The debate on the quality of the educational institutions and the courses they offer has been and continue to be in the limelight for many years. The demographic dividend is still an elusive panacea given the academic excellence existing in the country. Not many higher educational institutions from India are listed in the global ranking of academic excellence while on the other hand; meritocracy has given way to mediocrity and political intervention in the running of academic institutions in most of the cases. India has adopted a highly centralised control in higher education by constituting different (sometimes, overlapping) bodies to manage the sector from the time of independence. These structures are not well suited to take up the present challenges and the global demands in the field of education sector. Various reforms are proposed in the education sector in order to meet these changing circumstances.
One of the priority areas of suggestion is ‘Autonomy’ to the colleges of established track record. The autonomy debate starts with what kind of autonomy is meant for these colleges. According to the various committee reports appointed to study this matter, the first step in the process is the academic autonomy to be granted. It gives the freedom to the institutions to design the course, syllabus, examination time tables etc. The evaluation and assessment will be handled by the same teacher who teaches the students. This proposal is close to the theory of education (it states that those who teach are the best ones to evaluate their wards) and the best practices in most of the leading academic institutions across the world. This Academic autonomy helps the colleges to adopt to the changing demands and also invoke innovate practices in the setting up the new courses, bringing the best talents to the faculty and the best practices and utilisation of the campuses for imparting the best knowledge to the students by going away from the dictates of the present university regimes. They could be able to raise resources by introducing the courses and by exposing both the teachers and students to the various industries and market oriented avenues wherever possible. In those traditional courses, the state could continue assuring the support for such a reasonable time even if there are no takers for these courses citing the virtuous cycles and the transient nature of success and selection of the courses are concerned.
The present university system in India is doomed to fail as it focuses more on the administrative job than on the research and innovation. Most of the universities have more than hundred colleges affiliated to them. These colleges are by and large located far off from the universities thus the distance hindering the sharing of the resources and responsibilities like faculty, library, syllabus upgradation etc. The objectives and the goals of the universities have given way to the bureaucratic control over the spontaneous order, free flow of ideas leading to the creativity and innovation. If India ranks poor in producing Nobel laureates and filing patents the reason is nothing but the lack of autonomy in the universities and higher education institutions. So the debate on autonomy to the colleges has another interesting dimension such as this academic autonomy is given to the colleges who will still depend on the universities for their administrative requirements where both the parties are not autonomous in their core functions.
The recent controversies related to autonomy debate are worth examining. Objections are raised to the high handedness of Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) in the autonomous functions of IIMs and IITs. The debate is more or less to retain the autonomous functions with these institutions of national importance and do away with the proposed new framework of administration by MHRD. At the same time, more than a month long strike was witnessed by Maharajas College, Ernakulam against the move to grand autonomy to the college. In Maharajas, the issues raised include the fate of reservation and continued state patronage in the aftermaths of the autonomy. Both are very tenacious arguments as the state gazette notification by Kerala government on Autonomy provides the flexibility to go back to the status quo ante on completion of five years of autonomy. It also mentions that the autonomous institutions are bound by the state rules until the new set of rules and regulations concerning the autonomous institutions are formalised. But contrasting two different scenarios of both IITs/IIMs and Maharajas, it demands for a higher education regulatory board and not the government control through their bureaucratic network. As long as UGC continue to operate as a grand dispensation agency, it could not work s as an effective regulatory board in higher education sector.
Untangling ‘Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions’ is very much feasible by adopting certain practical steps. Funds and scholarships could be instituted to fund the students more than the colleges. The ease of establishing and sustaining the higher educational institutions should be more simplified under a regulatory board so that the demand and supply mismatch in the sector could be minimalized. This could pave way for independence and establishment of brand of the colleges on the basis of the market tested qualities essential for the survival of both the graduates and the institution. Academic freedom is essential for the success for any kind of educational institutions. Along with the academic freedom, the need of the hour is to encourage these institutions to raise resources for attaining its global standards and scale which are independent of any political interference and academic bureaucracy.
*The author is the chairman of Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. His views are personal and does not reflect or anyways represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
*This article is a reproduction of views which appeared in Pallikkutam, a monthly magazine published by Rajagiri Group of Educational Institutions