Autonomy in Higher Education Prospects and Challenges

Autonomy in Higher Education: Prospects and Challenges
(Article published in the book “Higher Education in India - Emerging Issues and Future Prospects” edited Abraham George in 2013)
Dr. Davis George
1. Higher Education: The Key to Make India a Developed Nation
Developed nations in the world have made use of the great opportunities inherent in the system of Higher Education and ushered in the required paradigm shift to build the knowledge capital and pave the way for real development.  India has great potential to become a developed nation by 2020 if we refocus our attention on the system of Education. Education, in general, and higher education, in particular, plays a key role in the realization of India’s extraordinary potential and aspirations for economic and technological development. Precisely because of this potential and its implications for individual advancement, there is greater awareness and an extraordinary demand for higher education among the youth.
Swami Vivekananda said, “Education is not the amount of information that is put in your mind and runs riot there undigested all your life.  The use of higher education is to find out how to solve the problems of life.” According to Swami Vivekananda a society can be transformed into a strong nation with moral and cultural values only through education. In his own words, “Education, can unlock all doors for a progress. A nation advances in proportion to education and intelligence spread among masses. It can help India to grow into her full potential as a strong united nation with strong moral and cultural values”.
A closer critical look at the educational system will reveal that there are, indeed, a multitude of interconnected problems that India faces in implementing the recommendations of the various commissions established by the Government of India from time to time. Higher education in India suffers from several systemic deficiencies. As a result, it continues to provide graduates that are unemployable despite emerging shortages of skilled manpower in an increasing number
of sectors. The standards of academic research and publications are low and declining. Some of the problems of the Indian Higher Education, such as – the unwieldy affiliating system, inflexible academic structure, uneven capacity across various subjects, eroding autonomy of academic institutions, and the low level of public funding need the immediate attention of the Government and UGC.
2. Genesis of Indian Higher Education System: Glorious Past, Challenging Present and Promising Future
2.1 The Glorious Past
The system of education in India evolved from the early Gurukul system of the Vedic and Upanishadic period to  a huge University at Takshasila in the 6th century B.C. and then two universities namely Nalanda and Vikramsila were established in the 4th  and 5th - centuries A. D.
The first institution to be given the status of university was Sera Moore College, near Calcutta in 1829. The first three universities established in India in 1857 were at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras which were affiliating universities following the model of the London University.
Allahabad University, which has completed hundred years, was a later formation and was established as a Unitary University. It was only during the period 1904 and 1913, that imparting instruction within the universities began in India. Even so, the general pattern of affiliation of colleges continues with most of the universities in the country. The sudden expansion of Higher Education has led to lowering of quality; many colleges do not have even adequate physical infrastructure, not to speak of innovative and community related, socially relevant courses.
2.2 Challenging Present: Affiliated Colleges
Historically, the affiliating system of colleges was originally designed when their number in university was less.  The university could then effectively oversee the working of its affiliated colleges, act as an examining body and award degrees.  However, with the rapidly growing increase in the number of colleges / educational institutions, the system became unmanageable and started losing its governance.  Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for any university even to effectively attend to the varied needs of the affiliated / constituent individual colleges in a regular way and that too within the reasonable time.  The Acts, Statutes, Ordinances and Regulations of the university and its common system, governing all colleges irrespective of their characteristic strength, weaknesses and locations, have adversely affected the academic  development of individual colleges.  Virtually all affiliated/ constituent colleges of a university are supposed to strictly adhere to the given system and any initiative or innovation, outside the given ambit, taken by a particular college at its own cost, is often treated by the university as an infringement of its dictum.  Since any college can hardly afford the unnecessary displeasure of its parent university even in respect of the matters falling in the gray areas, they look to the parent University for Guidance.  This delimitation restricts their involvement / initiative in the field of higher education and thus adversely affects healthy development of the colleges as well as the university.  Moreover, what is lamentable is that the existing system hardly encourages leadership in the field of higher education and prefers to operate in a domineering style.  In the given scenario, the colleges are required to follow the syllabus and academic calendar of the university.  They do not have the freedom to modernize their curricula to make it relevant to the locale specific needs, resources and aspirations.  Moreover, the colleges having capacity and capability for offering programmes of higher standards do not have the freedom to do so within the prevailing routine and rigid bureaucratic style of functioning of the university system.
