On September 5, as the country celebrated Teachers’ Day, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee threatened the interim Vice Chancellors of State universities with “economic blockade” if they continued to follow the directives of Governor C.V. Ananda Bose, the Chancellor of the universities. Addressing a Teachers’ Day programme in Kolkata, Mamata challenged the Governor and said, “Let us see in which college or university you [Bose] will be able to pay the teachers their salary.”
It was the flashpoint of a long-standing feud between the government and the Governor over the appointment of Vice Chancellors in the State. It brought to the fore the current precarious condition of Bengal’s education system as the State and the Centre’s representative remained locked in an unseemly struggle to control higher education in the State. As each tried to undermine the other’s position and hurled allegations and threats at each other, the 31 State-run universities remained in a state of limbo, without permanent Vice Chancellors for more than five months (as of September 25).
This is not the first time the government and the Governor have had a falling out over higher education. In June 2022, Jagdeep Dhankhar, the previous Governor and now Vice President of India, had alleged that the government was not following due procedure while appointing Vice Chancellors at 24 universities. The government retaliated by passing a number of Bills, seeking to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister as Chancellor of State-run universities. However, never has the acrimony between the two offices been so vituperative, nor has the danger towards which the higher education system is hurtling seemed more imminent, than during the present strife between the Trinamool Congress government and Governor Ananda Bose. The initial bonhomie ended in May this year, within six months of Bose joining office, when the two locked horns over the selection of Vice Chancellors.
A shock for Vice Chancellors
Following a Supreme Court order in 2022 to include a nominee of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in the search/selection committees for choosing Vice Chancellors, all Vice Chancellors of State-run universities gave their resignations to the Governor in March. The Governor accepted it and gave them an extension of three months. At the completion of this period, the State government sought an extension of six more months for them, but Bose retained only two of the names from the government’s list. Further, he unilaterally appointed 11 interim Vice Chancellors to various universities. The Governor said the Vice Chancellors failed to follow his directives.
According to a 2019 State government rule—the West Bengal State Universities (Terms and Conditions of Service of the Vice Chancellor & the Manner and Procedure of Official Communication) Rules, 2019—“Every communication proposed to be made by the Chancellor to any State-aided University shall be routed through the Department (of Higher Education) and action on such communication shall be taken once the same is endorsed by the Department.”
Om Prakash Mishra, whose tenure as Vice Chancellor at North Bengal University was not extended, pointed out that the Vice Chancellors lost their jobs for simply following the rules. “As per the rule, 24 of us did not report to the Chancellor, but to Bikash Bhavan (headquarters of the State Education Department),” Mishra told Frontline. “Bikash Bhavan was supposed to communicate with the Raj Bhavan. So, it was a problem between Bikash Bhavan and Raj Bhavan. The Vice Chancellors did not break the law. This could still have been settled, if the Chancellor had hurried with the formation of the search/selection committee.”
Jockeying for nominees
Before 2014, the search/selection committee comprised three members—a nominee of the Chancellor, a nominee of the university concerned, and a nominee of the UGC. In 2014, the State government, through an amendment to The West Bengal University Laws Act, replaced the UGC nominee with a nominee of the State government. In response to the Supreme Court’s directive in 2022 to include a UGC nominee in the committee, the State, through an ordinance in May this year provided for a five-member search/selection committee that would include a nominee of the Chancellor (who would be the chairperson of the committee), a nominee of the Chief Minister, a nominee of the UGC, a nominee of the State government, and a nominee of the West Bengal State Council for Higher Education.
The government’s intention to control the selection process was abundantly clear in the new composition of the committee. “There has been an exponential growth of universities in the State in the last 12 years and the government provides more than 95 per cent of the budget to run these universities; and it was necessary to underline that,” a senior source in the higher education sector told Frontline. “The Chancellor is trying to exercise power without the accompanying responsibility. The responsibility still lies with the government. When the Chief Minister threatened to stop funds to universities, what she possibly meant was that if the Governor wants to run the universities, he should also be in a position to pay them.”
Though the ordinance was passed as a Bill in the State legislature, the Governor is yet to clear it, and as a result the process of selecting Vice Chancellors for the 31 State universities cannot be started. “The Governor not signing is empowering his other self, the Chancellor of Universities, to do things he should not be doing at all. This is a delay tactic. The reason for this delay lies in a domain outside the purview of higher education,” said Mishra.
