‘Autonomy’ To Higher Education Institutions In India Is A Wolf In Sheep’s Disguise

March 20 2018, a day union minister Prakash Javedkar has chosen to describe as a “historic day” in fact will be remembered as a black day in the history of higher education in India, if written from the perspective of its increasingly economically, socially and politically marginalized section.

It is the day on which the government of India gave a new financial and managerial autonomy to 60 higher education institutions of which 52 are universities and 8 are colleges. But what is this autonomy?

If we consider the word autonomy without any context it would simply be associated with positive and progressive connotations ranging from freedom to self-government. Then why do so many stakeholders of academia believe that autonomy is a lie?

Because in this case, autonomy means self-financing- the institution being required to raise the money they need on their own by charging unprecedented fees from students and engaging in private partnerships. It also means curtailment of government regulation and quality check so that institutes can make most of their ‘autonomy.’

Delhi University protests against granting autonomy to colleges, in 2018. (Photo: Anuja Jaiswal/Twitter)

A detailed anatomy of the term ‘autonomy’ will be helpful in understanding of its implications in this regard. This entire regulation is laid out by the University Grants Commission’s Graded Autonomy Regulation (GAR) notified through the union gazette, February 12 2018. It orders the institutions to fund their own study programmes, establish their own incentive structures and service conditions for faculty and other staff, and also recommends collaboration with other high ranked national and foreign institutions while ignoring any type of inputs that will ensure equity, quality and access of the institutions.

The regulation uses the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) scores and rank to develop its three-tier system of graded autonomy for universities and colleges. Tier 1 includes universities and colleges with a NAAC score of 3.51 and above. Those institutions under Tier-1 are insisted to run all the new courses, degree programmes, and centers in a self- financing mode and given freedom to charge fees at will. There is also a provision to open off-campus centres within its geographical jurisdiction without approval from UGC as a franchisee model.

The regulation also recommends that up to 20% of the faculty may be of foreign origin, but on contract and their pay and incentives have to be generated by the institutions themselves. It also recommends that 20% of the student seats may be reserved for foreign students.

Intensive use of digital information and communication technology to enroll, teach and evaluate students is also recommended. The same is repeated for Tier 2 institutions are ones with a NAAC score of 3.26 and above up to 3.50. The only difference is the additional requirement of assessment by an assessment agency recognized by the UGC.

With this regulation of autonomy, the government is trying to shift from the earlier grants based funding model for a public-funded institution to a loan based model. This comes against the backdrop of massive cut in the public spending on education. Public spending on education has fallen from a 4.68% in 2016-2017 to a 3.71% in 2017-18. Since 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance came to power. There has been a steady reduction in the allocation of budget towards the education sector.

The long term implication of this regulation is definitely the wide-scale privatisation of public-funded higher education institutions that are also known for its low cost and high quality. The government’s think tank NITI Aayog has already laid out a course of privatisation for higher education in its Action Agenda 2017-18. The agenda recommends graded autonomy, self-financing, loan based funding, and assessment of institutions that will be looking at the direct correlation between the course and job market by referring to placement records.

This mechanism of assessment will replace the earlier input based assessment where the government looked into the areas like the infrastructure of classrooms, library and laboratory facilities, student-faculty ratio etc. So it is quite clear where the government is focusing now.

The government will unshackle these institutions to be managed without any obligation to maintain certain important norms as long as the placement records are satisfactory. This will result in the market and its demands directing and shaping all these institutions. This drive for privatisation will have a serious implication on the student as well as their parents. Under the ‘autonomy’ the cost, of course, is transferred to the student and they are encouraged to take loans with the promise that they will get ‘placed’ in lucrative jobs with a high-pay scale. But as the skill-based job will cease to be relevant for the market very soon, he will be out of a job and under massive debt. This type of situation is common in countries like the US, UK and others where higher education is highly privatised.

Students protest against UGC’s decision to enforce autonomy. (Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Semester system with choice-based credit system in undergraduate and postgraduate courses have already been introduced across central and state universities, whereby students are encouraged to choose courses that do not require great investment of time in study and rigorous library work. Applied courses are given preference over theoretical ones across traditional sciences, humanities and social sciences.

This will lead to a decline of traditional disciplines which derive their inspiration from enlightenment and scientific revolutions and thereby there will hardly be any scope for critical thinking and debate and there will be only ‘yes-men’ and rampant ‘status quo-ists.’

The teaching community is heavily affected by this drive to privatise in the name of ‘autonomy’ and the massive cuts in public funding. More than 60% of the university and college teachers are employed on an ad-hoc basis and privatisation will prevent their job security, health coverage, service and retirement benefits. They have been fighting for regularisation for decades without any fruitful outcome. The government’s continuous hostility towards the teaching community is driving talents away from the profession and is forcing talented research scholars to seek jobs outside the public sector.

The regulation will inevitably result in unprecedented fee hikes and the all-inclusive nature of public-funded education institutions will diminish. The marginalised section of society, particularly those belonging to disadvantaged caste backgrounds and women from economically and socially backward sections will find it extremely difficult to get entry into those institutions.

The middle class will also suffer as they will have to resort to education loans and thereby be exposed to debt traps very early in their career. It will be tough for them to engage in the development of their creative intellectual faculties and egalitarian socio-cultural activities as the system will make them anxious about employment and jobs and thereby destroying their ability to ask critical questions.

One fundamental question that arises with all the debates revolving around the meaning of the term autonomy is that is the government so short of funds that it is slowly abandoning its constitutional pledge to education? The fact is that according to CAG reports submitted to parliament between 2016 and 2017, the tax collection of 83,497 crores under secondary and higher education cess lies entirely unspent. So with such wealth generated from this so-called impoverished sector, ‘autonomy’ can only be a recipe for the mass destruction of the nation’s future.

Debasish Hazarika
PhD Research Scholar
IIT Guwahati
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Vipin Kumar for Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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