Autonomous Colleges: A Backdoor Means to Reduce Funding, Privatisation of Higher Education.

DU administration is aggressively pushing the agenda of autonomous colleges at the behest of UGC and the BJP government at centre. This policy offensive has its roots in the report of the Birla-Ambani committee during the NDA-I regime. We are reproducing an important article written by late Comrade Vijendra Sharma. Comrade Vijendra’s name is synonymous with the teachers’ movement in Delhi University. He was elected member of the executive committee of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association from 1987 to 1989; member of the academic council from 1989 to 1994; President of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association from 1995 to 1997 and member of the Delhi University executive council from 2000 to 2004. In all these capacities, he made a seminal contribution towards advancing the rights of university and college teachers. We will continuously publish articles and reports to understand the policy offensive behind the agenda of ‘autonomous colleges’.


Autonomous Colleges: A Backdoor Means to Reduce Funding, Privatisation of Higher Education

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We have seen that more than two thousand colleges have been started in various parts of the country in the last four years. Such a phenomenal growth has been witnessed because several state governments, in their pursuit of privatization of higher education, have recognized “self-financing colleges.” In such colleges, with meagre facilities and no regular faculty, a very large amount is charged from the students. That is why student-teacher ratio has increased during this period.

The BJP Government at the Centre and UGC are pressurizing the universities and state governments to confer the autonomous status to its affiliated and constituents colleges. The UGC Chairman Hari Gautam [37] wrote to the Vice Chancellors of all the universities on 4 January, 2000 asking them to send “the names of the colleges of repute and excellence existing under their umbrella so that necessary steps to initiate proactive role of the UGC” to confer autonomous status to colleges can start soon.

DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT AUTONOMY

This letter was a desperate attempt of the UGC in imposing autonomous status on colleges. The UGC [38] had, in fact, decided in its meeting on 21 September, 1999 to “identify around 200 first degree good colleges which would be invited to apply for autonomous status.” The UGC Chairman threatened [39] to “side-step the universities and go to colleges” directly to grant autonomous status. However, UGC decided to approach respective university and the state government to provide no objection in this respect. In case no objection is not given, they will have to give explanation  “as to why the autonomous status be not granted to the concerned college.”

It should be recalled that 88% of all students (77.34 lakh) in universities and colleges are enrolled at undergraduate level, and 83% of all students are enrolled in colleges (in 1999-2000) [12, 14]. Therefore, any proposal of change in the system of colleges that is likely to affect such a large number of students and future enrolment has to be taken seriously. The scheme of autonomous colleges, the government and UGC are trying to impose, would bring havoc in the higher education system in the country. Therefore, the BJP government’s compulsion for the implementation of the scheme has to be properly understood.

FIRST RECOMMENDATION

The Kothari Commission (1964-66) [40] was the first to recommend formally the idea of autonomous status to one or two “carefully selected” outstanding colleges in some universities, which could improve themselves ‘markedly’.  Another UGC Committee [41] headed by Prof. D.S. Kothari (1967) recommended that autonomous colleges would have the freedom to frame courses of study, to prescribe rules of admission, to conduct examinations and to devise methods of evaluation, while the parent university would continue to confer degrees upon successful candidates accepting the evaluation done by the autonomous colleges. These colleges would be fully responsible for the content and quality of education that they impart. Further, the Committee said that development grants “on a liberal basis should be provided for the development of autonomous colleges”. For Kothari Committee and several other committees including that headed by Gajendragadkar [42], college autonomy meant this much and nothing more. This is the period when the government was spending about 25% of the education budget on higher education and the expenditure on higher education as percentage of GNP was increasing. There was no pressure at that time to reduce subsidy to institutions of higher education.

More than a decade later, only eight colleges in Madras University and four in Madurai-Kamraj started functioning as autonomous colleges from June 1978. Generally, there have been no takers for the autonomous status.

