The spectre of ‘AUTONOMY’ in higher educational institutions | Viewpoint

AUTONOMY

“March 20, 2018”; a day Union Minister Prakash Javadekar 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 educational institutions of which 52 are universities and eight 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 so many stake holders 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 private partnership. It also means curtailment of government regulation and quality check so that institutes can make most of their ‘Autonomy’.

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 (UGC) Graded Autonomy Regulation (GAR) notified through the union gazette, February 12, 2018 which 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. The 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 centers within its geographical jurisdiction without approval from UGC as a franchise model.

The regulation also recommends that up to 20% of the faculty may be contracted foreign faculty 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.

Same is repeated for the tier 2 institutions with NAAC score of 3.26 and above up to 3.50. The only difference is the requirement of assessment by an assessment agency recognized by UGC.

With this regulation of ‘Autonomy’, the government is trying to shift from the earlier grants based funding model for 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 4.68% in 2016-2017 to 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 the public funded higher educational institutions that are also known for its low cost and high quality.

Government’s think tank NITI Aayog has already laid out a course of privatisation for higher education in its NITI Aayog Action Agenda 2016-18. The agenda basically recommends graded autonomy, self financing, loan based funding and assessment of institutions that will be looking at the direct co-relation 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 infrastructure of classrooms, library and laboratory facilities, student-faculty ratio among others. Hence, it is quite clear as to 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 drive for privatisation will have a serious implication on students as well guardians.

Under the ‘Autonomy’, cost of course is transferred to the student and they are encouraged to take education loan with a promise that they will get ‘placed’ in lucrative jobs with high pay scale. But as the skill based job will cease to be relevant for the market, he/she will be out of the job and will be under massive debt. This type of situation is common in countries like the US and UK, where higher education is highly privatised.

Semester system with Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) in undergraduate and post graduate courses have already been introduced across central and state universities whereby student 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 courses across traditional sciences, humanities and social sciences. This will result in 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 quoists’.

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

The regulation which will be resulted in unprecedented fees hike as they have to now fund their own courses, the all inclusive nature of public funded education institutions will be diminished. The marginalised section of the society, particularly lower caste and women coming from economically and socially backward section will find it extremely difficult to get entry into those institutions. The middle class will also suffer as they have to resort to education loans and hence, will be exposed to debt traps very early in their career. It will be very difficult for them to engage in 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 the Parliament between 2016 and 2017, the tax collection of 83,497 crore 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 mass destruction of nation’s futures.

(By Debasish Hazarika, Research Scholar, DibrugarhUniversity)

(Viewpoint is the opinion based section of UniTreed and the team does not subscribe to the views expressed by the writer. One can submit their pieces at info@unitreed.com)

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