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Autonomy in Higher Education - Private Colleges Must Lead

By Dr. Thummala Somasekhar, Chairman, Indian Academy Group of Institutions | Wednesday, 22 Mar 2017, 07:11 IST

Even as bubbles are building and bursting elsewhere - IT, Realty, e-commerce, start-ups and so on - education sector in India has been expanding sustainably thanks to India’s long-standing traditions that respect knowledge, teaching and learning. Statistics tell us that India’s higher education system is presently the third largest in the world, and growing.  By the next decade, one in every four graduates in the world will be a product of the Indian higher education system, making India the second largest young human resources pool.  

But, our pride over these quantitative attainments soon fizzles out when we think of the total absence of qualitative accomplishments. India lacks world class educational institutions. Indian universities do not top world rankings. Even the few small universities which have some international standing - like IISc which is ranked at 152 in a recent survey, and the IITs which figure in top 400 - are known rather for sending international students than receiving them.  A whopping 60% of our engineering graduates remain unemployed due to campus-corporate gap! Clearly, in its eagerness to make education accessible, equitable and affordable to all, the Indian education system has been compromising on quality.

Quality is paramount in higher education. Qualifications without quality will only compound the unemployment problem of the country. Science and technology can not advance without high quality academic research. Opportunities will be lost if we are not ahead of the curve: while India has been tipped to become the global destination for higher education and edu-tourism, like it has happened in tertiary healthcare, lack of international branding for our education stands as major road block for that.  

What exactly is holding back Indian educators and educationists from rising to the occasion and lead India to excellence in higher education? Even the quality initiatives pushed by the governmental bodies, such as NAAC and NBA accreditations, do not find enough takers. Several colleges and universities are yet to apply for the accreditations. Is it just systemic lethargy? Then again, some of the private colleges which want to move ahead of the pack in pursuit of academic excellence feel bogged down by the affiliatory and regulatory restrictions that put apples and oranges in the same basket! 

The need of the hour is to give ‘academic freedom’ to those who want to lead the way and set the pace for progress. And the good news is that, this doesn’t warrant any urgent structural reforms or disruptive revolutions.  A scheme is already provided in the higher education system of India which can give impetus to those who want to independently pursue their dreams of building world class institutions. Yes, I am talking about ‘Autonomy’!

For the uninitiated, eligible colleges can apply to UGC for grant of ‘autonomous status’, which gives them a good amount of academic and administrative freedom to design and offer new courses, conduct their own examinations and evaluations, and award degrees that jointly bear their name. This is in contrast with the prevalent ‘affiliation system’ where a big university directly controls all colleges affiliated to it, whether governmental, aided or private.  Not that such affiliation, by itself, impedes the quality of education. The problem lies in manageability of volumes and numbers. In its official reports University Grants Commission (UGC) laments thus: “The affiliating system of colleges was originally designed when their number in a university was small....The system has now become unwieldy and it is becoming increasingly difficult for a university to attend to the varied needs of individual colleges. The regulations of the university and its common system...have affected the academic development of individual colleges. Colleges that have the potential for offering programmes of a higher standard do not have the freedom to offer them... The only safe and better way to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to delink most of the colleges from the affiliating structure.... It is proposed to increase the number of autonomous colleges to spread the culture of autonomy.”   

But, in spite of the thrust from the government, just 1.5% of the 38,498 colleges across India have become autonomous. Of the 575 colleges that have been granted autonomous status by the UGC, 411 are private colleges. The reluctance from government colleges to pitch for autonomy can be attributed to systemic issues. But, what is it that prevents the private sector managements, who display such ambition and enthusiasm in their publicity campaigns, to pitch for autonomous status and use the academic freedom to make their institutions world class? As an insider, let me hazard a few informed guesses.

Having lived under the protective umbrella of a large university, most colleges have slipped into comfort zones running routine courses and leaving the rest to the controlling bodies of the university. Scaling up to autonomous status calls for self-drive and dynamism, and involves a lot of change-management. The college management and the faculty have to reinvent themselves in academic leadership roles. It is a great challenge!

Autonomy is not a low hanging fruit. Grant of autonomous status comes with stringent eligibility criteria about sound financial footing, adequate infrastructure, minimum standards of accreditation by NAAC, and credible track record. While it is an honour for a private college to be deemed fit for autonomous status, the colleges will have to strive harder to sustain and enhance their quality continuously.  It is a big commitment!

Most importantly, you need motivated faculty to uplift the quality of an institution. Mediocre faculty cannot do justice to the freedom given to them in curriculum design, examinations and evaluations. Attracting high calibre faculty would mean offering lucrative remunerations.  This, in turn, leads to burdening the students with heavy admission fees. Keeping the costs low even while improving the quality of education, is a fiscal riddle for privately funded institutions.

The real test of mettle for an autonomous college is making a mark in the industry.  Autonomous colleges cannot afford to remain anonymous, like they could under the affiliation of a university. The degrees awarded by them carry the watermark of their academic standards and reputation.  Autonomous colleges have to work hard to establish a solid brand image in academic and industry circles, through research, collaborations, consultancies, extension activities and placements. It is a long race ahead!

Such concerns notwithstanding, autonomy is long over-due in India’s higher education system. It is time to take long strides, not just baby steps, to cover the lost ground quickly and catch up with the rest of the best in the world. Eligible private colleges must rise to the occasion and lead the way.  

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