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Kerala VC Row: How Much of a Say Do Governors Have in State Universities?

Amid the controversy, questions are being raised about the role of a governor in regards with state universities.

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The latest in the saga of governor versus vice chancellors of universities in Kerala is that the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) is planning to protest in the streets against the governor. Kerala's governor had ordered nine vice chancellors of state universities to resign after a Supreme Court order, but the matter was stayed by the Kerala High Court which has opined that all eight VCs can remain in their posts till the chancellor or governor issue the final order after a show cause notice.

Amid the controversy, obvious questions are being raised about the role of a governor in regards with state universities and to what extent they can use their powers. Are other states, besides Kerala, also facing a power struggle between their respective Raj Bhawans and state universities?

Kerala VC Row: How Much of a Say Do Governors Have in State Universities?

  1. 1. The Governor as University Chancellor  

    First, it is pertinent to note that in most states, the governor is the chancellor of state-owned universities. Every state establishes a public university through an act passed in the legislative assembly and this law makes the governor the chancellor of the university. They work as the head of the institution and also have the power to appoint vice chancellors.

    The chancellor of the university also presides over the meeting of the court or the senate of the university. The court or the senate of the university has the power to create new departments and give out degrees, titles, and fellowships.

    Besides this, if any university acts against what is provided by the law, the chancellor may use his power to set things right.

    In Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand, the chancellor of a public university also has the power of inspection. In other words, the governor has a big say in the workings of public universities in Indian states.
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  2. 2. Not Just Kerala

    The power of a governor as a public university's chancellor could set them on a path of collision with the respective state government. This is exactly what happened in Kerala. A bill passed by the Kerala legislative assembly is pending with the governor which aims to curtail the power of the governor as chancellor. As the move has not gone down well with the governor, the state government is now considering implementing the new rules through an ordinance. 

    Earlier this year in June, West Bengal had also passed such a law which empowered the chief minister of the state to appoint 31 vice chancellors in state universities instead of the governor. 

    The Tamil Nadu government also passed two bills in April. Both bills – the Tamil Nadu University Law (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and Chennai University (Amendment) Bill, 2022 – included provisions to empower the state government to appoint vice chancellors, instead of the governor doing so.   

    Similarly, in 2021, Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Public University (Third Amendment) Bill, which also changed the process of the appointment of vice chancellors in state universities.

    In 2013, the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat state government dissolved all powers of the governor as the chancellor. The bill got the governor’s assent in 2015. 

    The governors are appointed by the Centre and it is generally observed that those states which are ruled by Opposition parties mostly see skirmishes between the state government and the governors in their role as chancellor.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Governor in the Political Arena

    What is the role of a governor in state universities is a question being asked repeatedly. The state government provides funds for the university so they exercise control, but why there is so much weight given to the governor? Does a governor have the right to use their conscience in their decision-making related to the university without consulting the state government?

    There are many instances when governors have fallen to partisan politics in the role of the chancellor. In 1986, the journal of the Indian Law Institute published a paper titled 'Governor-Chancellor: A round peg in a square hole' by legal academic professor RK Raizada.

    This paper mentioned many instances where various governors had misused their powers as the chancellor. This is exactly why many court decisions have defined the governor’s role as the chancellor.

    In 1974, a constitutional bench of seven Supreme Court judges in the Shamsher Singh vs State of Punjab case had decided that all the acts of the governor would be as per the advice of the state government. Justice VR Krishna Iyer in 1980 used the term ‘functional euphemism’, meaning that the president and governors must function on the advice of the council of the ministers.

    Though in 1997, the Supreme Court, in a case related to the chairperson of the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, opined that a governor is not bound to act according to the advice of the council of ministers while performing constitutional duties.

    Expand
  4. 4. Centre Also Looking To Strip UGC of Powers?

    The problem is that the students bear the burden of the damage caused by the power struggle between governors and state governments. This is exactly why the ‘de-politicisation’ of institutes of higher learning has always been recommended. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 also talks about granting autonomy for educational institutes.

    Though interestingly, the Centre itself seemingly aims to disband the University Grants Commission (UGC) whose rules are cited by the Kerala governor to demand the resignations of the vice chancellors.

    In 2018, the Centre tabled the Draft Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act, 1956) Bill. It was a bill that proposed to replace the UGC with a Higher Education Commission.

    The draft bill proposed to give sweeping powers to the central government. One provision of the bill said, "If any institute does not follow the minimum criteria prescribed, the commission will have the power to close down such institutions."

    There is no such power with the UGC, so how does the question of autonomy emerge?