The University's monitoring of the quality of teaching, research, physical facilities like library and laboratory equipment is often nominal. Although the university sets standards, there is no proper mechanism to monitor the observance of those standards. As it stands the University has become a huge examination mechanism conducting exams of thousands of students every year in regular and private streams, evaluating answer books and declaring results. The system of
affiliation gives the University an upper hand to manipulate and put road blocks and creates dependency syndrome, instead of helping out colleges seeking affiliation to improve the quality of education and the gross enrollment ratio.
The system is made so complicated that nothing gets done on time. Laws are often interpreted to suit delay and postponement of decision in favour of natural justice. Citizen’s charter and deadlines must be shown to ensure transparency and accountability of the University. The country needs to improve the gross enrollment ratio and for this more and more colleges and courses should be started. Even reaccredited colleges with very high CGPA have to proceed through unwarranted delay and harassment before starting new courses and getting affiliation. Higher Education Department and UGC should have a system in place to facilitate smoother and swifter functioning for the sake of the development of the country.
2.3 Promising future: Radical Departure from Affiliated to Autonomous Colleges
The affiliation system which persisted since 1857 worked well during the early decades when the number of colleges affiliated to the universities was small and the universities had direct interest and close association with the programmes and performance of its affiliated colleges. During the last few decades, however, the number of colleges affiliated to universities has grown to almost
unmanageable proportions. The relationship between the universities and affiliated colleges has degraded to merely filling up performa and chasing the files that are stranded at different offices, reducing the status of affiliated colleges to mechanical entities.
While evolving new directions for higher education and strengthening its quality and relevance, the various Commissions on education underlined the structural weakness of the affiliation system which inhibited the implementation of their major recommendations. College autonomy, in a phased manner was, therefore, advocated as a possible solution. 
Since 1968 when the first National Policy on Education based on Kothari Commission report was adopted, there have been continued emphasis on changing the affiliation system of colleges. The Kothari Commission (1964-66) has formally recommended college autonomy for the first time in India. In 1969, Dr. Gajendra Gadkar committee also suggested the concept of autonomy to the university department. Subsequently, in 1973, UGC sent a circular to all universities recommending them to set up Autonomous colleges. From 1978 onwards Autonomous colleges came into existence. The NPE-1986 suggested that autonomy should be available to the colleges in selection of students, appointment and promotion of teachers, determination of courses of study and methods of teaching and choice of areas for research and their promotion. The Programme of Action (PoA) for NPE-1986 recommended developing a large number of autonomous colleges as well as creation of autonomous departments within universities on a selective basis. 
The concept of ‘autonomy’ is a radical departure from the existing affiliating system to self-governance. The basic premise is that the college conferred with the status of autonomy shall exercise complete academic freedom in its functioning and for this purpose shall be required to perform many of the functions of its parent university. Revising / innovating / restructuring curricula, designing new courses, working out its own assessment / examination / evaluation system and declaring results. In addition to these functions, an autonomous college shall have to carry out many other ancillary functions, which were hitherto being performed by the affiliating university. 
Autonomy in principle enables a college to develop and propose programmes that are considered relevant by that college, to its immediate environment as well as the country as a whole. In other
words, a college should be able to identify the aspirations of the community that is around it and effectively translate those aspirations into a viable academic programme. An Autonomous college will have the freedom to decide on curriculum and course of study. The teacher himself / herself will study the individual and social needs, and based on the feedback from the industry, employers, faculty, students and current status of technology, will arrive at the course of study and design the curriculum in order that every student is well informed of the recent development in the discipline of his choice, is capable of self - learning, reasoning and is creative. The main thrust in an Autonomous college is maintaining and promoting academic excellence among its students. A substantial qualitative development in the students’ attitude, basic improvement in discipline, better staff and student interaction and higher employability are some of the key benefits of autonomy.

