Steep learning curve: Clarity needed on autonomy for universities

The National Democratic Alliance’s move to grant autonomy to 52 universities and eight colleges marks a brave new direction in federal education policy. Following similar moves for the premier management institutes and Indian Institutes of Technology, this announcement marks a consistent trajectory set out in the draft education policy. As a broad principle, this is a desirable development, especially if the institutional energy freed up by the HRD ministry is focused on the delivery of quality primary, secondary, and vocational education. Doubts, however, arise on several points. The first is the scope of the autonomy. The term may imply a progressive, empowering exercise but considerable powers remain vested in the University Grants Commission (UGC) and by extension with the HRD ministry. The autonomy applies to “Category 1” universities. Who decides this categorisation? A February 12 notification sets out the criteria based on “scores” given by the National Assessment and Education Council or a reputed accreditation agency. The first comes under the UGC and the second is to be empanelled by it (a top 500 world ranking by two private agencies also counts). The notification suggests that maintaining the category is dependent on self-certification, but when the scoring is based on UGC-dependent institutions, this provision amounts to circular reasoning. Also, it is unclear whether the UGC’s ambit covers the appointment of the vice-chancellor and management faculty. 

The big question is whether this accreditation will remain if, for instance, a university starts a course that does not fit in with the social agenda of the government of the day or hires academics critical of its policies. This scenario in India, where government interference in liberal arts curricula has been increasing in intensity, is not implausible; even in the United States, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding from universities noted for hostile campus politics. In India, the wider concern is that the real reason for this “autonomy” is financial rather than academic. Under the new scheme, quality institutions will get the freedom to start their own courses, departments, centres, and schools if they generate their own funds. They are being encouraged to introduce up to 20 per cent reservation for foreign faculty paid at market rates and 20 per cent for foreign students. In other words, these “category 1” universities are being encouraged to emulate the US model with large departments devoted to mobilising private finance. Academic chairs, fellowships, and centres of research named for donors have been standard modes in reputed western universities, which the IITs have been able to emulate with some success.

In the long run, this is a healthy development, though these institutions, long used to chunks of government grants, may struggle initially. The real concern is the impact this autonomy will have on fee structures. Hiring foreign faculty will undoubtedly help raise the standard of tertiary education but it is likely to come at a price that might be prohibitive for deserving students from less affluent backgrounds. Fears that Category 1 institutions will become centres of elitism are genuine. The HRD ministry needs to address this very real problem too.


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