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Towards freedom

AK Ghosh | New Delhi |

The University Grants Commission has decided to grant autonomy to more colleges even without on-the-spot inspection by an expert committee. This is a major development in the academic sphere under the BJP dispensation. However, the concept still seems to be a mirage as the criteria for granting autonomy have been left rather vague.
The establishment of autonomous colleges, as envisaged under the New Policy of Education of 1986, was expected to be a trend-setter. But the “centres of excellence” proved to be a non-starter. The idea was welcome as the plan envisaged that autonomy would be granted on the basis of good performance. It was intended to decentralise authority from university administrators to university departments and from universities to colleges. The faculty would be responsible and accountable for all the academic programmes, including restructuring of courses, the quality of teaching and assessment of students’ performance. The idea was to allow these colleges to become centres of excellence without being affected by the over-bureaucratisation of the decision-making processes.
When the UGC announced that St Xavier’s College in Kolkata would become the first undergraduate college in Bengal to acquire the status of an autonomous institution, it was supposed to be in fulfilment of the state government’s pledge to have at least one autonomous college. But the issue of autonomy for Presidency College turned out to be a dilemma. Autonomy still remains an ill-defined term and this has given rise to misplaced fears among academics.
Although the scheme has been a grand success in many advanced countries, it is yet to make substantial headway in India. Certain pronouncements from Delhi nearly four decades ago sounded like a recognition that an autonomous college was an idea whose time had come. Official circulars were issed throughout the country. Theoretically, the concept, as enunciated in 1978, became a significant step towards improving the quality of higher education in India.
However, it was in 1948 that the first proposal for autonomous colleges was mooted by the erstwhile University Education Commission. In 1964, the committee on colleges, with Professor Mahajani in the chair, advised the UGC “to select a few colleges and give them an autonomous status with freedom to experiment with new ideas”. A committee on standards of university education reiterated the need in 1965, and the National Policy on Education for 1986 stated: “Autonomous colleges will be helped to develop in large numbers until the affiliation system is replaced by a free and more creative association of universities and colleges”. The first such college came into existence in Tamil Nadu in 1978 and the number started growing, but rather sluggishly.
In 1981, an Indian delegation studied the functioning of autonomous colleges in the USA and recommended to the UGC that “the process of establishing autonomous colleges should be accelerated”. So the idea was strongly recommended in the National Policy, 1986, and confirmed again in the Programme of Action 1986 and 1992, and all these documents were approved by Parliament. While the Seventh Plan envisaged autonomy to 500 among 7000 colleges, only 100-odd colleges were made autonomous.
If Presidency College had decided in the past not to seek autonomy, it is also a matter of concern that none of the leading colleges in Delhi ever expressed its willingness to enjoy autonomous status due to opposition from the teachers’ associations as also the unwillingness of the university to amend its acts to make autonomy possible.
In fact, the initial enthusiasm for the novel scheme has waned considerably. What is worse, there is lack of awarness in the institutions themselves that they are in need of liberation. True, teachers sitting in the staff rooms denounce their university for the deficiencies of the curriculum and the unreliability of the education procedures. But if the syllabus is defective, would they draw up a better one? If the teaching routine that the university prescribes is not agreeable, would they suggest a more effective way of teaching and learning? If the present style of examination and evaluation needs change and improvement, what would they want to do? To answer these questions and put the answers into practise is the true meaning of autonomy. What autonomy would facilitate is a deliberate and conscious use of the freedom to frame and develop the syllabus.
Freedom from self-governance ought to be manifest in two levels: i) the institutional level where the college is free to determine its policy and programme; ii) the individual level where the teacher is given the freedom to learn and to teach. Learners should also have the freedom to choose those courses which they think would help them grow (Carneigie Commission Summary Report, 1974). Autonomy envisages a two-pronged liberation ~ first, liberating the universities from the burden of conducting examinations for numerous students which deters them from fulfilling their responsibilities of giving academic and administrative leadership in the higher educational field. Second, autonomy is also intended to liberate the colleges from excessive control of the universities and allow them the freedom to chart out their plan of action, including courses, curriculum and examination management … subject to the overall supervision and control of the universities.
However, the setting up of autonomous colleges has been very slow largely on account of the indifference of the universities. This is reinforced by the strong resistance from teachers’ unions.  The teaching fraternity is also concerned over the increase in workload, paucity of funds and the operational problems in implementing the scheme. Furthermore, as autonomous colleges are non-conventional institutions, the degrees offered by them might be suspect. Grades or marks may be manipulated in the absence of an external monitoring agency. Moreover, they might foster eliticism.
Autonomous colleges have been remarkably successful in effecting innovations in higher education by introducing new courses relevant to the needs of students and society. Besides, they are able to continuously restructure their approach and methods to cope with the changing global educational scenario.
Tamil Nadu has the highest number of autonomous colleges in the country. At another remove, autonomy has been a failure in Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. According to UGC officials, the process was not fully implemented. Besides, funds were also held back by the state government. Autonomy, thus, calls for a supportive role of the universities and the state governments. The success of the scheme depends largely on the level of cooperation between the teachers and the managements. It is time for direct intervention by the UGC in order to ensure that autonomy for colleges is not merely a policy document but an example worthy of emulation throughout the country.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)