WORLD BANK PRESSURE

The situation changed in mid-eighties when the Congress government adopted new economic policy.  The World Bank had been advocating reduction in subsidies to higher education and other social sectors. The World Bank reform package in higher education included controlling access to and privatization of higher education, cost recovery, autonomous institutions, and accreditation and evaluation mechanism. In order to take international loans, the government surrendered before the World Bank and changed its education policy as well. Accordingly, National Policy on Education-1986 (NPE-86) called for granting, apart from other World Bank dictated measures, autonomous status to institutions of higher education.

The Gowariker committee [43], constituted to implement some of the provisions of NPE-86 recommended in 1987 that for being eligible to central funding, the institutions of higher education, universities and colleges, have to obtain accreditation from the Accreditation Council. As a precondition to accreditation, these institutions have to be semi-autonomous to begin with and then acquire, in five years, autonomous status (that is, deemed to be university status in case of colleges). The universities were not to be eligible to central funding “until they have divested themselves of these colleges at least to the extent of semi-autonomy.” Thus all universities were to be unitary without constituent or affiliated colleges.

Each college/university was recommended [43, Section V-(3)-e] to be free to decide its own syllabi, admission policy, tuition fees, service conditions of teaching and non-teaching staff and their remuneration.  The qualifications of the teaching staff were proposed to be “adequate to discharge their academic responsibilities.” Their recruitment, promotion, retention and security of tenure were proposed to be “at a level consonant with the dignity of academic profession.”

The institutions [43, Section V-(3)-i] were called upon to raise resources and “be financially stable.” The Committee recommended [43, Section V-(5)] that a process of taking “painful decisions” would be started for the closure, winding up or merger of institutions that do not come up to the mark.

Further, autonomous departments [48] were to be created with the Department Council “responsible for all academic, financial and other administrative affairs of the department”. The University was given no option but to abide by the decisions of the autonomous departments.

However, the UGC did not get response to its scheme of autonomous colleges (1987) in the wake of strong teachers’ movement all over the country against autonomy and accreditation. At present there are only 136 autonomous colleges [38] most of them situated in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh.

RENEWED ONSLAUGHT ON COLLEGES

In view of the continued pressure of the World Bank for the implementation of its prescriptions to reduce subsidies in higher education, several decisions were taken by the government and UGC in mid-nineties. Soon after the BJP government came to power at the Centre, the implementation of the World Bank prescriptions gained momentum. Autonomous status to colleges was seen as an effective weapon for privatization of higher education and reducing funding.

Very cleverly, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and UGC have now dealt with all those points on the basis of which the teachers’ movement resisted autonomous status to colleges. The UGC’s Revised Guidelines on the Scheme of Autonomous Colleges (1998) [47] talks about only academic autonomy, but proposes what the Gowariker Committee had recommended.

According to the Scheme, an autonomous college will have the freedom to determine and prescribe its own courses of study and syllabi, introduce new courses, rename obsolete courses by changing their content and update existing course, prescribe rules of admission to suit its aim, evolve methods of teaching and learning and conduct its own programme of evaluation and examinations and notification of results. Such a college would be free to start under-graduate and post-graduate diploma or certificate courses and special need-based short-term courses for the students of the college and can also be taken by outsiders [45, p.8]. The decisions of the academic council of the autonomous college will be final and not be subject to any further ratification by any statutory body of the University.

The Governing Body of the autonomous college is the highest decision making body with, apart from others, representatives of the government and UGC as its members. The Governing Body [45, p.13] shall fix the fees and other charges payable by the students and has been given overriding powers to “perform such other functions and institute committees, as may be necessary and deemed fit for the proper development and to fulfil the objectives for which the college has been declared autonomous.” It has also been given power to institutionally assess the performance of any teacher. The UGC promises to pay Rs.4 to 8 lakhs annually to meet the special needs such as holding of meetings, workshops, seminars, payment to guest/visiting faculty, and accreditation fees but not for the creation of posts  [45, p.7].

