Menon Commission Report on Reforms in Higher Education in Kerala

Appointed in 2021 the Commission had some distinguished academics as its members to map the problems of higher education and suggest a roadmap for future
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The Shyam Menon Commission report titled as  “Commission for Reforms in Higher Education 2022” has now landed in the hands of Kerala government.

The seven member panel constituted by Kerala government under former vice chancellor of B R Ambedkar university, Delhi  was tasked  to study the possibilities of bringing in reforms that are in tune with changing times.

Appointed in 2021 the commission had some distinguished academics as its members to map the problems of higher education and suggest a roadmap for the future covering matters  viz, access and ease of doing education, a phrase taken from the lexicon of corporate world.

Keeping in view recent controversy between chancellor and state government the Menon commission has broadly recommended insulating the academic institutions from controversies arising out of  differences in interpretation of the federal character  of India’s constitution. The  panel has recommended many measures to improve the ecosystem of Higher education institutions in Kerala.

Context

Kerala, to begin with, viewed New Education policy (NEP2020)  with disagreements. After some time the state government became somewhat receptive to some of the recommendations and  decided to implement the reforms from  year 2023-24.

Earlier the Kerala state Higher Education Council had constituted a committee under eminent economist Prof Prabhat Patnaik which suggested that the NEP, 2020 is retrograde and presents an exclusionary vision of education.

The committee  raised concerns over the possible challenges that the scheme posed for access, equity, social justice and the reservation system.

While the union government maintained that the NEP, 2020 is advisory in nature, the Kerala government remained mindful of carrot and stick approach of UGC and decided to implement NEP. Some of the recommendations of the Menon panel are listed as under:

Separate Chancellor

The Menon panel has recommended a separate Chancellor for each university in the state thereby completely restructuring the position of the Chancellor.

This was not part of the terms of reference but media reports were already indicating that the panel may recommend such a structural change. The chancellor will be appointed by the Board of Regents.

The panel suggests that the Chancellor shall be a person of eminence and  great reputation who must have distinguished himself/herself in public life through a life time of excellence in fields viz, academia, science, culture, professions, industry, governance and public life.

The qualifications for a chancellor being generic have invited some criticism from certain quarters. However, on the positive side one can argue that the Board of Regents have sufficient choice to get the best person to the premier position of the university.

The point that such a board can be brought under pressure by powers to recommend a particular person to the position of chancellor is to dig into a dark corner of how appointments ultimately happen.

Retirement Age

The panel has recommended that retirement age of all faculty members in HEI be made commensurate with that of central universities.

Chief Minister as Visitor

The panel has recommended that the Chief Minister shall be the visitor of the public universities in the state of Kerala.

This way the role of the governor in the management of higher education has been taken away. Some experts have argued that the panel has taken sides in the battle between Governor and the state government and has completely sided with the elected government.

This type of criticism is well taken in a state like Kerala where issues of ideology are at the centre of  academic decision-making. It was during the controversy between Governor and state government that Arif Mohammad Khan (Governor) showed his willingness  to transfer his powers as Chancellor to the Pro Chancellor (Higher Education Minister) since the minster claimed her position not an ornamental one but one with powers to exercise.

Appointment of Vice Chancellor

The Menon Panel recommends that Board of Regents  consisting of the government nominee and others  will appoint the Vice Chancellor of the university on the recommendations of the “Search-cum-Selection” committee consisting of a nominee of the visitor namely the chief Minister, a nominee of the Board of Regents  and a nominee of the UGC Chairman.

The Vice Chancellor should be an educational expert and the term should be fixed at five years. The role of the state government in the selection of Vice Chancellor of a state public university is quite noticeable in the recommended procedure.

The commission seems to have kept in mind the NEP, 2020 but has deviated from it obviously in consideration of requirements of the state government. In Tamil Nadu the state legislature amended Madras University Act, 1923 to replace the Chancellor in the appointment process of a Vice Chancellor.

Before Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Telangana governments had chosen to keep the Governor out of  V-C appointment process. The Chief Ministers of some states feel that a government elected by the people being unable to appoint Vice-Chancellors to a university run by it creates a lot of issues in the overall varsity administration.

My own opinion in this matter is  that it is not the procedure per se  that  is important. What is important is how you pick up the right person possessing vision and wisdom to guide the destiny of a generation of students. Prof Yoginder K Alagh was in Valencia, Spain with no idea that he will get a call from Delhi informing him about his appointment  as  Vice Chancellor of JNU.

His wife would always check his savings bank account as he would fund the kids until their scholarship started coming. The Vice Chancellors in present times need to borrow the concept of Padyatra from the political lexicon of MK Gandhi and move in the campusall alone, talk to students and researchers in order to understand their problems. Reaching out to students through middlemen has its own set of problems as the brokers have many things to hide.    

Syndicate as Governing Body

The Menon Commission allows for continuation of the syndicate as the key policy-making body in the system of a university to be headed by the Vice Chancellor, with the pro-vice Chancellor, three Heads of Department chosen by rotation from different faculties as members, plus three external experts nominated by the Vice Chancellor, two eminent ‘thought leaders’ nominated by the Chancellor and one elected student representative as members.

This clearly shows that the formation of the syndicate is loaded in favor of the Vice Chancellor. Some eminent academics have pointed out that the Menon Commission has created a space for people with ideological preferences to get their way in the syndicate.

It is hoped that public discussion on the report takes care of this deficiency and allows independent minded people to acquire membership of decision-making bodies of a university.

Push to Social Sciences

The report gives due consideration to core academic concerns which more often escape the attention of members of such commissions. The  curriculum development and reform, innovation and incubation and at the top of everything attaching significance to Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages.

The report proposes establishment of institutional networks and missions for interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research in Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

At a time when research on social sciences and humanities is facing hostility from policy quarters across the globe, the government of Kerala has a unique responsibility to promote research in these fields. We recommend establishment of new institutions in these subjects to provide due weight to critical disciplines.

Conclusion

The Menon Commission has recommended a rise of public spending on higher education from 28.6 percent to 40 percent by 2036-37 to achieve 75 percent gross enrollment in higher education (GERHC). The report very much argues that the job of constructing a knowledge economy in Kerala must imply its  people-centred nature.

By following the bottom up approach the panel recommends a dignified “student-faculty life”  and argues for a charter of students rights and at the same time a charter of teachers rights to guide the process in each institution.

The panel strongly feels that services in HEI must acquire the status of a right for students and teachers. In line with contemporary social realities where we have fewer jobs and more  aspirants the panel recommends a comprehensive law on prevention of corrupt practices in HEI.

It recommends that all faculty appointments in government-aided institutions be passed over to  ‘Higher Education Faculty Recruitment Board’ (HEFRB). The Kerala government is now seeking more feedback from stakeholders before the report is adopted by the state government.

At this critical moment the state government and all concerned need to listen to the sane advice of  academic and philosopher William Hare who wrote:” to be open -minded is  to be critically receptive to alternative possibilities, to be willing to think again despite having formulated a view and to be concerned  to defuse any factors that constrain one’s thinking in pre-determined ways” 

Prof Gull Wani is Kashmir based Political Scientist

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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