As the government tries various means to achieve the required proliferation of good-quality higher education institutions, bolstering autonomous colleges could well be the answer.

One of the key challenges that we face today in higher education is how to create new quality institutions, colleges and universities so that India can achieve 30 per cent Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) by 2020 and establish its credentials as a knowledge economy in the comity of nations.

The obvious answer is that existing good colleges and universities be encouraged to grow and multiply even as we create similar new ones. Unfortunately, the “affiliation system” does not let the colleges grow beyond the limits set by the affiliating university. Some of the oldest universities in the country — University of Mumbai, University of Pune, Osmania University and University of Nagpur — have over 700 colleges affiliated to them. No wonder none of the Indian universities figure in the top 200 universities of the world. Where is the time left for them to do research or quality teaching?

Many paths

Getting the status of a university is like summiting Mt Everest — there are very few routes and each one is tougher than the other. The first, through an Act of Parliament, is only for Government of India institutions. The second is through the Deemed to be University route notified by UGC, but after the Supreme Court order of 2009, this has become an impregnable fortress due to stringent entry-level barriers. The last is through an Act of State Legislature, which unfortunately, instead of promoting trusts/societies with good track record and commitment to education, for the most, ends up creating green-field universities which do not have the capacity for research. The ministry’s attempt to open alternative routes, whether it is through the “Foreign Education Providers” bill or the “Universities for Innovation and Research” bill, have not been successful so far.

A ray of hope can be seen in autonomous colleges which could gradually make the affiliation system less relevant. Unlike the cumbersome process which needs to be followed for establishing a university, autonomous colleges do not require legislative processes. The governing bodies of these colleges are independent and can design their own curriculum/coursework, conduct examinations, etc.

Currently, there are nearly 450 autonomous colleges identified by the University Grants Commission. This status is earned by them on the basis of their proven record on a number of indicators. As a consequence, they enjoy considerable academic and administrative freedom. Many of them have a glorious legacy and continue to be excellent centres for teaching and research. Stella Maris College (estd. 1947) and Women’s Christian College ( estd. 1915) in Chennai, St. Xavier’s (estd. 1869) in Mumbai, Nizam College (estd. 1887), in Hyderabad, St. Joseph’s College (estd. 1882) in Bangalore are some exemplars having excellent claims to be converted into universities.

RUSA to the rescue?

UGC’s notification on mandatory accreditation and the recent announcement of the Rs. 90,000-crore Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) by the Union Cabinet could play a major catalytic role. The roadmap would be to encourage all NAAC A-accredited institutions to become autonomous. Secondly, for the benefit of those already existing 450 autonomous colleges (100 already have NAAC A accreditation, and 45 of these have even been identified as Colleges with Potential for Excellence by UGC) and the ones to come up in future, UGC needs to issue revised and unambiguous regulations which make it clear that short of degree-giving powers, they are as autonomous as any university. RUSA has a provision of Rs. 5,500 crore for this purpose to fund 100 such institutions. This would also be in line with the Yashpal Committee Report and the NKC Report (2008) both of which had strongly recommended that in order to meet the educational needs of the country some of our existing top 1,500 institutions need to be upgraded as universities. Thirdly, UGC should amend its Act to make provisions for degree-granting powers to these colleges.

Lastly, while creating new universities, the Centre as well as the States must give priority to the existing autonomous colleges. This could be incorporated in the private universities regulation presently being finalised in UGC and also stressed under RUSA when the State-specific Perspective Plans are drawn up. Under RUSA there is a provision to incentivise States to create universities out of a cluster of colleges in a particular city or a region for 100 such universities. This exercise could be done gradually and the target is to reduce the present average of 300 affiliated colleges per university to around 100 colleges on an average.

For too long, the Centre and the States have been working in their respective silos. RUSA with its huge funding clout and its emphasis on an independent third-party accreditation system could provide the necessary glue and prove to be the deus ex machina paving the way for transparent creation and growth of universities in the country.

The writer is the secretary for higher education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India