Most of the times educational institutions in India are in news not for their academic achievements but for the controversies surrounding them. In the recent times, three news stories related to the academic institutions that received more attention from the readers have been; the death of a student during ONAM celebrations in College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), protest of the students and fraternity against the appointment of Mr Gajendra Chouhan as as chairman of the governing council of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and the directive of Kerala Government to M G University Kottayam to shut the off campus centres being operated by them. All these news items do not bring any good reason to celebrate over the status quo in the higher education scenario in India bur rather offers very dismissive and pessimistic picture of higher education in India.
Any college activity including celebrations should end in a happy note. But in the case of CET (in fact many reports are suggest similar patterns and trends in other colleges also), it left with a shocking incident to live with; an innocent student died at the hands of irresponsible behaviour of her peers. More shocking was the seizure of the deadly weapons from the hostels in the college campus upon the investigation by the police. Given the nature of the functioning of many of the campuses in Kerala, this would not have surprised many but the death has set alarm bells once again for type and nature of the functioning of the college campuses. Since the investigation is progressing, one should restrict himself from judging the culprits. But the question remains unanswered; how come the college campuses became the storage houses for arms and ammunition. How could the students on broad daylight challenge the decency and decorum set by the college authorities without any fear about the public outrage and by risking their own academic careers? It is not an incident confined to CET but in many of the colleges across the country. Many are infamous for the violence and suspension of the regular classes. I believe that many of our campuses are over politicised and it has developed a safety ring for those miscreant elements in the college campuses. Rather than focusing on the academic brilliance, most of the campuses become the recruitment camps for the political parties. In the process, no political party demanded for the academic brilliance of those recruited to these parties (in fact this has led to the deterioration of the politics at the state and national level). Instead the campuses are used by the politicians to disturb the public life by staging Dharna and Gheroe claiming that the students of age group 15- 20 are more vigilant to the day to day denial of the rights and government policies of the day than everybody else in the society! Having the protection of age and studentship, the college campuses offer the fort and gated communities for others to hide and get involved in the criminal activities. Such scenarios exist in many campuses that lead to the incidents like the one in CET.
The students have been on a protest mode ever since the announcement of Mr Gajendra Chouhan’s appointment as the chairman of FTII. They claim that his resume is not worth to look at. The film and television fraternity declared their support to the students struggle. In this case, as in the former, the issue is about the political intervention and their rights to choose or hand pick their persons to the important positions to these prestigious institutions in India. FTII in 2015 is not new controversy but a serialised episode in that context. What is the transparency and accountability in the due process followed in the appointments to these institutions? Or, what is the independence and autonomy given to these institutions? While on one hand, everyone talks about the upgrading the educational institutions in India to the world standards by providing them the freedom to set in their own syllabus and lateral hiring, on the other hand the controversies like one about FTII does not auger well for the sector. Again the issue is that of political interference in the administration and management of these institutions.
The third one in the row; the decision to shut down the Off Campus centres by M G university in line with UGC provisions has another interesting take. The reason given by UGC is that the Off Campus centres will not be able to provide the quality and academic standards quite often or rather such a scenario could not be ruled out. This case could be analysed clubbing it with the protest against setting up of the campuses in India by the foreign universities. Whether Indian or foreign, it shows there is a demand for the higher education in India. The demand risks the quality of the education provided. But is it a good enough reason to stop experimenting the process? If that is the case, what about the Distance Learning and Open Universities? Do we have a level playing field in the higher education scenario in this country? The consistency in policy making and the independence of the regulations from the whims and fancies of the political leadership is very much essential for the improvement of higher education in India.
What has led to all these scenarios? I believe that these are the outcomes of the systemic fallouts of the super regulation and centralised planning practised and enjoyed by the politicians in the sector. When the demand is very high and the supply is limited, there is every chance for the political class to interfere wherever possible as there is a larger incentive for them to do so. To quote Ramsey, “wherever there is power to be had, resources to be shared, recognition to be earned, or influence to be brokered, there is politics”. Hence this necessary evil must be kept on bay from taking important decisions in the education sector.
The resource allocation cannot be on a subsistence model or could be rationed. Instead, the sector needs to be more liberal and independent so that all the stake holders have equal footing for their investment plans and autonomy under a free and fair regulatory system. The systemic improvements in the policy making including granting autonomy to the institutions both at the administrative and financial matters are key to overcome the abusive type of political interferences. The students should not be the tools in the hands of wily politicians. The decisions regarding the education sector should be far more data driven than politically influenced.
The author is the chairman of Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. His views are personal and does not reflect or anyways represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
*This article is a reproduction of views which appeared in Pallikkutam, a monthly magazine published by Rajagiri Group of Educational Institutions