A new scheme of greater autonomy to educational institutions has been announced. Depending on their NAAC scores, institutions will be slotted in category I, II and lower. There will be less autonomy as the rank declines. Those in the highest category will have the freedom to start new courses, hire foreign faculty and pay higher emoluments to faculty, So, some will have more freedom but others will have even less.
Autonomy has been identified as the key to improving the quality of higher education in India. So, would the current move lead to high quality higher education?
The UGC was set up to finance higher education. But, the one who controls the purse strings controls policy. In India, UGC increasingly controlled the functioning of the institutions it funded. It set syllabus, minimum qualifications for recruitment and specified attendance. The courts drove the last nail in the coffin of autonomy by requiring that UGC standards be followed. What is wrong with regulation, given that many academics are known to be shirkers and many institutions are in bad shape?
The issue is: Can “standards be achieved by standardisation”? UGC and its committees became the arbiter of standards and all institutions were expected to fall in line. This includes the points an academic had to collect under the API system to get promoted, the degrees and tests needed to become a teacher and so on. Teachers had to be upgraded periodically through training institutions. The entire structure of teaching-learning was progressively determined by the UGC. With each pay commission, there were more and more regulations and diktats.
Has the quality of education improved with all these standards? Shirkers continue to shirk and institutions have deteriorated in quality. There are more institutions of higher learning, many more students in them and also more pathology in the education system. To understand what makes for a great institution of learning and how learning is to be nurtured, one has to go to the basic design of institutions of higher learning.
Great institutions of learning accept that knowledge is not ready made and has multiple sources. Different people have different ways of learning and producing knowledge. Someone may publish many papers each year while some may publish a seminal work in a decade. Nobel Prize winner Higgs (God particle fame) said for the first 15 years at Cambridge he did not publish anything.
A multiplicity of approaches are needed for knowledge to advance. Many may fail and others who learn from them may advance knowledge. In economics, inflation may be explained in many ways and policies to check it may be based on one or the other approach.
In higher education a great deal of freedom is required to generate ideas. A degree of irreverence toward authority is essential. Unfortunately, in India this is treated as a malaise. Autonomy, therefore, implies the freedom to pursue one’s own path of knowledge generation. Teachers in higher education institutions need to devise their own courses to teach the perspective they feel best reflects the subject — standardised courses, like in schools, are undesirable. Good teaching and research go hand in hand. This requires commitment which comes when academics have autonomy.
Academic autonomy must filter down. The institution must have autonomy from external pressures, the department must have autonomy from the head of the institution and the teacher from the head of the department. Unfortunately, in India, autonomy (if at all) mostly stops with the head of the institution. Faculty is supposed to comply with the orders as in a bureaucracy. This leads to sycophancy and compliance. Often the heads of institutions are army men, bureaucrats and police men who know how to keep discipline. This cannot be the academic milieu.
The latest move to provide graded autonomy to institutions is designed to curtail the autonomy of academics in these institutions. The catch is that the institutions will have to generate their own funds for many of the freedoms they are being granted. So, they would be subject to the dictates of the market. Consequently, professional courses may get money but not the core social sciences or sciences. There would be pressure to move towards paying courses. Those not catering to the markets would be marginalised and the generation of the socially relevant knowledge would decline.
The idea of becoming world class implies that our institutions would have to create facilities that prevail in the advanced countries to attract faculty and students from there. But in a poor country like India would that not drain resources from other institutions? Would better facilities mean a more socially committed faculty?
If the faculty is required to publish and be associated with institutions abroad would they retain the commitment to generating socially relevant knowledge? This is another way of undermining autonomy. The new policy confuses the autonomy for individual faculty members with that for the institution, that too truncated by the dictates of markets.