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WB: Higher Education Suffering Amid Increased Hostilities Between Governor and State Govt

Over the past several weeks, the Governor, by his actions, and the education minister, by his intemperate statements, have made education a conflict zone.
 WB: Higher Education Suffering Amid Increased Hostilities Between Governor and State Govt

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Kolkata: West Bengal academic circles claim knowledge of an informal understanding a few months back between Raj Bhavan and Bikash Bhavan – the latter houses the higher education department --- that "education must be treated as a no-conflict zone". 

The parties to this reported understanding are Governor CV Ananda Bose [a retired IAS officer] and Bratya Basu, higher education minister [also a drama and cinema personality]. 

But, over the past several weeks, the Governor, by his actions, and the minister, by his intemperate statements, have made education very much a conflict zone in total disregard of their earlier verbal understanding. 

The conflict saw a major escalation on Teachers' Day on September 5 when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, "much against her will", aggressively spoke out against the Governor at the function held by the department to, inter alia, pay tributes to Dr Sarvepally Radhakrishnan. 

Banerjee did not confine her outbursts to the spate of appointments of acting vice-chancellors that Bose has been making in recent times, keeping the state government in the dark, as alleged by Banerjee and Bratya Basu. The CM also threatened to block the release of funds, prefacing the threat with the remark: "Let me see how Raj Bhavan pays salaries to the new appointees." 

What dimension the confrontation has acquired may be gauzed from the fact that the Governor has made at least one more appointment after the CM's threatened 'economic sanction' and indications have come from Raj Bhavan corners that Bose is firm on filling up remaining vacancies of V-Cs in the coming days. 

In between, Raj Bhavan, in so many words, has suggested that V-Cs should take orders only from the Chancellor, the post that the Governor holds. They should not take cognisance of the higher education department's orders. The CM has asked Bratya Basu to take retaliatory steps by holding a meeting of registrars and other senior officials on 'what they should and should not do'. 

A close look at the developments over a year or more suggests progressive deterioration, bordering on chaos. 

If vacancies of V-Cs have been multiplying, it follows the department failed to initiate timely action. A glaring deficiency has been in constituting the search-and-selection committee as per UGC Regulations of 2018, which stipulated the inclusion of a UGC nominee. 

Only on August 4 this year, legislative action corrected matters after a court ruling, but not to all stakeholders' satisfaction. 

The five-member panel has one UGC nominee, one nominee of the Chancellor and three nominees of the state government. The political design is clear; the clearance for the state government's nominee for a V-C is assured. There was a persistent demand from academia that the university for which V-C is to be appointed should have a nominee on the panel, but Nabanna had its way. The grievance of the academia persists. 

In 2022, the legislative process was gone through to have the CM, in place of the Governor, as Chancellor to 'smoothen' V-Cs' appointments. But the bills are yet to get the Governor's assent. 

A V-C is usually the principal executive and academic officer of a university, the ex-officio chairman of the board of management and the academic council. A view has gained ground that with the higher education department failing to formalise appointments of V-Cs on time, the Chancellor seized the opportunity to make officiating arrangements without the knowledge of the higher education department. 

There is also a view that rules have been flouted in making certain selections. The worst victims of the unprecedented face-off are the teachers and students, and what is most unfortunate is that the tussle has nothing to do with the qualitative improvement of facilities and standards. 

The threat to block funds to disburse teachers' salaries is a tactic to pressure the teaching community, observes the statement of the Calcutta University Teachers' Association. 

"The intention seems to be to gain hegemonic control over universities, disregarding their autonomy and entitlement to democratic practices." 

According to CUTA's general secretary, Prof. Sanatan Chattopadhyay, the academic departments are running with less than 50% of the sanctioned faculty, and CUTA's repeated pleas to the authorities to rectify matters in the interest of students have not been eliciting a response. Fresh recruitments are just not happening, and due promotions are eluding teachers, Chattopadhyay pointed out. 

Reputed lawyer and CPI(M) 's Rajya Sabha member Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya told NewsClick, "If the intentions are good on both sides, the Governor/Chancellor and the CM can talk out matters over tea or coffee in the interest of higher education and students. However, I have doubts about their intentions; they seem to have hidden agendas, and the convergence appears to be gradually pushing for the privatisation of state-run higher education institutions. We have witnessed BJP's (Bharatiya Janata Party) penchant for privatisation in the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regime. Banerjee may not be specific about privatisation at this stage on political considerations. Still, we know during her regime, many government-funded schools are gasping for breath, and the authorities are looking the other way round." 

Prof. Parthib Basu, former president of CUTA, said that he had not seen "such ugly tussle" between the Chancellor and the higher education department in his long teaching career. 

"They are ignorant about what a university is meant for and what kind of autonomous status it is entitled to in the interest of higher learning. If good sense does not prevail and the two sides continue the run-in for control over university affairs, ultimately, enrolment is bound to suffer, and there are disturbing reports to that effect already."

Prof. Omprakash Mishra of the international relations faculty at Jadavpur University believes that the Chancellor "is overstepping the Lakshman Rekha in a calculated manner. 

"A chancellor's functional jurisdiction is earmarked under Acts and rules laid down thereunder. It has to be via Bikash Bhavan and not from and in Raj Bhavan itself. Under UGC regulations, full-time professors with 10 years of experience can be considered for a V-C post. At least 50% of the appointments do not meet the basic criterion." 

The Educationists' Forum, West Bengal, with which Prof. Mishra is associated, will organise a gathering on September 8 at the North Gate of Raj Bhavan to protest the Chancellor's actions, which the forum feels are beyond his authority and have created chaos in the state's higher education system.

Prof. Samirul Islam, who took oath as a Rajya Sabha member as TMC (Trinamool Congress) nominee recently and who begins his innings at the Upper House at the special session, also cited the 10-year full professorship stipulation of UGC and said he had come to know that at the Aliah University, a retired IPS officer had been made officiating V-C. 

"This can't be accepted," Islam said.         

The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.

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