‘Eroding autonomy’: What the fight over Odisha’s university recruitment policy is about

Odisha’s university recruitment policy, through OPSC, SSC, has led to much debate. Tied to it is the question of autonomy, for state and university.

‘Eroding autonomy’: What the fight over Odisha’s university recruitment policy is about The Odisha Universities Amendment 2020 erodes the autonomy of state universities to recruit teachers and vice chancellors. (Image: Utkal University Official website)
Sheena Sachdeva | Jun 17, 2022 - 12:40 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: All recruitment of teaching and non-teaching staff in Odisha’s state universities is on hold, at least until the end of July. A bitterly-fought battle over the right to appoint teachers has resulted in the recruitment of teachers being stalled.

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An amendment made to the state’s teacher recruitment policy in 2020 has led to multiple lawsuits filed by the top higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) and various groups of teachers.

In this instance, everyone involved in the lawsuits is citing “autonomy” – the universities’ to appoint their own teachers or the states’ to frame their own regulations -- as reason for supporting or opposing the amendment.

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Teaching jobs: Court cases

The conflict began in 2020 when Odisha amended the Odisha Universities Act 1989 to alter the way the state’s universities recruited teaching and non-teaching staff. The amendment gave the powers of recruitment to the Odisha Public Service Commission (OPSC) for the first and Staff Selection Commission (Odisha SSC) for the second. Both bodies are state-level recruitment agencies.

However, as per the 2018 UGC regulations, universities had the right to form selection committees and appoint teachers.

The amendment immediately led to conflict with the UGC and then, litigation in the Odisha High Court which upheld the amendment in January 2022.

Later, on April 19 and 30 respectively, UGC and Ajit Mohanty, retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, petitioned the Supreme Court to review the validity of the High Court order. On May 20, the Supreme Court stayed the recruitment of university teachers for a period of three months and asked the state government to submit its statements in the next hearing.

But despite the Supreme Court order, recruitment didn’t stop. The OPSC issued two advertisements for teaching posts on May 23 and 24 again. On May 28, Kunja Bihari Panda, professor at Utkal University, along with other teachers complained about it to Odisha Governor Ganeshi Lal and the process was finally halted on May 28.

Just days later, on May 31, Panda, professor, Utkal University and a few other teachers of Odisha’s state universities also challenged the high court judgement. Their petition argued: “The impugned Odisha Universities (Amendment) Act is an exercise to erode the autonomy, both administrative and academic, of the State Universities and would amount to impeding the progress of research and academics in our universities.”

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Autonomy, state vs centre

Those who support Odisha’s stand – or, at least, stand against the UGC’s – see the issue as one of freedom for the states to frame their own policies. “The real debate is on the extent to which the central government or bodies should interfere or not interfere in the affairs of the university. In any case, universities have been controlled by the central government in many significant ways now,” said Jayanta Kumar Nanda, former professor at Utkal University.

He argued that while in states like Bihar, the Public Service Commissions have been recruiting university teachers for years, Odisha should be allowed too as well. Since 2017, Bihar has recruited university teachers through the Bihar State University Service Commission. The body comes under the state government.

However, the amended law contains changes that do not sit right with many Odisha academics. The changes whittle away at the academics’ and university community’s power in matters of recruitment, transferring much of it to state-appointed officials and bureaucrats, argued teachers.

“Odisha’s University Amendment Act violates UGC guidelines 2018. For instance, the rules of recruiting VCs have changed -- the experts in the committee for recruitment in the universities were not academics but bureaucrats,” said Kunja Bihari Panda, one of the petitioners challenging the amendment.

Mohanty added: “Under The Odisha Universities (Amendment) Act 2020, the senate was replaced with the syndicate which consists of officials from the state government. The senate is the primary body which consists of stakeholders of the university and looks after the university overall. According to the UGC guidelines, this body must consist of renowned academics. But the majority of people in the syndicate of the state universities of Odisha are state government officials either nominated by the government or directly posted. Further, the process of appointment of vice-chancellor has also been changed. The amendment insisted on the chief secretary or bureaucrat appointing the VC which is against the UGC regulations. And lastly, the appointment of faculty is no longer under the purview of the vice-chancellor but the OPSC.”

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UGC regulations

Mohanty pointed out that UGC regulations are framed using powers conferred by an act of Parliament – the UGC Act 1956 is a central law. “Therefore, any violation of the regulation is contradictory to the Parliamentary act and will be void. This is under the repugnancy clause of Article 254 of the Constitution of India. Further, there have been several judgments that have stated that UGC has an ultimate role in setting the standard of higher education in the country and UGC regulation should prevail over any state act,” he said.

Panda’s petition says: “As per the regulation, UGC mandates that the members of search-cum-selection committee shall be persons of eminence in the sphere of higher education and shall not be connected in any manner with the university concerned. The search committee shall comprise academicians or persons with experience in the higher education system of the country who are best suited to recommend names of the person who would be the Vice-Chancellor of the University.”

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“The people who are challenging our petitions are saying that OPSC is another constitutional body but they aren’t aware that OPSC has no power to select the faculty of a university. As universities are autonomous bodies, they have the right to select the faculties themselves. UGC guidelines nowhere say that the selection will be by a central body or OPSC. This is the main contention in the case,” said Mohanty.

The next hearing of the case is on July 20.

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