The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) under the Ministry of Education published its 2021 rankings of Indian colleges and universities this week.
With the usually well-known universities dominating the top ranks like the Indian Institute of Science (Bengaluru) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), a focal point in the rankings was the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Meghalaya, which fell ten spots to the 59th position this year.
NEHU, which started off in the 15th place when the NIRF was instated in 2016, rapidly slid down the rankings over the years and unsurprisingly so.
The university has been embroiled in massive administrative, management and financial irregularities and has regularly been making news for its current condition.
Parameters of the recent NIRF rankings reflect the financial storm that the university is currently under. Under the head ‘Financial Resources and their Utilisation’, NEHU scored 6.97 out of 100, down from 10.09 last year.
The drop means that despite the university being centrally funded, the money that is spent on every student in the university has reduced, which has been a recurring case ever over the years ever since the university has been rated by NIRF.
“I have heard stories of excellence about the university from my relatives. The situations they describe are nothing near to what the university is now. Every student expects the best when they get into a university. But all I have seen in NEHU is some issue or the other constantly hindering education,” Leon Kharmawphlang*, a post-graduate student of NEHU, said.
“Universities outside have various focus. Some are heavily research-based while some prepare students keeping in mind the industry. I don’t really know what NEHU’s focus is for the students. Neither do we become fit for research nor are we able to compete with students from other universities outside. What is the use of such an education?” he added.
NEHU was started in 1973 with the aim of becoming an important regional institute of higher education in the Northeast.
It has been the alma mater of notable people, including former Chairman of Union Public Service Commission David Syiemlieh, renowned academician Sanjay Barbora and current Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Alphons Kannanthanam.
But off late, the university has lost significant appeal for students outside Meghalaya. The regional diversity score, which shows the number of students who prefer to come from other states to study in NEHU, has dropped 16 percent compared to last year and 32 percent compared to the 2019 score.
“Even after teaching here for the longest time in my career, I have to be sure if I want to send my children to this university. It is not surprising if other parents are thinking on similar lines,” said a faculty member at NEHU requesting anonymity.
“In the past decade, there has hardly been any positive news about NEHU,” the faculty member said, adding, All we have seen is controversy. It certainly is not a selling point.”
“It is either a controversy within the management, an issue with the vice-chancellor, or the side-lining of duties by faculty members. There is a point till which one can speak and protest about such issues. Everyone is slowly turning their heads away,” he added.
Once an institute that promised excellence in education to tribal students in the region, NEHU today is riddled with management issues as if it were run as an ineffective bureaucracy. Its appointments of vice chancellors, in particular, have gained the limelight and created heavy controversy over the years.
In the year 2010, the university’s vice chancellor Pramod Tandon was nearing the expiry of his term – a period riddled with heavy disgruntlement due to his bad treatment of the faculty. In fact, around this period, Tandon was locked by his own faculty in his office for non-payment of salaries.
After Tandon left, the demand for an efficient vice-chancellor was made to resolve legacy issues left behind by Tandon.
However, in came AN Rai, who was previously embroiled in a recruitment controversy in Mizoram University, which soon saw students conducting a black-flag protest against his appointment.
Ever since NEHU has not quite coped with the issue of having a stable vice-chancellor’s office.
Over the years, both the teaching association and the student association have been strong-armed every time the bodies questioned any administrative or financial irregularities.
In 2018, amid complaints of deteriorated hostel facilities for research scholars, delayed results, and exploitation and mistreatment of students, some 200 contractual employees of the Tura campus went on strike for non-payment of dues.
The vice chancellor of this period, Prof. SK Srivastava took steps in the university which were unheard of before. Faculty members were being threatened at their homes, student welfare was disregarded, and administrative duties were shirked.
This is not to mention the periodic cases of sexual harassment by faculty and administration directed toward students and research scholars.
“Classes and assignments are a joke, especially now. I have tried to adapt to the system but I see my peers blatantly copying material from Wikipedia, personal blogs and sometimes even from Facebook pages. Yet, almost no one is caught or pulled up for plagiarism.”
“Leave aside, the quality of assignment,” a second-year student at NEHU said on condition of anonymity.
“I hear from my friends that teachers in other departments do not even take classes sometimes. Who is responsible for all this? Is this the quality of education of a central university? What kind of jobs will we get in the market tomorrow?” she added.
The lapses in administration and faculty particularly peaked after the 2019 pandemic forced all educational institutes to shut down in Meghalaya. For NEHU, whose student and faculty cohort come from all parts of Meghalaya, online education did not turn out to be conducive.
“Many students in my batch come from rural parts. They could not attend online classes due to bad or no internet and hence, did not sit for exams. Students across the country are struggling due to this, but at least some universities are trying to find a solution. We have not been so lucky here,” Edwina Challam*, a second-year post-graduate student of political science, said.
Today, two years into the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, NEHU is yet to find a solution for offering stable services and resources to its students and faculty.
‘Teaching, Learning and Resources (TLR)’, another parameter under the 2021 NIRF rankings, has significantly dropped for NEHU as compared to last year and the year before.
In 2020, the administration removed a well-known professor, Mala Renganathan, who was the head of NEHU’s oldest department, the English Department.
Renganathan had gotten into the bad books of the management for challenging the functioning of the university in its lack of support to students, who were expected to seamlessly shift from offline to online education without any leniency.
Students had to protest an experienced Renganathan’s unexpected ouster in the middle of an academic term, which further affected their learning.
NEHU’s drop in rankings is a testament to the subpar administration in recent years.
After months of delay in the appointment of a new vice chancellor, the university will now be headed by Prof. Prabha Shukla, who inherits a broken system plagued by dereliction of duty, abuse of students, a lack of commitment to education, and a near absence of transparency and accountability across the university.
NEHU is now a particularly unsafe and unproductive institute of knowledge for local students and faculty, defeating the primary purpose of its establishment in the tribal heartland.
It’s not unusual for Meghalaya, and other northeastern states that some of the finest local talents – students and teachers – leave the state disillusioned and settle in institutions outside that are not only more serious in their pursuit of knowledge, but offer a far more professional environment.
More and more, NEHU has become a place where students’ dreams are chewed and spat out, or where students simply do not go.
With these falling standards – from its education to its administration – is NEHU simply a lost cause that should be abandoned, or will its new leadership drain the swamp and stop larger states in north and south India from absorbing bright and young minds of the Northeast?