Blueprint of institutional autonomy in higher education in India

Offering greater autonomy to the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and its faculty is one of the important takeaways of the new policy. Autonomy is highly essential for HEIs to achieve excellence as it offers greater scope for creativity and innovation in all its spheres but with a caveat, that there exists a ecosystem of people and systems capable of using it in an  appropriate manner to yield due dividends. Besides, the wholehearted commitment and cooperation of the state governments to the new ‘System of Governance’ for HEIs would be critical. To seek the commitment and cooperation of the bureaucracy, the autonomy need to be structured and implemented in a manner that takes care-off their concerns fully, however, without compromising with the spirit behind the autonomy envisioned in the new policy. Equally important would be its effective implementation and to the put in place appropriate checks and balances to ensure greater transparency and accountability.

To govern effectively, HEIs essentially would need Academic Autonomy, Administrative Autonomy, and Financial Autonomy. Academic autonomy includes the freedom to decide about the new courses to be offered, course curriculum, teaching pedagogy, and assessment while as administrative autonomy is concerned with the freedom in manpower planning, appointments, promotions & other service matters. Financial autonomy is related to the freedom in planning and controlling its expenditures. All the three types of autonomy are interdependent, implying that in the absence of one, the other types of autonomy will fail to yield the desired results.

It is a fact that the one of the reasons for under performance of the universities, has been the lack of autonomy, to govern independently free of any external interference. This problem is more prevalent in state universities. Universities in India are considered as autonomous institutions but the autonomy which was conceived by the architects of the university system in India, has got eroded over a period of time, largely due to the failure of the Vice chancellors to lead from the front with selfless devotion to pursue the institutional interests. It is also that the bureaucracy which suffers from a mindset of being ‘Supreme’, has failed to respect autonomy of universities in letter and spirit. Therefore, envisaging greater autonomy through a system of graded accreditation, is one of the most important and meaningful recommendations of the new policy. Upon receiving the appropriate graded accreditation, a university can become self-governing institution through the Board of Governors (BOGs), empowered to govern the institution free of any external interference. If this recommendation is translated meaningfully and implemented in letter and spirit with the commitment of all, it will go a long way in helping the universities to achieve greater excellence. But the blue print detailing out all the structural and operational aspects of a  BOGs are missing, therefore, necessitates to deliberate on the following questions:

  • Who is empowered to constitute the BOGs initially?
  • What shall be the size and composition of the BOGs ? Who will be its Chairperson?
  • Will there be nominated members of the state government/ HCI on the BOGs?
  • Whether the BOGs would enjoy financial & administrative autonomy to the extent that its financial projections etc shall be binding on the government?

Since the selection of new members shall be carried out by the BOGs itself, therefore, the constitution of the initial board would determine the success or failure of succeeding boards because it is an established fact that incompetence or nepotism or favouritism would breed the same. Therefore, apart from proven capabilities, people known for integrity and selfless devotion to the cause of equity and justice should be preferred. The size of the board  should be proportionate to the size of the university in terms of number of faculties, campuses, affiliated/ constituent colleges. It should mainly consist of academicians and technocrats representing the university, its affiliated and constituent colleges and at least 50% members should be from civil society and other institutions. There should be three nominated members of the government of the rank of Commissioner Secretaries of the departments of Finance, Planning and Development and Higher Education on the BOGs. The tenure of the non-permanent members should be three years.

The question is that ‘Should Chancellor and Pro-Chancellor form a part of the BOGs with Chancellor as its Chairperson? To ensure a balance of power in the BOGs, they may not form a part of the BOGs, instead there should be a ‘Chancellors Committee’ to oversee the functioning of the university, which shall consist of; Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, Education Minister, Finance Minister, Two nominated members of HECI, Chairperson of BOGs and Vice Chancellor of the university concerned and VCs of other sister universities. The Committee should meet annually under the chairpersonship of Chancellor to review the functioning of the university. The chairperson shall be required to present before the ‘Chancellors Committee’ Annual Performance Report, all audit reports along with action taken on the deviations reported by the auditors and Institutional Development Plans for approval. Besides, the powers to amend University Act shall vest with the Chancellors Committee only.

