Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Common University Act in many parts.

S. Krishnaswamy, School of Biotechnology, Madurai Kamaraj University

"A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then, it is well with the nation and the people"…Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Common University Act drama began with the Ministry of Education appointing in December 1961 a Committee under the chairmanship of Dr. D.S. Kothari, then Chairman of the UGC, to consider broadly the organisational structure of the Universities in India and to prepare the outline of a 'Model Act' suited to their role and functions in the present context of our fast developing society. That was in 1961 and the society is still developing fastly! Then five years into the 21st century the UGC put out a concept paper “Towards Formulation of Model Act for Universities of the 21st Century in India” which started the ball rolling again and many states including Tamil Nadu got into the game of bringing out common Universities acts and bills. The purported aim being to enable discussion on formulating a common act for Universities to discharge its duties of providing higher education in a ‘competitive and globalised economy’. The Model Act and the Common Universities Acts that have followed have one thing in common – they seek to kill whatever avenues to democracy that exist within Universities by consolidating power and bringing in nominations instead of elections.

The implicit assumption being that Universities are not able to do what they are supposed to do because their current constitutions do not allow them to do so. While there are many ailments with the University system, in most cases the cause lies in the steady withdrawal of the State from higher education, the privatization and the lack of functioning democratic systems within the Universities and the bodies that oversee or govern them. This coupled with the lack of vision by the people at the helm, the rampant politicization of the appointment machinery and the concomitant corruption that ensues at all levels of the machinery have made Universities incapable of providing intellectual leadership and reaching out to the different sections of society.

It is like saying that the Indian State has not fulfilled its commitments to its people by providing them with equal access to education, livelihood, food, health and shelter because of the Constitution and if we come up with a model constitution then things will become alright. These are the same people who think a benevolent dictator would solve India’s problems. Little do they realize that it is because of the constitution and the functioning democracy that the public at large are able to dethrone autocratic leaders who perceive themselves as Gods or Godesses.

In the words of the Kothari Commission “The nature of the problem covering a wide range of activities and functions that the committee was asked to consider is, as is well recognised, too complex and involved to admit of any simple or clear cut solution. An inherent difficulty is that in the case of universities, as indeed of any large self-governing institution, the actual functioning sometimes differs markedly from the spirit and intention of the written constitution. In many important respects the written constitution does not reflect correctly the practice that has developed. For this reason, a comparative study of written constitutions of universities by itself may not be a sufficient guide in the preparation of a new Act. The respect for law and the manner in which a constitution is worked are factors of the utmost importance. Any constitution, if worked with reasonableness and understanding can be made a success within fairly wide limits, and it is equally true that no constitution, howsoever carefully and elaborately drawn up, can altogether prevent abuse or inefficiency.” (Italics added).

Interestingly the Kothari committee spelt itself clearly against any stereotyping and a common act. In its own words “The committee felt that it would hardly be useful and it may not even be possible, to prepare what could be properly described as a "Model Act". The existing University Acts contain many detailed provisions. The details differ widely from Act to Act even though there is a broad agreement in the organisational patterns of most of the Indian universities. The preparation of a Model Act with as many details as in the existing Acts would involve the undesirable task of choosing some of these details and modifying or discarding others without fully knowing the varying local circumstances. These details vary also because historically the development of university education in different States has not been uniform. A certain amount of variety in the pattern and Organisation of universities may be desirable in the interest of the development and progress of higher education in a large country like India. The committee has, therefore; not attempted to formulate a 'Model Act' as such, applicable to all universities. In other words, the committee's recommendations deal with only the most important aspects of the Organisation of a University and even here, alternatives are sometimes suggested, so as to make it possible to preserve practices and traditions which may have been found satisfactory in any existing university. In fact, any attempt to stereotype a constitution and provide for too many safeguards, may tend to make the constitution rigid and cumbersome, and, it may even interfere with the normal growth and progress of the institution. It is necessary that the constitution of a University should be formulated in sufficiently general terms so as to permit innovation and experimentation.”

The best would be if the Government increases its commitment to higher education, delinks politics from University appointments and stops meddling around with a Common University Act. However, the reality is that the Government is shirking its duty to higher education in the name of resources in order to encourage commercialization and its consequent private revenues. In this scenario, the Common University Act is now again brought out of the box for a high level committee of the Tamil Nadu Government to consider. The committee has called for representations and opinions but wisely not making available the draft which is being considered. This is not in isolation. The lack of open discussion and transparency in bringing through the Common Act has happened in all States that have so far brought this diversity leveling Act into place. However, with the right to Information act in operation the draft of the Common Act should be brought into the open.

The demand from students, teachers and staff organizations should be to make the draft Act available publicly for discussion for a sufficiently long period, such as a year, of wide ranging discussion. The pressure should be to ensure democratization of University bodies and provision of representation at all levels of students, staff, college teachers and University teachers. The Government must now be asked to reconsider the Committee that has been constituted and made to institute a committee that is wide ranging in its coverage so that it includes representatives from organizations of public, workers, farmers, students, staff, college teachers and University teachers.

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