Indian leadership vacuum raises questions over sector reforms

Critics allege that political interference has caused delays to appointments  

June 17, 2021
Person dressed headless and holding a dummy head as a metaphor for Indian leadership vacuum raises questions over sector reforms
Source: Getty

More than one in three of India’s central universities is without a permanent vice-chancellor, raising concerns about growing political interference in appointments and flagging questions about the planned transformation of the country’s higher education system.

At least 21 of the 54 central institutions – which are funded by the national government – do not have a long-term leader, including Banaras Hindu, Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru universities.

According to India’s The Telegraph, which first reported the shortfall, Ministry of Education officials blamed the Prime Minister’s Office for not responding swiftly to lists of shortlisted candidates, which would then be sent to the president.

However, critics pointed out that prime minister Narendra Modi would not normally be part of the process for appointing central university vice-chancellors.

“If the list is going to the PMO, it should be seen as violation of the process and overreach,” Apoorvanand, a Hindi professor at Delhi, told Times Higher Education.

“The government is looking for ideological loyalists and wants to be absolutely sure about their political correctness before appointing them. This can be one reason for the delay.”

The vacancies do not seem to be due to a lack of interest. One sector expert, who asked to speak anonymously, said that there were “many aspirants for the posts”.

“The politicisation of v-c appointments is a major factor responsible for the delay,” the expert said. “Certain universities or institutions are not a priority for the central government. That is reflected not only in v-c appointments, but also in granting finance department approval for the creation of new posts.”  

The situation has left top universities in a stalemate, especially as interim or acting vice-chancellors generally do not appoint permanent staff or enact larger policy changes.  

The University of Delhi, India’s legacy institution, ousted its leader last year amid allegations, ironically, that he failed to fill key empty posts.

In addition, four Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) have been without permanent directors for more than a year.  

The vacuum is seen as raising further questions about India’s ambitious National Education Policy, a 20-year blueprint outlining how India can greatly expand and internationalise its university sector.

Experts said that the reforms had “already been delayed”, given mass campus closures under India’s deadly second wave of Covid-19. The details are yet to be hashed out in parliament.

“It is still not clear what this NEP wants to achieve,” Professor Apoorvanand said. “There is no programme of action proposed by the government to implement it. So, it is vague and gives liberty to the government to do anything in the name of the NEP.

“The prolonged uncertainty impacts the functioning of the universities; but in my opinion, this dispensation does not care,” he continued. “It wants to hollow out the universities. One way is to appoint faculty members of a particular ideological leaning. Another is by weakening all institutional processes and by starving [institutions] of funds. Universities are crumbling in India.” 

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