The position of a vice-chancellor in a university is like a nucleus around whom revolves the whole system. Like in an animal or plant cell, any harm to the nucleus of a university, exposes the whole academic life to imminent danger. Universities, being the highest seats of learning, are required to engage in creativity and innovation, producing human resources of the highest quality for the knowledge-based economy. Therefore, all appointing bodies throughout the world search for the best individuals on the basis of eminence in academics, proven ability and leadership skills and research for appointment of a vice-chancellor.
To ensure efficiency, effectiveness and act independently, universities have been incorporated as autonomous statutory bodies with the vice-chancellor as the chief executive and principal accounting officer of the university. (S)he is bestowed with all necessary powers prescribed by the act, statutes, regulations and rules. The vice-chancellor is required to observe transparency and accountability considered to be essential for good governance. In K-P, (s)he has to seek guidance from the preamble of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa University Act 2012, which postulates to reconstitute and reorganise universities and their governance and management by ensuring accountability, transparency and giving due representation to all stakeholders in decision making, to enhance the quality of higher education.
The vice-chancellor, being the head of an autonomous body, is also entrusted with certain emergency powers without the intrusive role of the bigwigs in order to achieve the ideals set in the preamble. Therefore, the vice-chancellors, under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Universities Act 2012, can create and fill temporary posts for a period not exceeding one year and appoint employees on contract basis against the properly created budgeted posts for a period not exceeding three years. Besides others, such power is necessary for a smooth running of the administration. However, the intrusion of the elite to force the vice-chancellor to make appointments of their choice or to toe their line vitiates the atmosphere, turning the system topsy-turvy. No doubt, the vice-chancellors are under obligation to exercise their authority with the backing of the law. Checks and balances over the arbitrary exercise of power are being done through an inbuilt mechanism provided in the Universities Act 2012 in the form of the Syndicate and Senate. The university Senate has got the power of general supervision and can hold the vice-chancellor to account for all functions of the university. In the same vein, the Syndicate is the executive body of the university, exercising general supervision over the affairs and management of the university.
In this context, the vice-chancellor is one of the officers of the universities required to exercise his/her powers within the four walls of the Universities Act to maintain equilibrium. In the exercise of their powers, vice-chancellors at times are constrained to take disciplinary action against employees that are not working satisfactorily or have to be terminated upon completion of contract. They are also faced with demands of the elite to induct employees, or to promote while disregarding the laws and rules. Those not obliging are threatened with dire consequences. In one of the universities, the situation came to such a pass that the vice-chancellor had no other option but to register an FIR against the elite of the area. Resultantly, such vested interests start a malicious vilification campaign against the non-conforming vice-chancellors through print, electronic media and other available means. In addition, letters containing unfounded and baseless allegations in large numbers are sent to different offices including to the chancellor with the intention to poison the minds of those who matter in making decisions. Dragging them to courts and embroiling them on trumped-up charges is a regular phenomenon. As a result, instead of focusing their creative energies to improve overall governance, the vice-chancellors’ time gets wasted in facing courts and inquiries.
The chancellor without confronting the vice-chancellor with the allegations refers such matters for inquiries to bodies’ alien to the Universities Act. Such a blatant exercise of power is not only a travesty of justice but also demeans the august office of the vice-chancellor. The Senate has got the powers to annul any order not deemed appropriate. Therefore, in such cases the Senate is the most suitable body to probe allegations, if any. The recent trend probing into the affairs of the universities by bodies alien to the act has jeopardised the autonomy of the university and has made the vice-chancellors no more than a puppet due to the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The aforementioned act of 2012 provides an elaborate mechanism for regulating the scheduled universities and any action outside the scope of the act is considered to be ultra vires of the statute. Section 12(7) of the law that “A vice-chancellor shall hold office during the pleasure of the chancellor” is not only draconian and contrary to the fundamental rights, but also makes his/her position most vulnerable as compared to any civil servant. Consequently, the vice-chancellors have been placed in a situation of fear and awe.
Realising the gravity of the situation, the All Pakistan Teachers Association has demanded that “revengeful actions” against the vice-chancellors be stopped. If this trend is not stopped and the vice-chancellors that have fallen victim to such mala fide actions are not provided adequate relief, the whole higher education system may be plunged into a disaster. The only remedy is to follow the Universities Act of 2012 in letter and spirit.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2021.