Thirty-six years ago, on the first day of my college life at St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi, my English teacher, Mr. OK Jose, asked the class, whether anyone knew the meaning of the term ‘autonomy’. With so much enthusiasm, one of the students said, “self-governance”. The teacher was happy with the answer and started explaining the meaning of the term and its implications. The whole 45-minute period was spent on the concept of autonomy and how colleges that are autonomous are different from those which are not. For 17-year-old freshers, it was a useful orientation session.
During the discussion, when a student asked the teacher how autonomy would help the student community, Professor Jose replied, “Prestige. Autonomy is granted by the University Grants Commission (UGC) only to prestigious colleges. There are many benefits…you can proudly state that you are a student of St. Joseph’s Autonomous College.”
Yes, I can proudly state that I studied in St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous) for my UG and PG degrees as the college has been consistently enhancing the quality of education and achieving academic excellence. I was fortunate enough to have my higher education in prestigious autonomous institutions including the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), now known as the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.
The UGC document on guidelines for autonomous colleges (2017) clearly states that “the only safe and better way to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to delink most of the colleges from the affiliating structure.” Why? The document states that “Colleges with academic and operative freedom are doing better and have more credibility.”
Autonomy implies academic and administrative freedom which should result in the enhancement of quality of education and achievement of academic excellence. The word “delink” is a misnomer as autonomous colleges are not completely delinked from affiliation. They are affiliated to a government body or university but have academic independence.
According to the National Policy on Education (1986-1992), colleges which have been granted autonomy status have the freedom to “determine and prescribe its own courses of study and syllabi, and restructure and redesign the courses to suit local needs, make it skill-oriented… evolve methods of assessment of students’ performance, the conduct of examinations and notification of results, promote research in relevant fields, use modern tools of educational technology…promote healthy practices such as community services, extension activities...” Academic independence is the major advantage of being an autonomous institution. Institutions which use the academic and administrative freedom in a responsible manner will flourish and those which misuse the freedom and turn the institutions into ‘teaching shops’ will perish.
There are over 700 autonomous colleges in the country and Tamil Nadu has the distinction of having the highest total of 190+ autonomous colleges in the country. On what basis is autonomy status granted to colleges? Do all autonomous colleges deserve the status or are they worthy to be called autonomous colleges? Can autonomy be equated with academic excellence?
According to the UGC, colleges which have been given ‘A’ grade — a cumulative grade point average of 3 on a scale of 4 — by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) or colleges with three or more programmes accredited by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) are eligible to apply for autonomy status. What it implies is that colleges accredited by NAAC or NBA have a record of academic standards. But, whether such colleges are really institutes of repute and academic excellence is a debatable question as the perception of the people about the institutions varies.
Affiliation system is not common in developed countries. There is an urgent need to reform the affiliation system in higher education in India. There are 17 affiliating universities with over 500 colleges attached to them. Is good governance possible?
More and more colleges should be given become autonomous status. While promoting autonomy is an important step towards higher education reforms, monitoring whether already existing autonomous institutions have fulfilled the objectives and have really worked towards academic excellence is equally important. As some educationists have raised the concern that not all autonomous colleges are worthy to be called so as they do not propel academic excellence, it is high time the UGC looked into this aspect and took some corrective measures.
Autonomy is a prestige tag and it should be given only to educational institutes that deserve it.
The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org