On October 24, Dr Sanjay Deshmukh, the vice chancellor of one of India’s biggest institutions of higher education, the University of Mumbai, was dismissed from his post for “incompetence.” This was the first time in independent India that an academic head had been sacked for failing to ensure that examination results were delivered on time.

The Indian government was forced to sack Deshmukh even though he came from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and a movement to which most of its top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, belong. Deshmukh had barely completed half of his five-year term when he was sacked.

He was sent on leave in August after an inordinate delay in announcing results. The delay was due to botched implementation of a new system of digital assessment of answer sheets. In all, 850,000 students from across India, sitting for 450 examinations, were affected.

The results were declared as late as mid-September for examinations held in March-April, and hundreds of answer sheets were reported missing. Eventually, the University awarded those students “average marks,” a move dubbed as “unjust” by those affected, many of whom lost jobs or an opportunity to pursue further studies this academic year.

But Deshmukh’s dismal performance as VC was not an isolated incident. It was just the tip of a deeper rot that has been plaguing India’s higher education for decades.

A couple of months ago, the 100-year-old Benaras Hindu University, in Modi’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi, witnessed massive student protests due to the mishandling of sexual harassment complaints by its vice chancellor, G C Tripathi. His incompetency in tackling the protests on campus snowballed into violence and charging (with canes) by the police. Several girls were injured when police moved into the campus in the middle of the night, leading to outrage across India. Tripathi was sent on “forced leave” until his retirement, and the reputation of one of the finest universities in India was in tatters.

Widespread rot

Recently, several other top Indian universities have faced major issues due to incompetent and corrupt vice chancellors, all of whom are political appointees.

Two vice chancellors from universities in the western state of Maharashtra were sacked this year over financial irregularities. The vice chancellor of Chandra Shekhar Azad University of Agriculture and Technology, Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, was sacked last year over graft charges. And also last year, vice chancellors at two centrally-controlled institutions – Pondicherry University’s Chandra Krishnamurthy and Visva Bharati University’s Sushanta Dattagupta – were dismissed following, respectively, allegations of plagiarism and financial irregularities.

Political selection

On paper, there is a proper system in place for appointing vice chancellors that involves a committee of eminent individuals shortlisting the best candidates. However, the final selection is usually done by the Chancellor and Governors in the case of state institutions and by the President in the case of central universities.

“A lot of politics are now involved when a nominee is handpicked by the government. Qualities such as leadership and academic excellence are trumped by ideology during this process. This is how the autonomy of public universities is being undermined,” says Professor C S Kulkarni from Mumbai University.

This was not the case until the 1970s, when only eminent academicians tended to be handpicked for the job. Milind Wagh, an educationist, alleges that “in the last couple of decades, the VC selection process was influenced by the respective governments to some extent. But the present government is aggressively doing that. For instance, the only qualification the sacked Vice Chancellor Sanjay Deshmukh possessed was that he worked for an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliated institution.”

Autonomy compromised

According to Indian law, public universities in India enjoy complete academic and administrative autonomy. They are not supposed to allow any interference from the government, even if it funds them. Various executive bodies such as senates, examination boards and academic councils are there to supervise the universities’ major functions.

However, many vice chancellors face corruption charges, or have been caught running rackets in appointments and admissions. Some have been found to have awarded contracts to their favorite firms. Others have even been found to have sold fake degrees or fudged marks, often in collusion with various lobbies.

Vice chancellors have continued to enjoy supreme power on campuses due to support from their political masters and the subservience of executive bodies.

“This happens because executive bodies are often dominated by members nominated by the vice chancellors. The feudal attitude of leaders has damaged the Indian universities enormously,” says Wagh.

‘Academic inbreeding’

Often these heads are products of the institutions they come to lead, a phenomenon known as “academic inbreeding” and one with ethnic undertones. Sanjay Vairal, a former Mumbai University senate member, says: “As they know the system and people closely, it becomes easier for them to exploit it.”

The University Grants Commission (UGC), the apex funding agency set up to monitor universities, is concerned about the decline in the standard of vice chancellors, but has failed to address it. State governments like Maharashtra have sought to decentralize the powers vested in vice chancellors. However, a ban on student union elections in many states and universities has added to a growing communication gap between stakeholders.

Public vs private

There is a clear pattern in the frequent controversies that erupt regularly in India’s top universities. Academicians allege that the mess in public universities is in part created by private universities, in order to wean good students away. In India, public universities are ranked far higher than most private universities, and attract the best students.

Professor Kulkarni sees a pattern. “Every attempt is made to discredit public universities at the behest of private universities, which are mushrooming across India. They will be benefited if Mumbai and other public institutions continue to rot.”

As a result of the frequent controversies and scandals, no Indian university figures in the global top 200 list of academic institutions.   “With incompetent people at the top, hidden agendas and ideology supersede the real objectives of an educational institution. Research outputs and academic excellence take a back seat,” says Wagh.

Unsurprisingly, Indian universities get very few students from abroad, except a few from Nepal, Afghanistan and African countries.“Foreign students won’t come to India if the poor leadership and controversies continue. Even if they come, they would prefer private universities. The reputation of many Indian universities is a cause of concern for employers as well as for foreign universities, which receive a large number of Indian students,” admits an official from India’s Ministry of Human Resources and Development.