3. Critical Issues in Indian Higher Education
In India, the University system has passed through major political, economic and social changes. There have been several reviews of our education system, including the university system  especially after independence. The reports of the Radhakrishnan Commission (1948-49), the Kothari Commission (1964-66), the NPE-1968, the NPE-1986 and Review of NPE by Acharya Ramamurthi Commission (1992) contain significant observations and recommendations to strengthen the autonomous character of our university system.
At this stage, when our higher education system consists of 343 university level institutions and about 16,885 colleges, there are many nagging concerns about its role and performance. Higher education is continuing to expand, mostly in an unplanned manner, without even minimum levels of checks and balances. Many universities are burdened with unmanageable number of affiliated colleges. Some have more than 300 colleges affiliated to them. New universities are being carved out of existing ones to reduce the number of affiliated colleges.
3.1. Excellence and Expansion: Quantity and Quality in Indian Higher Education
Most observers agree that Indian higher education, the significant and impressive developments of the past few decades 1 notwithstanding, faces major challenges in both quantitative and qualitative terms.  Perhaps the clearest and boldest statement of this issue can be found in the “Report to the Nation 2006” of the National Knowledge Commission which concludes that there is “a quiet crisis in higher education in India that runs deep” 2, and that it has to do with both
the quantity and the quality of higher education in India.
Recognizing this dual challenge, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, severely criticized in a recent speech the serious qualitative deficiencies in Indian higher education while at the same time announcing plans for a major expansion of the system.  The Prime Minister expressed concern over the fact that only 7 percent of India’s 18 to 24 year olds enter higher education (compared to 21 percent in Germany, and 34 percent in the US 3. Agarwal 4 has compared, on the basis of UNESCO data, “gross enrolment ratios” 5; on that measure, in 2002-2003, India has a ratio of 12 percent, compared to 16 for China, 51 for Germany, and 83 percent for the US.), announced plans for the government to set up at least one “central University” in each of the 16 (of India’s 28) states that do not currently have one, and at least one degree-granting college in each of the 350 (of 604) districts that are without one. The “central universities” are to become “a symbol of excellence, a model of efficiency, and an example in terms of academic standards and university governance for other state universities to emulate”6. While these plans are considerably more modest than what the National Knowledge Commission has proposed (it foresees an expansion of the university system alone from the existing 350 to a future total of 1,500 institutions, including 50 “national universities” as centers of excellence 7  ; the added cost to the government of the Prime Minister’s expansion plans already is estimated at around $13 billion 8; total government expenditure on higher education 9 in 2005 has been calculated as amounting to Rs. 186,100 crores or approximately $45 billion10.
The qualitative deficits in Indian higher education and the need for a major quantitative expansion represent two major challenges for India, each of which would require an exceptional effort; to tackle them both at once, as experts and the government agree is necessary, is a particularly formidable task.

3.2 Regulation and Governance
Besides its quantitative limitations and qualitative deficits, Indian higher education is also considered to be sub optimally organized and significantly overregulated, limiting initiatives for change and stifling or misdirecting private efforts. In its assessment of the existing regulatory arrangements, the Knowledge Commission concludes: “In sum, the existing regulatory framework constrains the supply of good institutions, excessively regulates existing institutions in the wrong places, and is not conducive to innovation or creativity in higher education.” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research, concurs: “Our regulation is faulty, because it contemplates very little place for diversity of experiments.”
It is not surprising that one of the key recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission, behind the expansion of the system, is to change the system of regulation for higher education, claiming that “the system, as a whole, is over-regulated but under-governed” and proposing to establish an “Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE)” that is to operate “at an arm’s length from the Government and independent of all stakeholders”. A particularly interesting part of the debate on this issue centers around the need
for new forms of governance in Indian higher education, where the focus would be on the twin postulates of Autonomy and Accountability. An important step was taken in this regard by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) which set up a special committee to design ways for promoting both autonomy and accountability in Indian higher education. The Committee has come up with a wide range of recommendations in 2005 11 though no major breakthrough in this matter seems to have been achieved as yet. However, the debate over new forms of governance, especially with regard to the twin issues of autonomy and accountability, is thus of critical importance for the future of the system.
