It would be useful to recall the vision of university autonomy from “The Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education” passed in Lima, Peru, on 10 September 1988. It was affirmed that autonomy of academic institutions means “The independence of institutions of higher education from the State and all other forces of society to make decisions regarding its internal government, finance, administration and to establish its policies of education, research, extension work, and other related activities.” Yet, the issues pertaining to academic autonomy or freedom of governance of the academic institutions of higher education have always caused a flutter in the stakeholders’ roost.

The debate on the autonomy of Indian universities has become quite vigorous once again. It started soon after Prakash Javadekar, Union HRD mimister, announced that “Graded Autonomy’ to sixty higher education institutions (HEIs). The principal argument in favour of this policy reform is the recognition that Indian universities have consistently failed to find a place within the best hundred universities on a global scale as rated by international accreditating agencies. Yet, there are questions concerning the intent to address the challenges facing our universities. The most obvious of the issues relate to the lack of socially and industry-friendly research and knowledge creation, lack of jobs as well as employability of the passouts, recruitment of outstanding faculty as inspiring teachers, patents and other intellectual property rights, scarcity of resources, governance challenges, infrastructure crises and the growing discontent among the student community. It cannot be denied that Governments, both in the States and at the Centre, have attempted to address these challenges over the years through policy reforms and institutional initiatives led by regulatory bodies. However, it is obvious that these reforms have not had an appreciable on the state of our HEIs.

The UGC’s decision to grant greater autonomy to a select group of higher education institutions reflects a larger policy initiative that the current government is pursuing. As a first step, leading institutions such as the IIMs and IITs were granted a degree of autonomy in their functioning. Another significant step was the selection of the “Institutes of Eminence” by the Empowered Committee, purportedly to build world class autonomous universities. It is felt that the “ autonomous status” will enable the HEIs to function effectively and that institutional dynamism, research excellence and the social impact of universities can be best achieved when they are left to the universities alone without interference by the regulatory authorities. The Government has further affirmed, at least on paper, that autonomy should not be confused with funding, which will be made available as per present norms for growth and that readiness to grant graded autonomy doesn’t mean abdication of its financial responsibility towards the HEIs.

This selection of institutions was done by the UGC on the basis of the ratings given by NAAC. HEIs have been granted autonomy depending on scores given by NAAC. For example, those with a score of 3.50 and above are given Category I Autonomy, while those with score of 3.26-3.50 are given Category II Autonomy. Yet a third one, Category III, are those with scores less than 3.26 and are not considered fit to be given autonomous status. The UGC has since published the Regulation on Graded Autonomy which states that the purpose of Aatonomy is pivotal to promote and institutionalise excellence in higher education. It is needed to facilitate the essay towards excellence and is an imperative to create an enabling environment whereby HEIs can become institutions of global excellence. The HRD minister has said that the Centre is “striving to introduce a liberalised regime in the education sector” and that the focus of the government was on “linking autonomy with quality.”

The institutions that have been granted autonomy in Category I and II include 52 universities comprising five central universities, 21 state-aided universities, 24 deemed universities, and two private universities. Besides, eight colleges have also become autonomous. The minister said that all these 60 institutions will remain under the ambit of the UGC but they will now have more “freedom” to start new courses, off-campus centres, skill development courses, research projects and any other new academic programmes. These institutions will also have the freedom to hire faculty from abroad, enrol foreign students with differential fees, provide incentive-based emoluments to the faculties, enter into academic collaborations and run open distance- learning programmes. Greater autonomy will unleash the trapped energy in some of the HEIs which can take them towards the path of excellence and high global rankings.

Those in favour of institutional autonomy argue that autonomous status would allow the universities and colleges to internalise the governance by their statutory bodies in the manner the stakeholders consider the best, keeping in view the distinctiveness of the institution, and free from directions and interference from the regulators and the ruling political dispensation. It will enable the college / university to open new departments, courses, frame syllabus, conduct examinations, declare results, and decide their own recruitment rules, teacher salaries and student fees without waiting to get a nod from the regulators. The colleges will also have the status of a deemed university. Institutional autonomy is also a necessary condition for academic freedom. Academics need freedom to conduct their research and to teach without intimidation and threats of regulation that more often than not constrict devoted teaching and research. When the government intrudes, academic freedom is at risk. The arguments are stretched to broader issues like selection and appointment of Heads of Institutions ( Vice-Chancellors, Principals ) and other leaders like the Deans of Faculties. These posts are the most important aspects of organisational autonomy. In India, the chief executive is selected by the government or the ministry, the search committee existing merely on paper to recommend a set of names from which the final choice is made. The final decision on the head of the institution is ultimately taken by the government Hence, it may be perceived by potential candidates that being in the “good books” of the state authorities or the ruling political party is most important and that factors other than merit influence these decisions. The selected person is more indebted to that authority rather than the institution for selection. If the HEI is to select the chief executive using its stakeholders, then the answerability of the chief executive is naturally to the HEI and its stakeholders.

The proponents of autonomy further argue that a university should be a platform for plurality of views, narratives and discourses without fear or threats. It must be a place for effective interaction, where individuals are encouraged to argue. The search for truth can lead to greater understanding. Universities should not merely reflect society. Academics have the potential and obligation to demonstrate to the polity how reasoned arguments can take place without threat or resort to physical violence or intellectual intimidation. Rather than being stifled by fear of retaliation, academic life ought to be one where our scholars are encouraged to challenge the stated norms and engage in conversation about issues of concern for the wellbeing and future of the country. Academic freedom to teach and conduct research without fear becomes even more important. The social composition of students in universities has moved from being elite and homogeneous to being much more diverse. The campus must develop as a melting pot to contain and sustain the growing diversity, admit students who have differing ideologies, values and ways of dealing with others. The ability to help students understand and critically analyse multiple forms of social oppression and its consequences becomes critical. There needs to be a shared understanding and agreement concerning principles of social justice. Being able to teach freely, as well as to write and to think on sensitive issues, is critical for sustaining democracy in any country. Hence, academic freedom is essential for the health and vitality not only of universities but also of the nation.

Those against such institutional autonomy fear that autonomy will prompt the institutions to hike fees and this will lead to commercialisation of the public education system, thereby depriving the poor students from affordable quality higher education. The freedom to charge high fees, introduce selffinanced courses unaffordable to most students, more appointments on contract or per-class basis rather than on substantive basis in regular pay scales , diluting the job security as in public funded institutions, less accountability to society and a cutoff from mainstream social audit will ultimately destroy higher education itself. Recently, the UGC invited proposals from seven very good colleges under Delhi University. The colleges are Sri Venkateswara, Lady Shri Ram, Hindu, Shri Ram College of Commerce, PGDAV, St Stephen’s and Hansraj College, which were offered the autonomy option for “better academic standings and independent administrative control”. The institutions were offered a deemed university status in the near future. However, a large majority of the faculty and students in each of these colleges have refused to accept the autonomous status and prevented the management from submission of the proposal to UGC and the HRD ministry. The managements of these leading colleges are still battling the academic backlash and are proceeding slowly with the autonomy debate. The opponents argue that the UGC Regulations categorically state that after the grant of Graded Autonomy, for new courses/ departments / research labs/ research projects and other academic initiatives, the resources must be generated internally. The implications are too obvious to overlook.

(To be concluded)

(The writer is former Registrar, University of North Bengal. He can be reached at [email protected])