A question of university autonomy

The Kerala controversy over varsity appointments highlights key issues plaguing higher education

December 27, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Governor Arif Muhammad Khan.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Governor Arif Muhammad Khan.

A scathing letter sent by Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on the state of affairs in the State’s higher education sector has put the LDF government in a bind.

On December 8, the Governor wrote lamenting that universities were “packed with political nominees” and “non-academics have been taking academic decisions”. He conveyed his annoyance at allegedly being pressured into signing appointment orders.


A few days later, a “recommendation letter” forwarded by Higher Education Minister R. Bindu , who is also the Pro-Chancellor, to the Governor gave more fodder to the Opposition to criticise the government. Both letters had touched upon the selection of Vice Chancellors for the Kannur University and the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit. Mr. Khan wrote that he wants to quit as Chancellor . This revealed how the government’s efforts to allay his concerns and initiate back-channel talks with the Raj Bhavan had failed.

Suspecting ulterior motives behind the “leaks”, the LDF accused the Governor of a volte-face since he had suddenly voiced objections against decisions that were previously endorsed by him.

While the constitutional head of the state cannot seek refuge for his actions by claiming to have his hands tied by the government, the letters raise serious questions on political interference that has eroded the autonomy of universities.


Like other governments that have ruled the State in the past, the present and previous LDF governments have had to fend off several allegations of political overreach and nepotism. Such a scenario does not augur well for the LDF which returned to power earlier this year after promising, among other things, to reform higher education and transform the State into a knowledge society.

Kerala, which ranks among the best in terms of school education in India, continues to lag in academic standards in higher education. None of its universities figures among the top 20 in the National Institute Ranking Framework rankings. Oddly, the situation prevails despite several Keralites establishing themselves as technocrats and scientists of considerable standing in other parts of the country and abroad. Three years ago, scientist C.N.R. Rao had expressed surprise that Kerala’s teachers and researchers, who are known to excel elsewhere, have failed to perform within the State which has high literacy and social awareness as well as a long tradition of intellectual achievements. This situation has also resulted in students going abroad and a decline in the number of ‘employable’ youth.

To its credit, the LDF government has begun efforts to modernise the sector through a multipronged strategy. In addition to providing considerable thrust on boosting innovations in various disciplines, it has constituted three commissions headed by noted educationists to reform university laws, the examination system and the sector as a whole.

The controversy, in fact, could not have come at a more opportune time as it turns attention towards some of the key problems that have plagued the sector for long. Prioritising meritocracy over political, religious, caste and other considerations, along with preserving the academic autonomy of higher education institutions, is vital in attaining the State’s lofty goals. Political interference and all other non-academic considerations, including financial in the case of private colleges, could destroy the quest for academic excellence.


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