4.  Autonomous Colleges: Benchmarking Quality Initiatives
The Education Commission (1964-66) pointed out that the exercise of academic freedom by teachers is a crucial requirement to the development of the intellectual climate of our country. Unless such a climate prevails, it is difficult to achieve excellence in our higher education system. As students, teachers and managements are co-partners in raising the quality of higher education, it is imperative that they share a major responsibility towards this end and hence the Education Commission recommended college autonomy, which, in essence, is the instrument for promoting academic excellence.  Consequently, it was decided to confer autonomous status to such institutions as have the capability to design their own curriculum, evolve innovative teaching and testing strategies.
The UGC, on the recommendation of an Expert Committee and in consultation with the State Government and the University concerned, confers autonomous status on colleges to enable them to determine their own curricula, rules for admission, evolve methods of assessment of student work, conduct of examination, use modern tools of educational technology and promote healthy practices such as community service, extension activities for the benefit of the society at large.  There are at present 204 autonomous colleges spanning over 11 States and 43 Universities.
The Tenth Plan Profile of Higher Education in India prepared by UGC indicated the vision for  higher education system in India for the 21st century. Pointing out the changing trends towards flexibility, the document states: “World over, the higher education is passing through an interesting phase. It is changing radically, by becoming organically flexible in diversity of programmes, in its structure, in its curricula, in its delivery systems and it is adopting itself to
innovative use of information and communication technologies.” The document proposed the agenda to “identify colleges and universities with potential and fund them to reach excellence in teaching and research with greater academic, administrative and financial flexibility; and cultivate and support credit based cafeteria approach education especially in autonomous colleges as well as in colleges and universities with potential for excellence”.
4.1 Recommendations of Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE)
UGC sent a circular titled “Autonomous Colleges: Criteria, Guidelines and Pattern of Assistance” to all universities highlighting the distortions and consequences of the affiliation system and attributing the failure of all attempts at the reform of University education to
the existing rigidity in the structure of the higher education and the lack of academic autonomy.
Some of the salient recommendations Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) constituted on the subject of “Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions” under the chairmanship of     Shri Kanti Biswas, Hon’ble Minister for Education, Government of West Bengal are as follows:
Academic Matters: The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) strongly recommended that there is a need to grant autonomy to individual institutions for designing curriculum. Universities may provide a broad framework within which individual faculty member both
within the university and in the colleges should be encouraged to innovate and experiment to transform teaching and learning into a fascinating and rewarding experience; exercise innovative approaches in undertaking periodic revision of curriculum every two to three years and an intensive revision every four to five years depending on the developments in the subject area. Apex bodies like UGC, AICTE may evolve appropriate mechanisms of overseeing the quality of curricular changes envisaged by the institutions and provide feedback for improvement wherever required; adopt the practice of performance appraisal of teachers initiated through self appraisal based on objective parameters; improve the quality of the Orientation Programmes and Refresher Courses.
Administrative Matters: Acts, Statutes and Ordinances of the universities should be reviewed for their better management as also for granting autonomous status to affiliating colleges. The new form of management in the university should encourage speedy decision making, networking, team effort and collective responsibility to meet the challenges of the new millennium.
Financial Matters: Funding to individual institutions should be provided on block grant pattern so that they have greater degree of freedom to set up their own priority.
All higher education institutions need to be given full autonomy to establish linkages for academic and research collaboration with their counterpart academic and research institutions, industry and professional organizations both in India and abroad.
There is a strong need for developing effective synergies between research in the universities and their application in and utilization by the industry to the mutual advantage of both the systems. Likewise industry should be persuaded to establish organic linkages with the universities to seek solutions of problems faced by the industry.
There is a need for making organized efforts and enhance the level of funding support for deployment of new technologies for ensuring quality education for all and promote excellence. New technologies have potential to change the teaching-learning paradigm in a way that has not been possible before.
