In a candid freewheeling exclusive interview to The Lede, the Vice Chancellor says he is attempting to bring in transparency but the hurdles are many
Professor MK Surappa is disarmingly friendly, open and categorical about his role and the University that he now heads.
The Vice Chancellor of Tamil Nadu’s largest and most prestigious state-run engineering university, Surappa admits that there are a number of problems that need to be plugged.
The biggest issue is that of corruption over decades, he says, which in turn has brought in poor faculty, thereby churning out poorly educated students who are in turn unemployable in industry.
“I want to take the University back to the 1950s glorious era when (Lakshmanaswami) Mudaliar was the VC,” he began in an exclusive interview with The Lede.
Surappa admits that corruption is prevalent at every level in Anna University. “It is a fact. I know about it from others. Lots of people talk about it.
In these days we lack role models, in every sector including academic. Everyone must do their job for the institution, not only for their upward movement.
What is a University about? It is about excellence, new objectivity, knowledge, execution, justice, merit and humanistic values. When people take it for granted that they will not get into trouble for some wrongdoing, then others look at it and say – see he is not getting into trouble, so I will also do it.
Lots of people, I meet tell me about the corruption that is going on. I tell them to bring me evidence, bring me proof and I will immediately constitute an enquiry and ensure that those who are guilty are punished,” he said.
But the going is not very easy. The very nature of such corruption is such that the agreements to pay bribes are verbal agreements. Payments are made in cash so transactions are difficult to trace.
For a bribe-taker to be caught, a complaint has to be made to the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, which comes under the Tamil Nadu police. The DVAC can then, based upon the veracity of the complaint, lay a trap to catch the bribe-taker red-handed.
But in cases of cash for appointments as teaching or non-teaching staff, both the bribe-taker and the bribe-giver have something to gain. One gets a desperately needed job and the other gets money.
The balance of power is tilted in favour of the bribe-taker due to his/her position in the University. As a result, complaints are few and bribe-takers escape without punishment.
“People must act, they must not remain silent,” continued Surappa. “They must speak out. I have already acted against some of them including Deans of constituent colleges. Many deans have been removed or suspended.
The former Controller of Exams has been suspended. Zonal coordinators have been suspended. The pensions of few former Vice Chancellors of other centres have been reduced after inquiries into their actions,” he said.
When pressed about the details of those against whom committees of inquiry had been set up, Surappa declined to give details, stating that it was a confidential University matter.
But money continues to change hands – whether it is for appointments, transfers, research projects and grants or for passing of examinations and reviews. Exam paper leaks are also a result of this same network of greed and corruption.
It was only in 2019 that the much exalted Anna University in Chennai, two out of three of its regional centres in Trichy and Coimbatore and nine out of it 13 constituent colleges got affiliated to the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
Despite AICTE affiliation having been made mandatory in 1994, Anna University’s previous Vice Chancellors had not taken up the task of getting affiliation and accreditation from the NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council).
And this has denied tens of thousands of students passing out of Anna University of a chance at getting scholarships and fellowships.
“When I came here I found that Anna University did not have AICTE approval or NBA accreditation for large number of programs / courses,” said Surappa. “I have got it done now for most of (the) courses. Only few are pending and I will get that done soon. It was a question why the people at the helm of affairs did not do previously. Due to the University not having AICTE approval, students could not get PG fellowships or research scholarships. A large number of students over many years have missed out on these benefits,” he said.
But as discussed in The Lede’s previous story on the recruitment of temporary teachers, UGC norms stating that only 10% of staff should be temporary, have not been followed over the past decade.
Vice Chancellors of state-run universities have always come under pressure to bend to the will of the politicians and bureaucracy.
The Lede had reported on 16 July about the irregularities in appointments of temporary teaching faculty.
This is only one example of why the system of recruitments of faculty and non-teaching staff is deliberately kept opaque. The more transparent the system, the tougher it is to inject it with insidious corruption.
“I think there is an imperative need to change the mind set of every stake holder of University,” said Surappa. “The University should be left to academics and VCs to run. Decisions should not be based on anything other than merit and excellence.
They must look at other good universities and see how they are performing. How do they function and what is the interface between University and government?
If they have put someone in charge, they must watch and evaluate how that person is performing.
There are many things that the government should leave to University functionaries who have proven experience and deeper insights on higher education and research in the rapidly changing world.
There are of course large number of stake holders who support me within government.
There are no free exchange of ideas and in-depth discussions between the Vice Chancellor and other government functionaries.
I had enormous freedom at IIT Ropar, so I was able to assure performance. Accountability is inbuilt in me. People at the helm of affairs should be subjected to intense scrutiny,” he said.
