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Here is what autonomy would entail for universities and colleges

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Anuj is a final year law student at Delhi University awaiting his results. He has frequently contributed Op-ed to numerous forums such as Organiser, OpIndia, Pragyata and often writes blogs on economic and policy issues at Swatantraopinion.wordpress.com. In his free time, he likes to read books on economics, politics, and culture.

Let’s first understand what autonomy means with respect to educational institutions. An institution generally desires three types of autonomy. The first is administrative autonomy where the institution has the freedom to take decisions regarding its functioning by itself a does not have to rely upon or take instructions from an external authority. Secondly, the financial autonomy, wherein the institution doesn’t have to rely upon an external source to remain afloat and has guaranteed economic security. Lastly, the academic autonomy that allows the institution to be able to effectively decide for itself what type, of course, would it teach, what would be the course structure and who essentially gets to teach it. The autonomy scheme of UGC pledges to grant all three in varying degrees.

What is the Autonomy Scheme?

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has come forth with a scheme that will eventually grant autonomy to about 60 Universities and Colleges from its own clutches. The extent of this autonomy will depend upon how these institutions fare on the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India’s (NAAC) ranking-scores. Based on the scores, the universities are divided into three categories. Universities and institutions that score anything above 3.51 on a scale of 4 of NAAC assessment score, constitutes Category I and are to get the widest latitude in terms of autonomy which would enable to start up new programmes, departments, schools, hire foreign faculty, offer variable incentive packages, collaborate with foreign universities and off-campus online learning programmes. Category II Institutions scoring between 3.50 and 3.26 are also to be given a degree of autonomy albeit with certain restrictions like the requirement of approval for tying up with foreign universities.

The important highlight of the scheme is that the approval of UGC is not required in undertaking any of the abovementioned endeavours, giving the universities a great deal of freedom to manage their affairs. This has faced serious protests and opposition from two quarters – students and professors alike. Mostly, led by two organizations AISA (All India Student’s Association) and DUTA (Delhi University Teachers’ Association) both of them work in close conceit and are predominantly leftist in their orientation. Numerous arguments have been put up by the two organizations for the reasons of their opposition to the move some of them include commercialization and privatization of education, the effect on the inclusive character of the institution, and making education expensive. In this article, we would assess the merits of their arguments whilst attempting to gain some clarity regarding what autonomy entails for these institutions.

At the offset, there is still a great degree of opaqueness as to what exactly is the vision of Ministry of Human Resource & Development (MHRD) and there are some grey areas regarding what would be the exact consequences on the finances of the institutions. But that opaqueness is being exploited by the left to create a fear psychosis among the minds of students in order to insulate any kind of critical thinking about its merits.

New Courses and their Funding:

Take, for example, this video from AISA’s official Facebook page in which Prof. Abha Habib is talking about the institutions being made to take loans that will eventually come out of the pockets of students. The loans she is talking about are concessional loans from Higher Education Finance Agency, which will actually be paid off by the government and the institutions themselves are only responsible for interest payments on the loans. Therefore, the idea that students will suddenly be overwhelmed by exorbitant fees to pay off the loans is a great exaggeration. Further, the requirement of interest payments ensures that institutions rationalize their spending and have a balanced budget rather than assuming a carte blanche from the government.

It is no revelation that most universities in India lack adequate infrastructure. For years, the institutions have been made to rely upon the rickety bureaucratic machinery at the UGC to approve funding and grant them permission for starting off new courses. It’s absurd that a thing so fundamental to any educational institution as starting off a new course is strangled in such bureaucratic mess. Add to that the functioning of UGC and its diktats have remained a bone of contention for students, sparking off movements like #occupyUGC. Yet the attempt of divesting the role of UGC is being made to view with suspicion.

The guidelines entail that the institutions will be open to start off new courses, programmes, departments, schools and centers provided that no funds are sought from the government. The proposed move makes sense due to the simple fact that if the financial powers are still left reposed with UGC’s sluggishness, we are back to square one. It should be noted that this entire exercise is voluntary, the colleges and universities don’t have an obligation to open up new courses which in their opinion can’t be financed by themselves. In addition to that, there have been assurances that the present state of funding would be touched or altered in any way.