There should be a charter of responsibility and devolution and delegation of authority defined for different levels within the university system and both should be monitored together.
4.2     Response: Dichotomy in Implementing Autonomy
As Principal of St. Aloysius College (Autonomous), reaccredited ‘A’ (CGPA 3.5/4.0), College with Potential for Excellence, for the past 19 years I have worked under both affiliating and Autonomous systems. I feel proud that UGC has been daring enough to give autonomous status to colleges that have been accredited and reaccredited with A Grade and give sufficient financial assistance to them.  If the UGC takes feedback from Autonomous colleges on the
administrative difficulties they experience from the affiliating Universities and State Governments, it could be a real eye opener and would serve as a performance indicator of the great Indian dream of Autonomous colleges. It is a sad story of dependence at each phase and
level, delay in all decisions, interference in almost all activities except in conducting the exams and declaring results. The UGC has to give clear instructions to the affiliating Universities and concerned Department of Higher Education on the purpose of granting Autonomy to such Colleges who have proven record of academic and administrative excellence. Coordination between UCG and State Government higher education will ensure less duplication of work for autonomous colleges when dealing with universities. Apprehensions regarding autonomous college degrees not recognized may be removed.  To ensure quality of education, competent and committed teachers are required. The State Government should pay 6th pay commission salary to teachers of Autonomous aided Colleges as they do with Government Colleges. UGC should ensure equal remuneration for equal work to institutes of quality education. Changes in Acts and Statues be considered based on the best practices of reaccredited autonomous institutes. The much awaited degree awarding status or status of University should be given to reaccredited Autonomous colleges with ‘A’ grade. Freedom from undue interference, fixing up dead lines, Citizens charter and helpful attitude, making it easy to effectively function and do benchmarking in quality teaching and learning should be upheld and promoted.
4.3 Challenges in Implementing Autonomy: Unfounded Apprehensions
An effective regulatory mechanism should be established by the UGC to monitor the functioning of the colleges.  Before extending Autonomous status to other colleges, objective evaluation and revamping of the existing Autonomous colleges may be done.
To ensure effective implementation, the Scheme has undergone review and revision from time to time.  However, the focus so far has been on problems relating to innovations and changes under autonomy, administrative and financial matters, etc., so as to make the concept of autonomy popular in the academic circles.  The gray areas still exist which call for serious dialogue for removing unfounded apprehensions in the minds of teachers, managements and the governments, mainly concerning the service conditions, security of jobs and proper implementation of the scheme, and the college/university –State Government – UGC relations. Changes in acts and statutes of the Universities are also needed to provide them necessary powers to confer autonomous status to the identified and selected colleges.  Matters falling in the gray areas are generally open for multiplicity / duplication of efforts by more than one stakeholder and, therefore, call mutually acceptable approach.  Such areas include criterion for admission of pass out graduates of the autonomous college in the post graduate programmes being run by the parent university on its campus and merit position secured in the university by the students of autonomous colleges.  It has often been reported that students of autonomous colleges are treated ‘less than equals’ by their own university.  Universities generally feel that due to obvious reasons, performance of the students are not evaluated by the autonomous colleges on the same set of parameters as applied to the parent  university.  Such suspicions / apprehensions, unless based on ground realities, bring down the reputation of the institution in the eyes of the public, which in turn demoralizes institution management and the students.  Such kind of suspicions / apprehensions need to be resolved and ambiguities removed. 
It seems that the most crucial missing component of the scheme has so far been its poor monitoring.  A Regional / State level monitoring mechanism through networking may provide practical solutions to many of the problems being encountered by the colleges during the implementation of the scheme.  Cross fertilization of ideas between and among the autonomous and non-autonomous colleges, at regular intervals, and also about the ‘successful’ and ‘not so successful’ innovations made by the autonomous colleges may improve quality of higher education as,   such interaction and may provide much deeper insight into the problem areas and offer alternatives to the existing remedial / correctional practices.  This exercise may also motivate others to seek autonomy status in due course of time in the interest of improvement of higher  education.