As a result of corruption and apathy over decades, the Anna University is now finally waking up to the fact that its standards of teaching, research and PhDs are abysmally low.
The University is now attempting to make up for lost years and lost students by focussing more on education.
“In the G-20 Scorecard on Quality Research Performance for 2019, India is at number 18 out of the 20 countries,” pointed out Surappa. “Only Turkey and Russia are behind us. Even Indonesia is above us in quality ranking. It is a real shame. Our policy makers are feeding unverified, unchecked, unsubstantiated data regarding our research performance into public consumption to create complacency and enhance our false ego,” he said.
“There needs to be an increase in not just the quantity but also in the quality of our research. Instead we are bringing in regulations and policies which are harmful to this goal.
We have failed to check the system. We have not done an objective analysis which is in commensurate with the claims, rhetoric speeches and investment we have made, in the last two decades,” said Surappa.
With pervasive corruption and a powerful interfering state, the focus due on academics has been diverted instead to more material benefits. Teachers without proper qualifications who pay and wriggle their way in, loot of public money in contracts for materials such as CCTVs, all of these have occupied top spots in the previous Vice Chancellors’ agenda.
Excellence is academics and producing knowledgeable engineers ranked much lower.
“Mediocrity is accepted, it is a majoritarian theme in the education sector,” explained Surappa. “We can see it even in scientific discussions. Each one wants to please someone else.
Many of our scientists know the fallacy in our governance but they keep quiet so that they do not get bullied by others and also to keep their positions intact.
Silence and apathy is killing this nation. Even people who go abroad and come back keep quiet once they join the education system here and push many things under the carpet,” he said.
Worse, the teaching staff which is capable is being burdened with administrative jobs which take up most of their time. In a university that has over 500 affiliated colleges, the paperwork and assessment is a massive task.
“The faculty to conduct advanced research is very less than critical mass because they are all handling administrative jobs,” said Surappa. “Accreditation, affiliations should all be handled by others, not by every professor.
There are over 500 affiliated engineering colleges to be assessed for various parameters. When faculty does this, it leads to undesirable ambitions and desires in their minds.
This gives rise to scandals. I know about what is going on. If the country should rise to high levels, we should plug all this without fear or favour,” he said.
An unwieldy elephant, the Anna University, feels Surappa needs more decentralisation so that administration is easier.
“The University has grown too huge now,” he said. “There are 565 affiliated colleges, 16 campuses and it is too unwieldy for any Vice Chancellor to handle. Even if 30% of the people in this network work in a dedicated manner the University will rise to great heights. Some amount of decentralisation should be there or allow the Vice Chancellor to function as per the statutes,” he said.
Surappa says he is attempting to turn the focus at Anna University back on to education and excellence in research.
“There are a few steps I am taking to ensure that the quality of research at Anna University is improved,” he said. “The first is with regard to admissions. We have introduced written exams and interviews for research candidates and the number of PhD students has been brought down to 700.
Earlier the marks used to be 25-30% but now we have increased it substantially to 45%. As for thesis evaluation, I have brought in examiners from IITs and IISc and others from reputed institutions.
They are not less than the rank of Associate Professor level and we have ensured that.
We have also asked IIT and IISc faculty to be part of the Committee in the Centres recognition. We are also working towards increased collaborations with international universities,” he added.
But the question of who will bring past misdemeanours by various senior administrative personnel of Anna University remains unanswered.
The Lede has sent questionnaires on the subject to the Governor of Tamil Nadu Banwarilal Purohit, the chairman of the AICTE and Union minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal. We will update this article when they respond.
Probes into corruption in appointments, transfers, exam paper leaks and procurement of materials have all unfolded in a large scale in the past decade or so.
The DVAC cannot probe these without a complaint. The Governor has the authority to direct the DVAC to probe into the alleged misdemeanours of past Vice Chancellors, Registrars and other key staff. But that too is not forthcoming.
To date, the issue of temporary teaching faculty being recruited instead of full time teachers has not been fixed. Teachers with fake PhDs (which will be revealed later as part of The Lede’s continuing investigation into malpractices in state-run universities), boosted marks in recruitment examinations and those who have little knowledge of the subject they teach, continue to remain within Anna University.
All of these are open secrets at the university – known to teachers, non-teaching staff, the administration, the state government, ministers and present and former bureaucrats.
Some have fought the system and lost. Most remain silent and hold on to their posts for fear of adverse action against them.
The lack of firm evidence in the form of documentation, bank statements or witnesses to the demand for and giving of bribes has only emboldened the corrupt.
Temporary teachers who did not pay bribes but entered the university through the regular route of examinations and interviews are facing the heat for questioning the university’s malpractices and for exercising their right to legal recourse.