For some time now in Bengal, the education sector appears to have become the proxy battleground for the State and the Centre (through the Governor) as they tried to score political points over each other. This time, the situation has been escalated by both the Governor and the government without any attempt to camouflage their intent to seize control of the higher education system.
Lashing out at Bose over his appointments, Mamata said, “He is disobeying the Constitution and appointing his friends as heads of educational institutes in the State. He made the president of a BJP cell the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University. You are nominated and we are elected. Don’t try to challenge an elected government.”
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Justifying his decision to appoint interim Vice Chancellors, Bose hit back and said, “I always try to go in for due diligence. I got confidential enquiries made about these people. Some of them are accused of corruption. One of them has been charged with a grievous crime of harassing women, particularly his own students... some have been accused of political manoeuvring....”
The Governor’s comments caused an upheaval in academic circles, as some of the most acclaimed academics and former Vice Chancellors were among those who were denied an extension by Bose. Eleven former Vice Chancellors issued a press statement on September 14, which said, “The distasteful comments and accusations of the Chancellor without any specific charge and evidence to back his unfounded accusations have harmed the reputations of the eminent scholars and administrators. As such, though unprecedented possibly in the history of the country, there shall be no respite or free pass for the utterances of the Chancellor who has displayed a shameless avowal of pride in howling lies against the respected academicians.”
Each of the 11 former Vice Chancellors announced that they would issue legal notices demanding a retraction, an apology, and damages of Rs.50 lakh from the Chancellor or else “he would face civil and criminal charges under the applicable provisions of law”. The outraged Vice Chancellors were careful to make the distinction between the offices of the Governor and the Chancellor, though both are the same person.
- On Teachers’ Day, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee threatened an “economic blockade” against interim Vice Chancellors of State universities if they continued to follow the directives of Governor C.V. Ananda Bose.
- The feud between the government and the Governor over Vice Chancellor appointments has left 31 State-run universities without permanent leaders for more than five months.
- The conflict over control of higher education in the state has escalated, resulting in a delay in selecting Vice Chancellors, while the education system faces challenges such as declining enrollment, teacher shortages, and infrastructure issues.
As the government and the Governor stood their ground, trading allegations and thinly veiled barbs, the main issue, i.e., the welfare of universities and the future of higher education, seems to have been lost in the murky waters of one-upmanship politics. With no permanent Vice Chancellors for more than five months, all important activities at State-run universities are at a standstill. “The founding Act of the university vests enormous power in the office of the Vice Chancellor,” said Mishra. “He is the chairperson of all the statutory committees and gives leadership in the academic and administrative domains. So, whether it is a question of leave, or filling up a teaching post, or creation of a new curriculum, or repair and maintenance—everything is routed through the Vice Chancellor. Without a permanent Vice Chancellor, the universities have been rudderless for so long.” However, it is not as though the deadlock between Bengal and the Governor has precipitated a crisis in the higher education system in the State; there were serious problems in the sector that have been further exacerbated by the current Centre-State feud.
Biswanath Chakraborty, political science professor at Rabindra Bharati University, said that one of the visible signs that all was not well in the higher education sector was that the rate of enrolment of students at the college level had dipped alarmingly over the last few years. “Though there is no official record of this, we have seen that in several subjects, particularly physics, chemistry, mathematics, Sanskrit, philosophy and political science, enrolment has come down by over 30 per cent,” said Chakraborty. “The main reasons for this are that the higher education system cannot create job opportunities for the graduates, and the talented students are going out, mainly to Chennai, Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, and of late, Bhubaneswar.” He observed that the demand for pursuing higher education in Bengal among students from other States had also fallen drastically. “As a teacher, I have seen that in the 1980s a large number of students from the north-eastern region would enrol in colleges in Bengal, but now they are going elsewhere,” he said.
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Tarun Naskar, engineering professor at Jadavpur University and vice president of the All Bengal University Teachers’ Association, believes that another deterring factor may be the new system of a four-year undergraduate degree that the Centre has introduced. “The colleges barely have proper infrastructure and enough teachers; and on top of that, there is now an extra year. As a result, we are seeing many students opting for vocational courses,” said Naskar.
A glance at the National Institute Ranking Framework, issued by the Union Ministry of Education, will show that Jadavpur University (ranked number 4) is the only university from Bengal in the top 10. The iconic Calcutta University is at number 12. The only two others in the rankings are the University of Burdwan at 86, and Visva Bharati, a Central university, at 97.
