With Colleges Fighting for Autonomy, Higher Education Has a Lot to Lose

Granting autonomy to colleges will ensure that the public good that is higher education, will become a private business.

Students protest against autonomy outside St. Stephen’s college, Delhi. Credit: Facebook

‘Autonomy’ is the new buzzword echoing in the halls of higher education today. The word conveys high and cherished ideals like independence, freedom, self-reliance, self-determination – all of which are now being invoked, by various authorities, inside and outside the government, to rationalise and justify the newfound urgency with which a select few colleges are being ‘invited’ to ‘apply’ for autonomy. Why then has this become controversial?

For one, the University Grants Commission (UGC) in its ‘Guidelines for Autonomous Colleges During the XII Plan‘ (2012) had stipulated that only colleges that were awarded a least a B-Grade by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), three times, over at least ten years could be considered for autonomy. It had also stipulated that the staff of the college should be ‘involved in the thinking and planning processes from the very beginning’. None of this has happened, but ‘autonomy’ has now become a juggernaut, barrelling on, unstoppably.

The ‘autonomy’ that is being planned will benefit only the various private trusts that now ‘manage’ the colleges in question – not the faculty, nor the non-teaching staff, nor the students, and certainly not their parents. The terms of autonomy are such that the administrative and financial powers and control of the private trusts will subsequently increase dramatically, de facto, and possibly de jure. The checks and balances that exist by virtue of being affiliated to the university will gradually disappear completely. For instance, faculty service conditions: these are supposed to remain unchanged but, in real terms, the obligation of the trusts to honour these conditions is greatly reduced ‘post-autonomously’. Why? Because the current financial and administrative accountability of the college trusts to the university authorities will disappear completely with ‘autonomy’, and consequently, so will employee and student protection, from arbitrary and autocratic action by college administrations. Also, under the present arrangement, college administrations have to keep in mind the various unions of teachers, students and karamcharis, while determining college plans, policies and projects. These already weakened unions will gradually be eradicated altogether, because autonomy is effectively a new ‘divide and rule’ policy. Those who disfavor unions must be reminded that unions are not the nuisance they are made out to be, but are fundamental tools for justice, democracy and equality for the employee. This kind of ‘autonomy’ then is an attack on the democratic structure of the university space itself.

Contrary to popular perceptions, however, the adverse effects of ‘autonomy’ will, in some ways, be felt even more by the general public than by the students and faculty. These ‘autonomous’ colleges will be more or less financially independent, with a quasi-private structure, whereby they will continue to enjoy some grants from the government, but will be free to raise funds from any other source – much higher fees, donations, investments from private parties, rents, and so on.

Consequently, without any financial control, there is no real control that either the government or the university can exercise over them, or the fees that they decide on – which parents will have to meet, or students will have to take loans for. But, according to a slew of documents on higher education, from both governmental and non-governmental quarters – for example, the Birla-Ambani Report (2000); the National Knowledge Commission’s Report (2009); the MHRD’s Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA, or National Higher Education Mission) document (2013); the ASHE (Annual Status of Higher Education of States and UTs in India) Report (2014), among many others – this was the agenda in the first place: the conversion of a public good into a private business.

The student profile of these campuses will change dramatically, with the overwhelming majority from the wealthy strata. Apart from hefty student loans and indebted parents, under ‘autonomy’ students will evolve an expressly consumerist approach to both their education and their educational institutions. Faculty will typically become concerned more with appeasing the demands and opinions of the paying student, than with actually educating the student. Colleges that were once considered ‘elite’ because of the quality of their education and their high academic performances, will now become ‘elite’ because of whom they cater to and how much they cost. Official and unofficial management quotas will further enable this.

Third, a major feature of ‘autonomy’ is the provision for industry to participate directly in education, by designing courses and curricula; as well as for foreign universities to offer certificates for ‘collaborative’ courses. Graduates from such courses, or those who bear certificates in courses that are designed by and for industry, are already being touted as more ‘employable’ than the current students. They will be more sought after, and will possibly begin to replace those from earlier batches with conventional degrees. ‘Autonomy’ will thus affect not only future generations of students, but even past and current ones, who will have to compete in the future with their more ‘autonomously’ produced juniors.

All of this indicates a sea-change in the conception of higher education itself. The earlier understanding of (higher) education was as a public good that the state provides, for all to benefit from and better themselves with. Based on this understanding, the land, infrastructure and maintenance of the institutions of higher education belonged to the state. Where private trusts were involved, as in the case of these select colleges, the land and infrastructure was given on lease to the trusts, with maintenance shared on a 95% is to 5 % ratio. Most of the trusts are rumoured not to have met even this 5% share, ever – which means that these lands and their infrastructures have almost nil financial investment from their trusts. Instead, they have been paid for, developed and maintained by tax-payers money, over the many decades since independence. They belong, in every financial sense to the people of India, to cater to the educational needs of their children.

And yet, today, these lands and institutions are being literally gifted away by deeply compromised governments to the wealthy private interests that control the trusts that have inveigled their way into the education system. Today, under the guise of giving academic ‘autonomy’ – which, if it were the real intent, could well have been granted without such dramatic financial and administrative changes – the state is blithely handing out our legacy to bodies that will reel in the profits in the billions, without paying a paisa for what they are getting. Further, the poorer will simply not be able to afford higher education. There is no neutrality or objectivity at all in the autonomy that is being proposed.

Once upon a time there was a piper who took away the children of a town, because he wasn’t paid for removing rats. Let us not make the mistake of believing that ‘autonomy’ will get rid of the rats of ignorance and unemployment, and hand over our children and their futures to the pipers as payment. Rather, the state must do its job. It must take back higher education from the pipers, instead paying the pipers and allowing them to hold our children to ransom, in the name of ‘employability’.

Karen Gabriel is an associate professor at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. P.K. Vijayan is an assistant professor at Hindu College, Delhi University.

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