Educational Autonomy in the time of false ideals

Understanding the proposal to repeal the UGC Act (1956)

Akshay Balan
Jul 4, 2018 · 6 min read

Autonomy in educational institutions is all the rage these days. The Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) recently announced its plans to repeal the University Grands Commission (UGC) Act, 1956, and in effect scrap the functioning of UGC. If this move comes together, a new Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will replace the UGC. But this new commission will play quite a different role.

For one thing, HECI will act as a chaperone in ushering ‘autonomy’ to all higher education institutions. This is in fact the key pitch that the MHRD is selling. The theory goes that when universities are given autonomy, they
will have the ability to be more fluid and flexible in their academic pursuits. Another key phrase that the ministry seems to like is ‘private funding.’ According to its website, the inspiration for these initiatives are taken from the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission (2006) Report [Henceforth, NKC Report] and the Yeshpal Committee report. However, these are merely half-truths in the larger context.

Autonomy as a facade for commercialisation

It is not that the ministry’s claims are false.
The NKC Report did indeed recommend private funding. But it specifies that this should be “in addition to increased public spending” as a way to increase Gross Enrolment Rate (GRE) in higher education. The NKC does not factor in the matter of autonomy. In fact, there is no mention of autonomy in the entire report. On the other hand, the Yeshpal Committee did recommend and promote autonomy in universities, as a way to curb political and private interference. Here, the report does not consider autonomy in a context where universities are largely funded by private entities. The committee actually looks towards the academic valour of centrally funded universities as an example. It seems that the MHRD has nitpicked their data in order to formulate a commercialised spawn of autonomy in higher education.

The motive behind this is simple. There is an existing pressure on educational institutions to appear market friendly. This is to say that the education provided to the students is based on the requirements of the corporate
sector. Education is thus considered only as just another form of business. In an article titled Autonomy and the Commercialisation of Higher Education, social scientist Madhu Prasad explains the structure of this system:

“Faculties and administration should view themselves as providers, and students as consumers, of a commodity called ‘knowledge.’ Social forces that contribute the system — government, communities, parents and others, are now dubbed as ‘stakeholder,’ who can be ‘reasonably’ expected to demand and receive tangible short-term and long-term returns on their investment”

Imagine the shift in perspective when the majority stakeholders in this system are private corporations. The administration is then bound to comply with their demands. The private sector is constantly on the lookout for
employees with specialised skills. So it is only ‘reasonable’ for them to seek exactly that from academic institutions. And the faculty will have no choice but to adjust their curriculum entirely based on market needs. In the name of autonomy, the HECI Act leaves universities to fend for themselves financially, at least for the most part. MHRD has recently clarified that the details of the funding process is yet to be finalised, so the jury is still out on that.

However, according to UGC’s announcement with ‘UGC (Categorisation of Universities for Grant of Graded Autonomy) Regulations 2018′, autonomous universities can only seek funds for existing courses/programmes (Clause 4.2) . If this continues to be valid, then universities will have turn to other sources to fund their newly found benefits of autonomy. New courses or change in curriculum will need new funding agencies. The universities will then obviously have to increase tuition fees and also turn to private investments to sustain. This is not true autonomy. This autonomy lacks academic freedom.

So what is true autonomy?

This question was answered quite a while ago, in 1964 by the Kothari Commission. For a university to have autonomy and academic freedom, the first factor to consider is that a university cannot to be dealt with the same way as any other economic entity. The Kothari Commission Report states that:

“The character of a university as a society of teachers and students engaged in the pursuit of learning and discovery, distinguishes fundamentally the
regulation of its affairs from, say, the profit-motivated management of commercial or industrial concerns or the administration of a government department, a municipal corporation, or a unit of the armed forces.”

The commission also distinguishes institutional autonomy from academic freedom. While the former refers to the administrative autonomy, which helps with ease of management, academic freedom is about the right that the
teachers and the students hold in expressing their views, “however radical, within the classroom (and outside) provided they are careful to present the different aspects of a problem without confusing teaching with
propaganda in favour of their own particular views.” This factor emphasises the need for teachers to freely teach whatever they think is appropriate, as long as it is in the name of pursuing knowledge, and not out of vested
interests. It appears that this sort of autonomy would not be possible, with the significant presence of private actors in the picture.

Commercial autonomy in Universities will lead to economic disparity

In an autonomous university as proposed by the MHRD, the tuition fees would be non-subsidised. And the brunt of paying the costly fees — in order to attend a career-oriented specialisation course that the market
demands — would fall on the student. This would be possible without much strain for students from the upper and upper-middle class families, who are more likely to live in the cities. The problem here, as economist Nicholas Barr explains it, is that:

“With less public funding per student, as in the United States, there are no externally imposed supply-side constraints. However, unless limited taxpayer funding is sufficiently redistributed, students from lower-income backgrounds will be deterred from applying [at universities]. Thus high subsidies can harm on the supply side, but their absence can harm it on the demand side.”

As limited as public funding might be, without it a large portion of students will not be able to afford the education they deserve. The lower strata of the society will either have to opt out of studying, or choose to pursue the course with the help of an education loan. Their life then will be a frantic struggle to repay their debt by working as a specialised employee for the market. At the same time, those students from the upper strata would continue to
progress, both economically and socially. It is the classic story of the rich staying rich and the poor staying poor.

Except that it is not that simple in India, as most thing aren’t. The prevalent economic divide is also related to factors like caste, religion, region and gender. Considering this, the lack of substantial subsidy in universities
would have marginalized communities moving towards an economic standstill.

Is there a way forward for autonomy?

None of this is to claim that autonomy in itself is regressive. When done correctly, it can lead to a productive and progressive environment in universities, and in turn the society at large. When done correctly, that is. In most of the Scandinavian countries, autonomous universities work very efficiently, without falling into problematic pits, largely with the help of state funding. In fact, in Sweden the tuition is entirely free, as the expenses are fully borne by the state. It does help that these societies are highly homogeneous, unlike India. For us, creating an autonomous model would and should take a lot more effort.

In India, funds are provided based on historical allocation. The funding here is largely factored by the amount received the year before (and also based on political lobbying). Whereas in Denmark, public funding for higher
educational institutions is done partly through a fixed allocation of yearly funds, which is mostly meant for expenses in research and administration. For educational activities, the funds are allocated through a performance
based model. This model is called the taximeter principle, and relies on the total number of students that pass exams.

There are also other regulatory measures that may be fruitful. Co-regulation is a system of peer-to-peer regulation, where institutions themselves formulate standards, under the larger canopy of an autonomous governing body. This model is being experimented by the Office for Students in the UK.

It goes without saying that these models may not necessarily fit our country’s economy and so may not be viable. But the fact remains that the Government has done a haphazard job on policy thinking, as it hasn’t looked at all
the options. It is now common knowledge that Bills in the parliament are passed in a hasty and lacklustre manner. The HECI draft proposed by the MHRD is a straitjacket, and will not fit the needs of a nation as confusing as
ours. It will only restrain us

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Akshay Balan

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The Student Outpost

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