    Expand

The Governor as University Chancellor  

First, it is pertinent to note that in most states, the governor is the chancellor of state-owned universities. Every state establishes a public university through an act passed in the legislative assembly and this law makes the governor the chancellor of the university. They work as the head of the institution and also have the power to appoint vice chancellors.

The chancellor of the university also presides over the meeting of the court or the senate of the university. The court or the senate of the university has the power to create new departments and give out degrees, titles, and fellowships.

Besides this, if any university acts against what is provided by the law, the chancellor may use his power to set things right.

In Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand, the chancellor of a public university also has the power of inspection. In other words, the governor has a big say in the workings of public universities in Indian states.
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Not Just Kerala

The power of a governor as a public university's chancellor could set them on a path of collision with the respective state government. This is exactly what happened in Kerala. A bill passed by the Kerala legislative assembly is pending with the governor which aims to curtail the power of the governor as chancellor. As the move has not gone down well with the governor, the state government is now considering implementing the new rules through an ordinance. 

Earlier this year in June, West Bengal had also passed such a law which empowered the chief minister of the state to appoint 31 vice chancellors in state universities instead of the governor. 

The Tamil Nadu government also passed two bills in April. Both bills – the Tamil Nadu University Law (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and Chennai University (Amendment) Bill, 2022 – included provisions to empower the state government to appoint vice chancellors, instead of the governor doing so.   

Similarly, in 2021, Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Public University (Third Amendment) Bill, which also changed the process of the appointment of vice chancellors in state universities.

In 2013, the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat state government dissolved all powers of the governor as the chancellor. The bill got the governor’s assent in 2015. 

The governors are appointed by the Centre and it is generally observed that those states which are ruled by Opposition parties mostly see skirmishes between the state government and the governors in their role as chancellor.

0

The Governor in the Political Arena

What is the role of a governor in state universities is a question being asked repeatedly. The state government provides funds for the university so they exercise control, but why there is so much weight given to the governor? Does a governor have the right to use their conscience in their decision-making related to the university without consulting the state government?

There are many instances when governors have fallen to partisan politics in the role of the chancellor. In 1986, the journal of the Indian Law Institute published a paper titled 'Governor-Chancellor: A round peg in a square hole' by legal academic professor RK Raizada.

This paper mentioned many instances where various governors had misused their powers as the chancellor. This is exactly why many court decisions have defined the governor’s role as the chancellor.

In 1974, a constitutional bench of seven Supreme Court judges in the Shamsher Singh vs State of Punjab case had decided that all the acts of the governor would be as per the advice of the state government. Justice VR Krishna Iyer in 1980 used the term ‘functional euphemism’, meaning that the president and governors must function on the advice of the council of the ministers.

Though in 1997, the Supreme Court, in a case related to the chairperson of the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, opined that a governor is not bound to act according to the advice of the council of ministers while performing constitutional duties.

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Many boards have been formed from time to time to provide advise on the balance of power between the states and the Centre. In 2007, the Punchhi Commission came out with recommendations on the role of the governor in educational institutes.

“There are chances of criticism or controversies if the governors are also given responsibility as the chancellor. The constitutional role of the governor should be limited,” it had said.

The University (Amendment) Act, 2022, in West Bengal had also given reference to the same recommendation by the Punchhi Commission.

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Centre Also Looking To Strip UGC of Powers?

The problem is that the students bear the burden of the damage caused by the power struggle between governors and state governments. This is exactly why the ‘de-politicisation’ of institutes of higher learning has always been recommended. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 also talks about granting autonomy for educational institutes.

Though interestingly, the Centre itself seemingly aims to disband the University Grants Commission (UGC) whose rules are cited by the Kerala governor to demand the resignations of the vice chancellors.

In 2018, the Centre tabled the Draft Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act, 1956) Bill. It was a bill that proposed to replace the UGC with a Higher Education Commission.

The draft bill proposed to give sweeping powers to the central government. One provision of the bill said, "If any institute does not follow the minimum criteria prescribed, the commission will have the power to close down such institutions."

There is no such power with the UGC, so how does the question of autonomy emerge?

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In higher education institutes in India, the gross enrolment ratio in 2016-17 was 26 percent, meaning only 26 percent of those who were eligible entered universities. This ratio is 87 percent in the US, 79 percent in Russia, and 57 percent in the UK.

85 percent of those who get admission to higher education institutes in India get enrolled in state universities and only a few such institutes are included in the top 100 institutes, according to the National Institution Ranking Framework. This is the situation even after many new institutes have been established because the state universities receive meagre funds from the Centre.

65 percent of the grants from UGC go to central universities and their affiliated colleges while state universities and their affiliated colleges get a small slice of the pie (the remaining 35 percent).

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