance were then also explored in the curriculum and research by students and faculty in universities.

In recent years, the enrolment in higher education is rapidly increasing around the developing countries; newly emerging economies are witnessing much faster rates of expansion of higher education. In some countries, affirmative action policies are hoping to make higher education more inclusive. As ethnic and religious minorities, girls and women, indigenous and rural youth, and ‘mature’ practitioners enter institutions of higher education, questions about the relevance of curriculum and pedagogy are being asked. Such questioning has been reported by indigenous students in western Canada, black students in South Africa and scheduled caste students in India.  Students in Canada have asked why indigenous knowledge of their elders is not being taught in the university; in South Africa, black students in Cape Town have been protesting to include Black Consciousness literature in the curriculum; likewise, demand for inclusion of ‘Dalit’ literature in Indian universities has been raised.

Why universities as public institutions fail to anticipate and respond to such pressures for reforms? Because, simply because, the governance of these institutions is inadequate, out-dated and unaccountable. The Governing Boards of most Indian universities do not have external professionals; no representation of parents or civil society is included in such mechanisms. Primary and secondary school management boards have representation of parents and civil society, but not universities; why?

What is even more disappointing is that civil society around the world has paid no attention to demand accountability of higher education institutions. The civil society has put enormous attention on primary and secondary educational providers and policies, but none whatsoever on higher education. Universities remain out of focus of public scrutiny till date.

Isn’t it time to ensure accountable and efficient governance of universities? Everywhere, but more so in India?

Dr Rajesh Tandon Founder-President, PRIA   and
UNESCO Chair on Social Responsibility of Higher Education September 15, 2015

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