5.      Conclusion: Autonomy to Institutionalize Quality and Accountability
The concept of autonomy is a structural solution intended mainly to provide an enabling environment to improve and strengthen the teaching and learning process, benchmarking quality initiatives. Autonomy alone may not guarantee higher quality, just as non-autonomy need not
preclude better performance. The essential factors for high quality education are the caliber and attitudes of students towards learning, the competence and commitment of teachers towards educational processes, the flexibility and foresightedness of the governance system and the social credibility of the educational outcome. Autonomy is expected to provide a better framework for fostering these factors than the affiliation system with all its constraining conditions hanging as a dead weight on the higher education system. Even the limited evidence so far suggests that autonomous colleges have by and large fulfilled the expectations. 
At the core of the concept of autonomy is the decentralized management culture. The delegation of responsibility with accountability for academic as well as associated management functions is essential for the success of autonomy. For understandable reasons, there has been a great deal of reluctance on the part of the higher echelons to delegate these responsibilities to decentralized units. At the same time there are hesitations on the part of the functional units to undertake the decentralized responsibilities. Those who have successfully instituted autonomy consist of visionary leaderships with stable foundations and creditable track records. Others are afraid of treading untested waters. This is a constraint that should be overcome sooner than later.
The successful implementation of the concept of autonomy requires willing and honest participation of the students, teachers and management in the education process. They should be willing to stand up to intense scrutiny of their role in autonomy. A system of academic audit at every step of the implementation of the concept of autonomy should be acceptable to all concerned parties. The facilities for carrying out autonomous functions such as innovations in curricular content, systems of examination and evaluation, teaching methods, supplementary learning, etc. require not only sufficient financial resources but also continuous training and upgradation of teachers.  Autonomous institutions should, therefore, have the means to mobilize
resources on a predictable basis. Their dependence solely on UGC or State Governments which have limited allocations for higher education will be a serious draw back. 
In the rapidly changing teaching-learning environment, an autonomous system can facilitate much needed innovations such as inter-disciplinary programmes, inter-institutional sharing of academic loads, and transfer of credits between different modes of learning and so on.
Autonomy should necessarily lead to excellence in academics, governance and financial management of the institutions. If it does not lead to this, it can be safely concluded that autonomy has been misused. Academic autonomy is the freedom to decide academic issues
like curriculum, instructional material, pedagogy, techniques of students’ evaluation. Administrative autonomy is the freedom to institution to manage its own affairs in regard to administration. It is the freedom to manage the affairs in such a way that it stimulates and encourages initiative and development of individuals working in the institutions and thereby of the institution itself. Financial autonomy is the freedom to the institution to expend the financial
resources at its disposal in a prudent way keeping in view its priorities. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin.
Accountability enables the institutions to regulate the freedom granted to them by gaining autonomous stature.
1.      Such as the remarkable growth of the system between independence and now: from 28 universities in 1950 to 348 in 2005/06, and from an enrolment of 200.000 students to ten and a  half million now (Agarwal 2006, Table A2, p. 155).
2.      National Knowledge Commission (NKC) 2007, 48. For similar assessments from various angles, see Kapur and Mehta 2004; Tilak 1997 and 2004; Agarwal 2006; Singh 2004.
3.      OECD, Education at a Glance 2006. Paris: OECD, 2006, Table A.3.1 (some care is advised in the comparison of these statistics, as they are gathered differently in different countries.
4.       2005, Table A5, p. 158
5.      The ratio of total enrolment in higher education to the population of the appropriate age group (17/18 to 23/24 years); on that measure, in 2002-2003, India has a ratio of 12 percent, compared to 16 for China, 51 for Germany, and 83 percent for the US.
6.      CHE, June 15, 2007, A40.
7.      NKC 2007, 43-44.
8.      CHE, June 15, 2007 (Volume 53, Issue 41, Page A40.
9.      UGC, central government, state government.
10.  Agarwal 2006, Table A8, p.159; cf. Kapur and Mehta 2004, 4-5 and Tilak 2004, 2160.
11.  CABE 2005.