By Godwin Constantine –
The present crisis in the university system due to politicization of the universities has attracted attention of the general public in the recent times. This issue has been highlighted in the new government’s 100-day programme. Though it is said that the politicization of the university system started during JR Jayewardene’s tenure it was perfected during the tenure of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is indeed commendable that the new government has appointed a suitably qualified person as the State Minister of Higher Education. However, the Ministers’ stance to maintain status quo by continuing with the political appointees is disheartening.
The present controversies surround the vice chancellors of universities of Colombo, Jaffan and Baticoloa and the Chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC) who are political appointees of the state through the powers wrested on the head of state by the Universities Act of 1978.
There are numerous glaring examples of abuse of power by the political appointees in these institutions. The mounting pressure to remove the political appointees from the position of power is understandably done with the hope that the new government with an objective to introduce good governance would act swiftly to restore the dignity of the universities.
During the past 10 years we have witnessed extensive politicization of the universities in this country. The high authorities in the university system (regrettably who are academics) have stooped to the level of issuing political statements and involve in political campaign of party in power using their position as heads of institutions.
Hence it has become a norm for aspirants for vice chancellor post to go behind politicians to secure their appointments. This has marginalised good and efficient academics who would like to epitomise their carrier by becoming heads of institutions in this university system. Moreover many excellent academics shy away from these posts as they are embarrassed to undergo and identify with this process of appointments.
As the chief administrators are appointed through their political affiliations and connections, in the exercise of their duty display of intellectual honesty has become a rarity. Appointments and promotions are made on the basis of favouritism and personal opinion. Appointments which are made through elections which cannot be controlled like the Dean of a Faculty is differed by appointing an acting Dean if the elected person is not one favoured by the chief administrator.
Undoubtedly the Universities Act of 1978 has contributed to the present state of affairs in the universities. Recently Professor Hoole noted that the Act is good but those who implement the Act are at fault. And the ‘human tendency’ for favouritism has been cited as the cause of this fault in the implementation of the Act. It is further stated that the academics are influenced by the social contacts and relationships to deviate from the correct path. With all due respect I differ. As the same argument and more will apply for the politicians may it be the minister or the head of state.
In making these appointments minister and the President are influenced by factors ranging from political, relationship and social factors. As the sphere of influence of the politicians are much wider than that of the academics, the argument that the decisions of academics are subject to influence by the society and there for the present Act which gives the power of appointment to the external source namely the Minister and the President should be preserved is not tenable. If we consider the dean’s election which is held at faculty level is completely independent and usually takes place without much controversy except in places where the higher authorities want their person of choice to be elected.
We have witnessed as Professor Hoole states, in Boards and Senates only a few senior academics speak up and other remain silent, this culture of silence has to change. Board and Senate meetings should become places for intellectual discussion and constructive criticism. The culture of silence will only enable a few to manipulate the system to achieve their personal goals.
The appointment of the Council members is also a contentious issue contributing to the present crisis. At present the UGC is entrusted with the responsibility to appoint the external members to the Council who amount to internal plus one in number to make external majority. The external members are usually appointed in concurrence with the vice chancellor (VC) and the politicians thus giving the VC overall control of the Council. The number of times an external member can be reappointed to the Council is not specified in the Act, hence the VC has the opportunity to reappoint persons who are likely to support him/her and avoid persons who are critical.
The third issue which needs attention is the recruitment of non-academic staff based on the “Minsters’ list”. This system has enabled many inefficient uninterested party supports to find jobs in the universities. Since these employees have political connections they can interfere with the smooth functioning of the universities.
At present the selection of the VC is a prerogative of the president. The council through an election selects three names, which is sent to the President through the UGC. At this point all three are considered equal and the president selects one as the VC. In this process as the VC has overall control of the council VC can manipulate the council to achieve desired ends. This needs to be changed.
A VC selection committee could be constituted comprising of equal numbers from the council which is the management body of a university and from the Senate which is the academic decision making body of the university. This committee should elect on person and forward that to the President who will endorse the appointment. However, the President should be able to decline if he feels the selection of a particular person can lead the university into the hands of few with extreme view may it be political or otherwise.
The selection process of the external council members also need to be changed. Universities have wide range of study programms which necessitates a council comprising of persons from diverse interest and fields; this could be achieved by seeking council nominees from each faculty along with VC’s nominees. The UGC in concurrence with the minster could choose the final council members. The council members should not be reappointed to prevent the VC from continuing to have their favourites in the council for long.
The recruitment of non-academic staff should follow standard procedure based on qualification and experience and politicians should not have a role in recommending people for university vacancies.
The function university is not only limited to producing employable graduate for the consumerist society, it also has an important social function as a place for intellectual discourse and opinion making. Academic have a duty to maintain intellectual honesty and integrity to guide the society in issues of social concern. To fulfil this role academics should be able to stand-up for justice and fair play at crucial times. If we choose to maintain a ‘culture of silence’ we deserve what we get.
*Dr. Godwin Constantine – Senior Lecturer in Medicine, University of Colombo