The BOGs should be the final authority to decide on all issues including creating new departments, launching new courses, approving revenue and capital expenditure budgets without any referrals to any outside agency or authority. Key to its success would lie in establishing effective ways to govern while respecting the autonomy of all stakeholders in decision-making with open communication with campus constituencies. It should act as both buffer and bridge between the university and outside agencies particularly Govt. Besides, to make its working smooth and meaningful, it would be appropriate for BOGs to constitute four committees from the members of the BOGs viz; Administrative Committee; Finance & Audit Committee; Academic Planning and Development Committee; and Building Committee. Matters pertaining to appointments, promotions, & other service matters should be routed through administrative committee while as budgets and internal & external audit reports should come through the Finance Committee. Similarly, proposals for establishing new departments/centres or starting new courses & annual academic audit reports should be placed before the Academic Planning & Development Committee through academic council. All construction proposals should have the approval of the Building Committee before placing in the meeting of BOGs for its approval.

The new policy aims at doing away with the system of affiliating colleges by upgrading the existing affiliated college into an ‘Autonomous Degree Granting Colleges (ADGCs)’ through a system of graded autonomy based on minimum accreditation benchmarks. After getting the status of ADGC, a college will enjoy academic autonomy to decide at its own through a well established framework about all academic matters like courses to be offered, course curriculum, teaching pedagogy and assessment. This kind of autonomy to a great extent is being enjoyed by the affiliated colleges under the existing system but under the close supervision of the affiliating university. Therefore, it seems that it would serve little or no purpose. It is known to one and all that the affiliated colleges are marred mainly due to the infrastructural bottlenecks be it; physical infrastructure or human resources, and not by the lack of academic autonomy. The present state of affairs of the colleges is that the large number of colleges are mainly run by the contractual faculty. As such, granting academic autonomy only would result into more course offerings with an imminent causality of quality of education.

With appropriate accreditations, new policy also allows ADGCs to evolve into research-intensive or teaching-intensive universities. This will result into mushrooming of the universities in the country. The existing policy of having few universities with affiliated or constituent colleges in a given geographical area, is more appropriate than having universities in every nook and corner. The mushrooming of universities would result into greater concentration of local students thus, would defeat the very essence of the nomenclature of ‘University’ which implies a universe of diverse cultures, communities, races and religions. Diversity is highly important to ensure greater exposure and interaction among different cultures, religions, races etc. which in turn results into greater cultural/religious integration and assimilation, essential to promote global citizenship values.

Final Word

Autonomy, a key to the achievement of greater excellence in higher education, has been explicitly emphasised in the new policy. But equally important is the element of accountability which is conspicuously missing in the new policy. It is known to one and all that the entire ecosystem in the country is beset with all sorts of malpractices and inefficiencies. It would be highly unrealistic to assume that the HEIs are immune to any such toxicity. Under the new policy, BOGs have been made responsible and accountable to the stakeholders through full online and offline public self-disclosure of all finances, audits, procedures, infrastructure, educational outcomes etc. Though it is likely to serve little or no purpose yet, the disclosures need to be such which reflects performance across all parameters with minute details. Having well established systems of annual audits in place namely Academic Audit, Management Audit, Financial Audit (Internal & External), Cost & Works Audit would enable to achieve the goals of efficiency and excellence, provided corrective actions are taken to plug the deviations. However, such audits except internal financial audit should be conducted by ‘Credible Third Parties’ on annual contract basis. Besides, best performers should be rewarded through fast track promotions, or pay increases or by awarding medals/ certificates which will induce greater competitiveness amongst the faculty/employees.

Author is Former Registrar & Currently, Professor in the Dept. of Commerce University of Kashmir.