The lack of funds to maintain infrastructure and human resources at universities and the persistent lawlessness on campuses have done their bit to create an unfavourable perception of higher education in Bengal. More recently, the death of a 17-year-old first-year student of Jadavpur University, a victim of ragging by a group of former students and seniors in the hostel, brought to the fore a longstanding culture of violence at one of the premier educational institutions in the State. Jadavpur University is also struggling to stay afloat due to an acute shortage of funds.
Partha Pratim Roy, physics professor and general secretary of the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, said that in spite of the lack of government funding, the university was continuing on its path of excellence, but the student death was being used to malign it. The Chief Minister herself called it “atankapur” (terror house) and blamed the Left for establishing a culture of violence on the campus. “This year, the university spent Rs.55 to 60 crore on basic maintenance, and the government only gave us Rs.21 crore,” said Roy. “A Central university gets several hundred crores. We do not get any funds from the Centre. On top of all these problems, there is a concerted effort to malign the university over the tragedy for political purposes.”
The situation is worse at the legendary Visva Bharati University, an Institute of National Importance founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Since 2019, the Central university has been in a state of turmoil after Bidyut Chakraborty took over as Vice Chancellor and allegedly embarked on an initiative to “saffronise” the institute. Not only has Chakraborty been at loggerheads with a section of the teachers but he has also been trying to reclaim a part of the land on which Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s ancestral house stands. Sen said that the university authorities were harassing him to “please their bosses in Delhi”.
While it is true that the State government has been on a university-building spree since it came to power in 2011, the state of infrastructure at the new and old universities paints a different picture. In 2011, when the Trinamool Congress came to power, there were 13 universities in the State; today, there are 31. Not only is there a lack of funds to maintain infrastructure at the new universities, but there are also not enough students to run academic courses at several of them.
Another major issue at universities is an acute shortage of teachers. In a recent study, Debesh Das, senior academic and former Minister with the erstwhile CPI(M)-led Left Front government, showed that around 50 per cent of teacher posts at Calcutta University were vacant (398 out of 793 posts); at Rabindra Bharati University, it was 39 per cent (78 out of 199) ; and at Jadavpur University, 28 per cent (243 out of 868). “On an average, two-thirds of the government colleges in the State have no permanent principals and around one-third of the posts of teachers are lying vacant,” Das stated in his study. “The situation has deteriorated drastically over the last few years, and the repeated face-off between the government and the Governor is killing the education system in the State,” he told Frontline. While in a normal situation, such a teacher shortage can be viewed as a crisis of sorts, at a time when the universities are implementing the new national education policy, the absence of full-time Vice Chancellors is being seen as catastrophic.
Ashutosh Ghosh, Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University who was denied an extension at Rani Rashmoni Green University, said that new universities had been hit hard because of the stand-off. “The new universities are being killed before they have been given a chance to function,” Ghosh told Frontline. “Rani Rashmoni Green University is a new university, and the students were very happy with the education they were receiving there. Their performance was good in the National Eligibility Test and they were looking forward to the future. But now, the exams are over and they are not getting their certificates; they cannot enrol in other places; and there are no new admissions either. The whole situation is an absolute mess.” What is most disturbing, he felt, was the destruction of the “atmosphere of learning”.
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According to Debasish Sarkar, educationist and National Executive member of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations, the rot in the education system can be traced to the school level. He said that a cohort study, following the progress of students, showed that while the student population was increasing all over the country, Bengal was witnessing lakhs of students dropping out after the Class 10 board exams, and that was reflected in Class 12 enrolments. “People have tried to put the blame on COVID, but that is not a true picture,” he said. “A sickness has entered the education system, and we are in a state of denial about it.”
At present, the government is reeling under the pressure of investigation by Central agencies in connection with the multi-crore school service recruitment scam. Several top officials of the State Education Department, Trinamool legislators, and former Education Minister Partha Chatterjee are behind bars for their alleged involvement in the scam in which thousands of deserving candidates were denied jobs.
Most educationists in Bengal feel that education is not among the priorities of either the government or the Centre. The percentage of the budget set aside for education has been decreasing in the last 10 years. In 2013, it was 3.95 per cent, which came down to 2.51 per cent in 2023. In Bengal, many feel that the setting up of new universities—without making a proper evaluation of the demand for them—is a gimmick aimed at winning political brownie points. Meanwhile, as the deadlock between the Governor and government continues, the Supreme Court on September 15 said it would set up the search/selection committee to choose Vice Chancellors, and asked the Governor, the State government, and the UGC to send it three to five names for the consideration of the Court.