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The Hindu
The Hindu
Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar

Universities must budge on college autonomy nudge

The National Education Policy 2020 envisions a future where colleges will evolve into autonomous institutions, enhancing their capacity for innovation, self-governance, and academic freedom. To realise this goal, the University Grants Commission (UGC) launched a new regulation in April 2023. Since then, the response from colleges seeking autonomous status has been unprecedented — 590 applications.

Granting autonomy to colleges is essential for promoting innovation, enhancing academic quality, and fostering institutional excellence. Autonomous colleges can tailor their curriculum to meet the evolving needs of students and industries. They can experiment with new teaching methodologies and research initiatives, driving the frontiers of knowledge and contributing to societal development.

Further, autonomy fosters a culture of accountability and responsibility among colleges, as they assume greater ownership of their academic and administrative decisions. This empowerment enhances institutional efficiency and cultivates a sense of pride and identity within colleges, in turn motivating faculty and staff to strive for excellence.

Rankings prove a point

The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) of 2023 suggests a compelling case for the effectiveness of autonomy in enhancing the performance of colleges in India. In the ‘Colleges Category’, with 55 out of the top 100 colleges being autonomous institutions, the NIRF rankings offer insights into the positive consequence of autonomy on academic excellence and institutional effectiveness.

Besides, in the top 10 colleges of the NIRF Rankings of 2023 from the college category, five are autonomous colleges. Having half the top spots occupied by autonomous colleges significantly strengthens the case for autonomy as a successful approach to achieving academic excellence. Higher education in India is witnessing a marked trend towards establishing autonomous colleges, with the number soon expected to reach 1,000 across 24 States and Union Territories. States such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana stand out for their many autonomous colleges, with over 80% of the total count.

The presence of autonomous colleges in States with varying numbers, such as Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab and West Bengal underscores a nationwide interest in exploring the potential of autonomy to enhance institutional effectiveness. Even in regions with comparatively fewer autonomous institutions, there is growing realisation of the transformative effect autonomy can have on higher education.

Address the many post-autonomy challenges

While the UGC champions the autonomy of colleges, unfortunately, some universities have been reluctant to relinquish control for questionable reasons. Therefore, addressing the challenges colleges encounter even after receiving autonomy from the UGC is crucial.

Some universities impose limitations on the extent of autonomy granted to colleges. One common restriction is the imposition of caps on syllabus changes, often allowing only a fraction, typically 25%-35%, to be altered. This constraint hinders colleges from exercising their autonomy, particularly that concerning curriculum development and academic innovation.

One prominent issue that colleges encounter despite being granted autonomy by the UGC is that they often find themselves grappling with delays from universities in recognising this autonomy. Such delays not only hamper the efficiency of the operation of colleges but also undermine the spirit of autonomy, as colleges may still feel tethered to the bureaucratic processes of the university.

Further, even though the UGC gives complete autonomy to colleges, universities frequently exhibit a reluctance to cede complete autonomy to colleges, particularly in critical areas such as syllabus design, the introduction of new courses, and the evolution of methods for assessing student performance.

While autonomy implies the freedom for colleges to make decisions independently, the hesitation on the part of universities to relinquish control in these areas can impede the ability of colleges to innovate and adapt to changing educational needs effectively. This unwillingness may stem from a traditional hierarchical approach to governance within the university system.

Also, colleges may find themselves subjected to arbitrary fees imposed by the university for the purposes of affiliation. This approach not only undermines the autonomy of colleges but also raises questions about the transparency and fairness of such practices by the universities.

Therefore, the State Councils for Higher Education must ensure effective implementation of UGC regulations on autonomy. Universities must recognise the importance of addressing the concerns of autonomous colleges within the broader framework of higher education reform. They must streamline decision-making processes between colleges and universities, ensuring that autonomy translates into meaningful empowerment for colleges. Moreover, universities must embrace a culture of trust and collaboration with autonomous colleges, allowing them the freedom to innovate and excel while upholding academic standards.

By fostering a conducive environment for autonomy to thrive, universities must help colleges drive innovation, excellence, and inclusivity in higher education through autonomy. Eventually, the successful implementation of autonomy for colleges demands a concerted effort from all stakeholders to address challenges effectively and ensure a vibrant and dynamic higher education ecosystem.

Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is Chairman, University Grants Commission and former Vice-Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed are personal

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