In Bengal, a crisis in higher education

Governor-government collision on VCs weighs heavily on students as new session begins  

August 10, 2023 12:46 am | Updated 09:53 am IST

Former Vice-Chancellors and academicians at a press conference at the Kolkata Press Club on the issue of appointment of interim Vice-Chancellors of several State Universities.

Former Vice-Chancellors and academicians at a press conference at the Kolkata Press Club on the issue of appointment of interim Vice-Chancellors of several State Universities. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Even as the new academic session begins, the West Bengal government and Raj Bhavan are at loggerheads over the appointment of Vice-Chancellors (VCs). At a time when universities are grappling with provisions of the new National Education Policy which mandates four-year undergraduate degree courses, none of the 31 State-run Universities in West Bengal has a full-time Vice-Chancellor. Over the past few months, Governor C.V. Ananda Bose has appointed more than a dozen people to officiate as VCs of state-run universities allegedly without holding any consultation with the State government. When Raj Bhavan announced the names of officiating VCs, the West Bengal government initially tried to discourage academics from taking up the posts. Later a public interest litigation was filed before the Calcutta High Court challenging these appointments. On June 28, the High Court dismissed the petition describing it as a ‘tool’ to challenge the orders of the Governor. The court, however, pointed out that the appointments were only an interim arrangement.

The West Bengal government and the Governor’s office has not had the best of relationships, but things took a turn for the worse in 2022 when Jagdeep Dhankhar was Governor. The State government appointed 24 Vice-Chancellors, reportedly without consulting the Governor, whose validity was challenged by a writ petition. The court ruled that UGC Regulations of 2018, which states that a UGC nominee has to be in the search committee for selection of VCs, will prevail.

After Governor Bose assumed office, he initially agreed to the Bengal government’s proposal of accepting the resignation of the VCs, and appointing them as interim VCs this March. In May, when the three-month term came to an end, the State government sent a proposal to the Governor with a list of 27 names to be appointed as interim VCs for a period of six months. The Governor picked only two names from the list, and appointed several officiating VCs without consulting the State government.

On August 4, The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was passed in the State Assembly to comply with the court’s order by reconstituting the search-cum-selection committee for the appointment of VCs. Along with having a UGC nominee, the new committee has five members, three of them nominated by the State government, thus giving the government an upper hand in appointment of VCs.

Also read |No illegality in appointment of V-Cs by Bengal Governor, says Calcutta High Court

In 2022, the State Assembly had passed a number of Bills replacing the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor of the Universities in the State to ease bottlenecks in VC appointments. The Bills have not been cleared by Raj Bhavan. After the passage of the August 4 legislation, a group of BJP MLAs met the Governor urging him not to give his assent to this legislation as well.

If the Governor and the State government continue to have different views on appointment of VCs, it can cause irreparable damage to higher education in the State.

Lack of infrastructure

While the number of both State-run and private universities have increased in the past 12 years of Trinamool Congress rule, most of these universities lack infrastructure. With many students and faculty opting to leave the State, higher education in West Bengal has become a shadow of its glorious past.

In the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIFR) ratings for 2023, only one university from the State, Jadavpur University, figured among the top 10 universities at number four. The University of Calcutta which had figured among the top 10 universities in NIFR 2022, slipped four positions, and is ranked 12th in NIFR 2023. No other university from West Bengal figured among the top 50 universities in the country.

Academics and administrators, who have been assigned the responsibility of interim VCs, cannot take any policy decision nor can they allocate any resources. The status quo is likely to weigh heavily on the future of over five lakh students who are getting admitted to these institutions across the State for the 2023-24 academic sessions.

In the past, Raj Bhavan has said that “education must be treated as a no-conflict zone”, a view echoed by State Education Minister Bratya Basu. Both Raj Bhavan and the State government need to walk the talk, and resolve the impasse in the interest of students.

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