STUDENTS & TEACHERS: THE WORST SUFFERERS

From the provisions outlined above, it is clear that the autonomy is going to be associated with the accreditation.  Politicians and bureaucrats present in the Governing Body as the representatives of the government and UGC will have free rein to interfere in college affairs. We have a large number of such examples in the functioning of Delhi colleges under the present system in Delhi University. Since the colleges are now going to be forced to raise 25% of the recurring expenditure from the students fees and other resources (7% from the current session with 1% rise every year) as per the decision of the MHRD and UGC, the emphasis would now be to start those certificate, diploma, degree and short term courses for which the college can extract large sum of fees from students and make an earning. Only guest/visiting faculty would be invited to teach. The programmes of studies in pure sciences, humanities, social sciences and liberal arts, as a natural corollary, would be gradually abandoned.

Thus, the education in autonomous colleges would be market oriented. The teachers are going to be the first victims. If the colleges are to adapt to each shift in the market demand, will the managements of autonomous colleges be willing to take ‘permanent burden’ of having permanent teachers? No! In other words, the non-permanent faculty or hire and fire would be the rule in the autonomous colleges. The powers of the Governing Bodies are going to increase. It should be remembered that in the USA, the country from where the autonomy and accreditation are being borrowed, the teachers have short-term contractual jobs and not permanent jobs. A teacher, student or anybody who raises issues or has a particular viewpoint or is felt irritant by the Principal or the Governing Body would find herself/himself in trouble. And the emergency powers of the Governing Body would be used to fire the teacher and others.

Moreover, the autonomous status would be a boon for the sectarian, communal or religious trusts that abound in higher education; they would propagate the worst kind of divisive and obscurantist ideas in the name of academic autonomy and freedom of syllabus-making.

Students will find that fees will be much higher. The obvious effect would be that a major section of the middle class, lower middle class and families of weaker sections would find it impossible to avail of the college education, which is precisely the World Bank prescribes.

Evaluation of students as per the Scheme would be college-based and then the MHRD and UGC want us to believe that it would be a better system. While it would lead to an unhealthy competition among autonomous colleges to project better results by inflating marks (particularly of students who are well connected and influential), some socially and economically disadvantaged students who today, despite all odds, do well in examinations (which is external) would find themselves losing out. Teachers would find themselves the targets for every goonda, every aspiring ruling party politician, all bent on getting the evaluation scores of their protégés hiked. With the certificate and diplomas issued by the colleges and the university degrees mentioning the names of the college, there is going to be complete anarchy in the job market.

SITUATION IN EXISTING AUTONOMOUS COLLEGES

There are several studies conducted by government agencies on the functioning of the autonomous colleges. Three such studies are ‘Report of the Task Force on Autonomous Colleges and Departments’, by Association of Indian Universities (1988) [46], and the other two are ‘Management of Autonomy in Autonomous Colleges’ [47] and ‘Autonomous and Non-Autonomous Colleges: Selected Case Studies’ [48] both by K. Sudha Rao, Head, Higher Education Unit, NIEPA (1999). Despite the fact that they advocate autonomous colleges, the startling facts brought out by them strengthen the case against the very philosophy of autonomous colleges: freedom in admission, curricula, teaching-learning and examination.

The students of autonomous colleges are discriminated when they seek admission to the advanced courses elsewhere as “the bonafides of their grade sheets and certificates” are questioned [46, pages 50, 70, 84], and the evaluation of students is not standardized [46, p. 76]. With 20 to 50% internal assessment, 66% of the students feel that there is favouritism in evaluation [47, p. 95]. The continuous internal assessment (CIA) “taking into consideration the overall academic performance in and outside the classroom has worked wonders in implementing discipline (read silencing the students- Author) in the colleges” [47, p. 104]. Despite the argument in the favour of autonomy that the teachers should evaluate their own students, “the question paper-setting aat the under-graduate level is done by the external (71%), both by external and internal (17%), and by internal alone (6%) [47, p. 101]. External assessment of scripts is held more credible and internal assessment more questionable [47, p. 102]. The employing agencies consider these students as second-class citizens [46, p. 70]. No wonder, a principal of an autonomous college, in a ‘National Level Discussion Meet on Autonomy to Colleges’ organized by NIEPA at New Delhi on 29 and 30 June, 2000 , (in which this author participated) complained that 10% marks are deducted by other institutions while admitting their students at higher levels. The principal of another autonomous college suggested, as a remedy, that the marks of students could be further inflated by 10%. Sudha Rao herself points out that the “findings reveal that the above statement (read this statement – author) is true” [47, p. 98].

