Autonomy oils the wheels of higher education excellence

Pressure on higher educational institutions in India to follow common, uniform and standardised rules and regulations is regressive

November 12, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 03:39 pm IST

The University of Madras, Chennai

The University of Madras, Chennai | Photo Credit: The Hindu

It is sad but not surprising why none of India’s institutions of higher education appears in the list of top 100 universities of the world. The fact is that the best universities in the world are flush with funds. Critically, they insist and get a great degree of academic, administrative and financial autonomy. Autonomy is regarded as a necessary and sufficient condition to attain excellence.

In tandem, they allow a fairly high degree of autonomy to institutions under their jurisdiction. Their colleges and schools work as a ‘university within the university’, and the top leadership of the university has no qualms about this.

World rankings and India

In India, there are significant pieces of evidence to this effect. The 2023 edition of the QS world university ranking reckons that three of India’s higher educational institutions amongst the top 200 of the world. Another three are counted among the top 300 whereas two more in the top 400.

The Times Higher Education (THE) ranking places only one Indian institution among the top 400 of the world. It is the same with the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Barring one of the most eminent public-funded deemed universities of the country, all the rest are Institutions of National Importance (INIs) — the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), to be specific.

They are not only better funded but also generally self-governed, enjoying a greater degree of autonomy as they fall outside the regulatory purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). In contrast, the best-ranked university in the country falls in the rank brackets of 521-30 by the QS, in the 801-1000th bracket by THE, and in the 601-700th bracket by the ARWU.

Funded through the University Grants Commission (UGC), universities are all subject to a very strict regulatory regime. Abiding by UGC regulations and AICTE guidelines, encompasses almost all aspects of their functioning be it faculty recruitment, student admission and the award of degrees. In many cases, they are micro-managed by the regulatory authorities.

Therefore, most of them have become so comfortable with the practice that they rarely assert their autonomy. Central universities in the country are also ranked on the basis of their ‘obedience’ to regulatory compliances. Even in the academic domain, many of them are comfortable in publicly stating that they have adopted the model curricula, pedagogy and syllabi prescribed by the regulatory bodies, even though the same may have been only indicative.

Autonomy is prime

On the contrary, the best universities in the world are continuously sensitised about the importance of their autonomy and are trained and enabled to make their own decisions. The European University Association (EUA), for example, prescribes a ‘university autonomy tool’ that lets each member university compare its level of autonomy vis-à-vis the other European higher education systems across all member countries. By focusing on four autonomy areas (organisational, financial, staffing, and academic) the EUA computes composite scores and ranks all the countries in Europe.

It is not that policy planners in India are oblivious to the idea and the importance of autonomy in higher education. A large number of commissions and committees, including the national policies on education (including the National Education Policy 2020), have highlighted the need for higher education autonomy. The new education policy seeks to completely overhaul the higher education system, and to attain this objective, repeatedly emphasises the need for institutional autonomy.

The NEP regards academic and administrative autonomy essential for making higher education multi-disciplinary, and that teacher and institutional autonomy are a sine qua non in promoting creativity and innovation.

The policy considers a lack of autonomy as one of the major problems of higher education and promises to ensure faculty and institutional autonomy through a highly independent and empowered board of management which would be vested with academic and administrative autonomy.

It argues for a ‘light but tight’ regulatory framework and insists that the new regulatory regime would foster a culture of empowerment. Further, it goes on to say that by relying on a robust system of accreditation, all higher education institutions would gradually gain full academic and administrative autonomy.

These are but an excellent exposition of academic and administrative autonomy. Who can convince the academic bureaucracy better than the treatise called the New Education Policy? It may be reasonably assumed that such statements in the NEP genuinely mean what they propound.

Sadly, selective execution of the policy based on a convenient interpretation of the text is what is pushing higher education in the opposite direction.

Universities in India have been losing their autonomy. In the two years since the approval, announcement, and gradual implementation of the NEP, universities in India today are far less autonomous than earlier.

Also read | Why a skill-based curriculum in higher education is important

Higher learning centres in ancient India enjoyed no less academic, administrative and financial autonomy than the most autonomous universities in the world today. Forcing higher educational institutions to follow uniform standardised rules and regulations run counter to what the NEP provides for. Micromanagement of student admission, faculty recruitment, course contents, programme delivery and administration are a surefire recipe to take higher education farther away from excellence.

Furqan Qamar, former Adviser for Education in the Planning Commission, is a Professor of Management at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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