The UGC must nudge universities to excel

Indian universities must be directed to ensure global standards for the colleges they govern

Updated - May 01, 2024 02:19 pm IST

Published - May 01, 2024 12:40 am IST

‘Indian students must be encouraged to be much more self-reliant with regard to the learning process’

‘Indian students must be encouraged to be much more self-reliant with regard to the learning process’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The heads of India’s regulatory agencies are mostly unseen and their thoughts seldom read by the public. Given this, the article in The Hindu, “Universities must budge on college autonomy nudge” (Editorial page, April 5, 2024), by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, is somewhat of a rarity. It is also significant in that higher education is deeply aspired to in this country. The article itself is to be welcomed for its plain speaking and constructive tenor. Essentially, Mr. Jagadeesh Kumar would like universities to be far less controlling in their relationship with the autonomous colleges under their jurisdiction. This he considers reasonable to ask for as the UGC itself grants universities substantial freedom. Whether the last is true is contestable when viewed through a global lens, as we shall see. A global lens would be the right one to use here, as the market for ideas has no borders.

The core of Mr. Kumar’s message is that more colleges ought to be granted autonomy. This autonomy he considers essential for improvement in the quality of higher education, and suggests ways in which it can come about. He is, of course, absolutely right in principle. However, the evidence that he presents shows that this is not necessarily true in practice. This is of the number of autonomous colleges at the top of the list of colleges in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings. It turns out that there are five of them in the top 10. This does not exactly show a tilt towards autonomous colleges when it comes to excellence. It is surprising that the UGC Chairman considers it sufficient evidence of their superiority.

The state of Indian universities

Despite the absence of evidence that autonomous colleges do better than those without autonomy, there is a case for greater autonomy for colleges from their respective universities. India’s universities are by now stranded leviathans driven by bureaucratic procedure. They appear to have lost touch with the mission of producing and disseminating knowledge, and have not responded to the observation being increasingly made that their graduates are unemployable. Today, with the greater resources made available by economic growth and the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, information on global best practices in instruction and the material for study are accessible to any Indian entity in the field of education.

This was not the case in the mid-19th century when the present crop of universities was first set up in India. Knowledge was transferred by British officials in person or in the form of books, both brought here by sea. The universities had acted as some sort of a trans-shipment hub, without which knowledge could not reach the colleges scattered across a vast hinterland. Think of the University of Madras which had affiliated colleges from the Presidency’s northernmost districts all the way to Kanniyakumari (Kanyakumari). While this erstwhile logistical role of the university has become irrelevant, the bureaucratised university of today is neither in a position to disseminate knowledge to its constituent colleges nor, as Mr. Kumar observes, willing to relinquish power to the colleges so that they can get on with their business. Nothing it seems is gained by continuing with the present system of shackling the colleges to the university, when the university has turned out to be an unresponsive behemoth.

The advantage gained when autonomy is granted to a college is that it would give it flexibility in designing the curriculum and can devote more attention to assessing learning, both being fundamental to the purpose of a university. However, there is no guarantee that an autonomous college would embrace the opportunity with alacrity. Very likely, it is this that is reflected in the fact that the autonomous colleges do not dominate the NIRF rankings. This despite the fact that among the first colleges to be granted autonomy by the UGC were those over a century old. Informal enquiries about the state of affairs in them today mostly elicit the response that the quality of instruction is indifferent and the curriculum is far from the knowledge frontier.

Clearly, the quality of teaching and the exposure of students to the global standard is not guaranteed by granting them autonomy, which the UGC Chairman would like to see accelerated. It is not clear if the NIRF ranking which he has referred to includes an assessment of the colleges on these criteria. In any case it is only a ranking; ideally, we would want to have a rating. Hence, prior to processing the 590 applications for autonomy that Mr. Kumar refers to in his article, the UGC should institute an independent review of the performance of India’s existing autonomous colleges and devise methods that will ensure quality when more are added to the list. Universities offering degrees without providing world-class education are pointless.

Start with revising lecture hours

There are some immediate moves that the UGC can make to take the colleges of India to global standards. Even when they have formal autonomy, they are expected to abide by some of the UGC rules that hold them back. These require relaxation. Colleges would also gain from certain positive action by the UGC. As knowledge production and its dissemination is to be judged by global standards, India’s educational institutions can participate in these activities only if there is a level playing field for its faculty. UGC norms on teaching loads in the undergraduate colleges of India leave the faculty over-worked, with little energy or incentive to improve their classroom performance. The UGC must revise downward the required lecture hours per week, ensuring that teachers have the time to read the burgeoning literature in their respective fields and give greater attention to student learning.

The present teaching requirement is far too high in a global comparison. Less lecturing would also leave the student to do some of the learning on their own, something unheard of in India but expected in the leading universities of the world. Indian students must be encouraged to be much more self-reliant with regard to the learning process. The implied release of faculty from excessive teaching must be accompanied by expectation of a far superior performance. Nothing short of global standards should be expected both in terms of the knowledge transfer, communication and responsiveness to the student in class. The only route to ensuring this is to institute course evaluation by students. This is standard practice across the world. The singular failure in higher education in India occurred when the transition to far higher salaries for faculty, referred to as the “UGC scale”, was not accompanied by any innovation for ensuring a superior faculty performance. The UGC Chairman has done well to ask the universities to nudge the colleges to autonomous status. By the same token, he should nudge, nay, direct, India’s universities to raise to global standards the colleges they govern.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Honorary Visiting Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Input from Cherian Kurian is acknowledged

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.