These reports have clearly shown that the workload of teachers and number of working days has increased. Study leave to do further studies is not given to them. Their academic work is affected because of extra clerical work they have to do. Liberal financial assistance for infrastructural facilities, for libraries, laboratories, etc., is not available. Expensive reference books are not there in libraries. A specific fee is levied on students for such facilities. Sudha Rao goes to the extent of saying, “Autonomous institutions should depend less on the tax funds and more on diversified sources of income” [47, p. 130].  She points out that the contemporary role of an autonomous college “remains restricted to maintenance of status quo with only added responsibility of conducting examinations and announcing results [47. p. 119]”

Freedom to restructure courses is curtailed. Additional experts cannot be appointed for handling specialized academic programmes for want of funds. K. Sudha Rao points out that “desired level of freedom has still not penetrated down to the level of teachers” in determining own courses of study and syllabus [47, p. 67]. She goes on to say, “This finding gains further strength in the structure of various administrative bodies wherein the membes are all bigwigs of the college. If at all, the College Council consists of three staff members and they are nominated by the Principal and not elected by the teachers nor is the nomination based on the seniority except in the case of Board of Studies. Nowhere are teachers in general participating in decision making” [48, p. 88]. According to her, about 42% teachers say that autonomous colleges did not introduce any change in the courses due to various reasons. But resistance by teachers in changing the syllabi was very little (5.3%). Some autonomous colleges have introduced courses to suit the entrance and competitive examinations. These colleges have concentrated on introducing mostly job-oriented courses. Naturally, such courses are introduced because they are profit-making courses.

Sudha Rao revealed that the style of functioning of 89% of the principals varied from democratic to autocratic and lessez fair depending on the issue [47, p. 76]. Views of the principal, state government, UGC, and management and financial position of the college influence the decisions. She says, “The culture of the autonomous colleges needs to be changed. The people in the organization are still not able to differentiate between issues and persons and hence in the process of pleasing the persons issues get diverted” [47, p. 77]. Two committees, one each for grievance redressal and students welfare, get lower priority by the college administration.

Despite her own findings, Sudha Rao told this author, “One fine morning, the Prime Minister of India should declare all colleges autonomous. Subsequently, those colleges coming up to the standards should survive and others may be allowed to close down.” She is, in fact, saying what the World Bank wants for our country!

FIGHT THE SCHEME OF AUTONOMOUS COLLEGES

It is clear from the above description that the situation in autonomous colleges is very bad. A recently submitted report on the feasibility of starting autonomous colleges in Kerala where they do not exist [49, p. 3] points out: “the affiliating system survives and has to do so as at present, in the given situation in India, the affiliating system seems to be practical one, inspite of its ills and deformities as no other single system is equipped enough to cater to the needs and requirements of the sphere of higher education today. Hence the continuance of the affiliating system in India.”

For excellence of the colleges, autonomous status is not required. The scheme of autonomous colleges being advocated since mid-nineties is the scheme to fragment the higher education system in the country under the pressures of the World Bank. It is the scheme for the elite. Teaching community should not be swayed by the so-called academic freedom which will, in reality, not be there. It is the scheme for the withdrawal of state funding of higher education. It is the scheme for the market orientation of higher education and its privatization. It is the scheme that is to be fought resolutely.


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