Autonomy in Higher Education

Dr. Pabitra Kumar Jena
Over time and again question of autonomy in higher education becomes a relevant issue of national debate. India’s education system is the third largest education system in the world and more than 800 degree awarding institutions are there in India which includes Universities, Indian Institutes of Technology, Deemed Universities and Institutions of national importance.  Higher Education sector has witnessed a tremendous increase in the number of Universities/University level Institutions & Colleges since Independence. The number of Universities has increased 39 times from 20 in 1950 to 779 in 2014. The sector boasts of 45 Central Universities of which 40 are under the purview of Ministry of Human Resource Development, 318 State Universities, 185 State Private universities, 129 Deemed to be Universities, 51 Institutions of National Importance (established under Acts of Parliament) under MHRD (IITs – 16, NITs – 30 and IISERs – 5) and four Institutions (established under various State legislations).
Education is the only weapon that empowers the people of a country and everybody can change his or her economic condition through education. It is known to everybody that economically advanced countries are essentially the recipients of higher education and Europe and America are the correct examples of the same. Education is the fuel that ignites the sense of reasoning. An educated person never accepts anything without having reason of understanding the situations.  India has emerged as one of the leading temples of higher education across the globe from the ‘ Gurukul’ mode of imparting education in the ancient Vedic age as it is evident from various scriptures and valuable historical records and documents. Autonomy in education was found to be in existence in those days and Kings and Raja-Maharajas never interfered in the process of delivery system of education and it has crossed over thousands of year thereafter. The contents of teaching, training and mode of delivery would have been decided solely by the ‘Gurus’ in the ancient ‘Gurukul ‘system of education  and this is evident in the ancient scriptures and epics.   The ‘Gurukul’ system of education continued to be in place in India till the arrival of the British and modern education system was architected by the British Government and the seed of Indian higher education was sowed in 1857 when University of Calcutta came into being in India. Autonomy   is the primary condition for nurturing   meaningful and significant education system.  Rabindranath Tagore, the first Nobel Laureate in Asia, sketched the portray of   education in the Gitanjali   can aptly   be referred to in the context of autonomy of education and the same is furnished  below:
Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high where knowledge is free, Where the World has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, where words come out from the depth of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way, into the dreary desert sand of dead habit, where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my Country awake.
Tagore prayed before the Almighty for taking the nation into the ‘heaven of freedom’ and only a free mind without any fear   is the best land where  education can be cultivated and that can  germinate the seeds of academic autonomy.  Autonomy capacitates an institution to act by its own reason of choices that makes it accomplish its mission. Autonomy in higher education  not only  means academic autonomy to decide academic programmes,  plans and policies but  financial and institutional autonomies too. Autonomy requires the institutions  remain accountable to the stakeholders and the society in general. Autonomy does not   accept lawlessness but  it refers to more disciplined acts that can make the society  takeoff to the higher levels of social and economic wellbeing from the  state of ordinary level of socio-economic conditions.  The current topic   is devoted to offer a sketch of relevance and context of  autonomy in higher education in India . It would like to discuss certain issues that are directly or indirectly associated with concept and construct of autonomy in higher education.
The concept of autonomy is a structural solution intended mainly to provide an enabling environment to improve and strengthen the teaching and learning process, benchmarking quality initiatives. The essential factors for high quality education are the caliber and attitudes of students towards learning, the competence and commitment of teachers towards educational processes, the flexibility and foresightedness of the governance system and the social credibility of the educational outcome. Autonomy is expected to provide a better framework for fostering these factors than the affiliation system with all its constraining conditions hanging as a dead weight on the higher education system. Even the limited evidence so far suggests that autonomous colleges have by and large fulfilled the expectations.  In the rapidly changing teaching-learning environment, an autonomous system can facilitate much needed innovations such as inter-disciplinary programmes, inter-institutional sharing of academic loads, and transfer of credits between different modes of learning and so on.
Autonomy should necessarily lead to excellence in academics, governance and financial management of the institutions. If it does not lead to this, it can be safely concluded that autonomy has been misused. Academic autonomy is the freedom to decide academic issues
like curriculum, instructional material, pedagogy, techniques of students’ evaluation. Administrative autonomy is the freedom to institution to manage its own affairs with regard to administration. It is the freedom to manage the affairs in such a way that it stimulates and encourages initiative and development of individuals working in the institutions and thereby of the institution itself. Financial autonomy is the freedom to the institution to expend the financial resources at its disposal in a prudent way keeping in view its priorities. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin. Accountability enables the institutions to regulate the freedom granted to them by gaining autonomous stature. In effect, more and more Unitary Universities are to be created and they should be bestowed with the authority to manages the educations delivery system, maintain the quality against international best practices and educational programmes should be time-honored and the Unitary Universities shall be allowed to mobilize the resources and spend the same keeping in view the organizational intent.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Katra,  Feedback: pabitrakumarjena@gmail.com,)

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