And yet this is being condemned as an exercise that will result in higher fees for the students. An option for remains for the universities and colleges to opt for financial support in form of sponsorships from private players or corporate-tie ups for specialized training programs, so as to keep the fees within affordable limits. That option, however, is being decried as an attempt to privatize and commercialize education. Thus, this entire protest is stuck in a Catch-22 situation where any attempts at reform are bogged down by circular arguments.

Are the contentions well-founded?

The notions of commercialization and privatization stem more from some unexplained clairvoyance as there is nothing to suggest that it would necessarily mean that the effective decision-making process would be left at the behest of private players. The question remains that if the lending advertisement space and branding allows students to avail access to the quality of education then can we choose to remain stuck with our moralistic-scared view of dispensing education? Wherein it compulsorily remains to be a state responsibility and any intrusion by private players is seen as a negation of responsibility.

Further, logically, these proposed courses are presently not being offered to any student right now. Thus, all students are being denied this opportunity as opposed only those who presumably can afford them. In addition to that, there is nothing that stops the university or the college to make provisions for students from socially and economically backward background to avail scholarships subsidized by students who are better off.

This inevitably results in social inclusion, not just in classrooms, but further, a greater kind of social inclusion. Wherein, the students from social and economically underprivileged background are able to not only avail quality education but are able to translate it into secure similar jobs and workplace opportunities. An option which was previously only available to the students studying in expensive private colleges.

So what irks the other side?

The provision of appointment of foreign faculty threatens the status quo in which organizations like DUTA enjoys a monopoly as a pressure group and terms of political capital among the professors. The arrival of foreign faculty means they would have to compete against possibly better qualified and more experienced teachers. The proposal of having variable incentive packages for faculty is not altogether appealing to them either. This would mean that their foreign colleagues could end up getting paid more (their market’s worth), a situation which DUTA is not comfortable with. Their resorts are to roadblock reforms and prolong state protection as long as possible before the inevitable happens.

The other reason is the casualty of politics. There is no doubt that in this zeal for autonomy the first casualty will be off campus politics. Any serious academic endeavor requires students and teachers alike to be in classrooms. Even in Delhi University, where much of the protests are centered, the colleges which enjoy de-facto more autonomy than others are already insulated from Delhi University student union. Colleges like Lady Shri Ram College and St. Stephen which don’t affiliate to student union are relatively better off in terms of academic performance and campus placements. Other colleges like College of Business Studies have performed independently of University regulations as having semester system from as early as 1991 and having its own criteria for admission, no wonder that it is one of the most sought-after colleges in Delhi University.

There is a Baptists and Bootleggers coalition between AISA and DUTA. Just like Baptists in 20th-century who gained moral legitimacy by laying down strictures against consuming alcohol on Sundays and the bootleggers who profited from the advocated ban, AISA and DUTA protect each other’s turf. The AISA members are benefitted by getting a new lease on their activism through ideologically sympathizing professors. The professors, in return, are insulated from the on-coming reforms by projecting them to be anti-students. This unholy alliance road-blocks most of what can be done to improve the university. Yet these two groups are the most vocal opponents of governmental interference in education.

In conclusion, the protests and criticism of the moving stem less from an altruistic concern for the students and the education system but more from the loss of vested interests and in the process the universities and colleges are being signed off to perpetual mediocrity. All this is being done through a massive misinformation campaign which can only be seen as a great disservice to the students of these institutions. Something that needs to be arrested and confronted by vigilant students.

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Anuj is a final year law student at Delhi University awaiting his results. He has frequently contributed Op-ed to numerous forums such as Organiser, OpIndia, Pragyata and often writes blogs on economic and policy issues at Swatantraopinion.wordpress.com. In his free time, he likes to read books on economics, politics, and culture.
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