The recent developments in two universities in Punjab have brought into focus some of the maladies that ail the education system. Incidentally, one of these universities is a state run institution while the other is a private one. Not only have these incidents hit the headlines but they have triggered a much needed debate that is expected to continue for days to come.

The first instance pertains to the Punjabi University at Patiala that caters to Malwa, the largest region of the state. The death of a girl student Jashandeep Kaur at her native Choke village of Bathinda on Thursday morning led to a series of protests by students following allegations that she was mentally harassed by Professor Surjit Singh.

It was alleged that the said teacher did not give her leave on medical grounds despite her failing health and even scolded her. Her death was followed by an assault on the said teacher. He was later admitted in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

Meanwhile, a two member committee reportedly comprising an additional sessions judge (retired) Jaswinder Singh and Dr Harshinder Kaur of government-run Rajindra Hospital in Patiala has been appointed to probe the episode while ensuring that the said teacher does not influence the exercise in any way. The committee will submit its report in 21 days.

The second instance pertains to the reported booking of some senior officials at the Desh Bhagat University in Mandi Gobindgarh following protests by nursing students coming mainly from Kashmir. The students alleged that their college was allotted 60 seats by the Indian Nursing Council (INC) but the number of those admitted was far more at 187 students. They further claimed the college from where the degrees were being offered was not recognised by the INC.

Coming back to the Punjabi University episode, the questions arising have been very well articulated in a statement issued by some concerned citizens coming from various segments of the society.

“As academics, professionals and concerned citizens, we do recognise the importance of addressing such allegations with sensitivity and empathy, and expect our academic institutions to provide an environment where grievances can be heard and impartially investigated.

“However, spilling a professor’s blood on the campus soil was no tribute to Jashandeep Kaur. No protest, no academic approach, and no idea of a university are synonymous with violence and physical harm to professors, teachers or students.

“Any university is expected to work towards fashioning a society wedded to resisting mob lynching, hatred and polarization. So, we expect all-round condemnation of the assault on any academic, irrespective of divergent ideological positions or politics,” the statement read.

These concerned citizens further underlined, “Mob violence, hate and polarisation have always proven to be counter-productive. Those sections of society that can foresee the far-reaching impact of such acts should be more sensitive and responsible, and must never side with any act of mob-justice. We staunchly advocate the principles of peaceful dialogue, open communication, and adherence to the rule of law as the appropriate avenues to address grievances.”

The statement came in the light of the episode assuming political colour and right wing forces trying to create space amid the chaos. It began by condoling the death of the girl student and paying attribute to the her “indomitable spirit to trudge the world of academics when, apart from much else, she also had to fight asthma that made even the most innocuous task of regular uninterrupted breathing an insurmountable odd for her”.

The signatories said that the findings of the probe “be made available publicly and as a template for the future so that we never ever suffer such a loss”.

In the second episode it was the leader of opposition in Punjab assembly and senior Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa who raised certain pertinent points while taking up the issue of Kashmiri students with the Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann and Chief Secretary Anurag Verma in letters addressed to them.

Calling for a comprehensive investigation into Desh Bhagat University's alleged over-admission and compliance with regulatory bodies, Bajwa said the government should engage in a dialogue with Kashmiri student representatives to understand their concerns and expectations in resolving this matter.

He said the authorities should take necessary measures to ensure that these students' academic progress and future prospects are not adversely affected. He called for exploring options such as transferring them to recognized institutions or permitting them to continue their studies at Desh Bhagat University under the correct permissions.

Bajwa stressed upon the need to impose appropriate penalties on the University for its actions if proven guilty. “Implement preventive measures to avoid similar incidents in the future including enhanced oversight and strict adherence to educational regulations by institutions.

“In conclusion, I urge you to address this matter urgently and with the sensitivity it deserves. These students have already faced significant challenges due to their background and the Kashmir situation. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that their pursuit of education is not hindered by administrative negligence and arbitrary decisions,” Bajwa stated.

There are reports saying that the administration is mulling shifting the students to other recognised colleges.

Both these episodes are a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the higher education system whether it is government or private run universities.

Professor Manjit Singh who is a retired expert in sociology pointed out, “One needs to refer back to the former deputy speaker of the state Assembly late Bir Devinder Singh who had tried his best to expose the wrongdoings of some of the prominent private universities.

“He used to call out the bribes paid by a private university in the form of cash and the most expensive mobile phones at that time to the legislators and others to get things done. It can be stated that the majority of these universities are being run like private limited companies that send their agents to states to enrol students.

“The motive is to just make money with no accountability on the quality of education being imparted. Nobody ever checks what all is going on there.”

Sources said that the Punjabi University episode also throws light on certain important factors like the student-teacher relationship and the crisis of resources at government universities that compel them to start certain integrated or self finance courses that further result in the inability to address various concerns of the ever increasing strength of the students.

Punjabi University is an institution that has always taken pride in having a substantial number of girl students. “There is the element of privatisation that has entered government run universities because they do not have enough resources of their own and the governments are not ready to fully pay for them.

“One can just go back in time to refer to the appeal made by the Vice Chancellor of the University earlier this year to the people to save the University when the government had cut its grants. Later the government had allotted the required sum,” Manjit Singh stated.