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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Academic Autonomy: Needed a Holistic Societal Perspective | Arun Kumar

Friday 16 April 2021, by Arun Kumar

IIMC faculty is protesting the new code of conduct being imposed on them. Under the rules meant for the government bureaucracy, there can be no protest or criticism or petitions to higher authorities. With this, what autonomy will the faculty be left with? Delhi University faculties are currently discussing the implementation of the New Education Policies (NEP), one of whose key aspects is autonomy in institutions of higher learning. The resignation by Pratap B. Mehta from Ashoka University, a `liberal university’, had also recently highlighted the issue of autonomy.

Apparently the Trustees of Ashoka University indicated to Mehta that due to his consistent criticism of the ruling dispensation, his association with the institution had become a `political liability’. Obviously, unease at his stance had been building up over several years and he had quit as the VC of the University two years back. If a university privately funded by philanthropists can be forced to fall in line, even if due to implicit pressure from the ruling dispensation, it can be inferred that autonomy in institutions funded by businessmen is literally non-existent. The institutions run with direct government funding have had little autonomy. The publicly funded universities can offer greater protection to academics but with few exceptions even they have substantially regressed in the last few decades.

If Prof Mehta, a highly connected and acclaimed academic, can be pressurized to either fall in line or leave, imagine the plight of an average academic. Most do not even attempt to be critical of the government of the day and are smart enough to know what will help them move up the ladder. For instance, in June 1991, when the economic policies changed 180 degrees, many economists who till then were supporters of the earlier policies quickly switched sides. Some quoted Keynes who is credited with saying, `When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’. In 1991, it is not that facts changed dramatically but the politics and the power structure changed and that was persuasive. Where does all this leave the issue of autonomy?

Institutions of Higher Learning and Knowledge Generation

While all Reports on Higher Education since independence, without fail, refer to strengthening autonomy in Institutions of Higher Learning, in reality most have been traversing in the opposite direction. Apart from some intellectuals and academics there is little protest so that curtailment of academic autonomy is proceeding apace and impacting knowledge generation. The question arises why is society indifferent to the issue of academic autonomy?

Higher education plays a crucial role in generation of socially relevant and cutting edge knowledge. But, if society does not value that then why would it prioritize higher education or the issue of academic autonomy which would appear to be esoteric subjects not worth engaging with.

Society has largely accepted that India as a late starter and with knowledge available in the advanced countries can simply borrow and move ahead. This is a short term strategy with long term consequences. It creates a mindset of copying rather than originality which is so crucial for knowledge generation. This undermines the very institutions that can deliver in the long run.

Those governing the institutions also adopt an attitude of benign neglect towards knowledge generation and accept copying rather than building up of indigenous capabilities. The struggle involved in knowledge generation appears futile to them. They argue why reinvent the wheel. What they forget is that the one who invents the wheel also invents many other things which the copier will not. It needs to be remembered that institutions are the people in it and not the buildings, however swanky they maybe.

Bureaucratization of Institutions of Higher Learning

If the task of knowledge generation is not to be the primary goal for institutions of higher learning then they are like any other institution. But the difference is that the former have a large number of young people who naturally question things, are volatile and have high expectations for the future. Presently given the bad job situation they are frustrated. Also given the poor quality of teaching, they have little interest in what is taught. Political parties looking for cadres try to attract the youth and play partisan politics. All this is a deadly mix which leads to trouble in the institutions of higher learning.

If the educational institutions are like any other except that there are volatile elements, the primary task of governance becomes control. It is said that bureaucrats, police officers and army generals are better at managing large numbers than academics. So, often non-academics who have little idea of how to promote knowledge generation and the special requirements of educational institutions are appointed as the heads of these institutions. Even the academics who are appointed are often the favourites of those in power and are expected to control the institutions for their benefit. So, in most institutions, knowledge generation is not the focus.

The result is bureaucratization of governance of institutions of higher education. Most institutions run like an office working 9 to 5 where files can be closed at the end of the day. An academic grappling with ideas has no such leisure — there is no file to be closed at 5 pm. Bureaucrats expect academics to be in office for these hours and not in libraries or busy in other academic activities which may require them to be outside their office. They suspect that freedom is misused by academics to play truant and they miss classes and do little research.

So, agencies like the UGC which are primarily for funding and not academic content have taken charge of setting mechanical standards of work. They determine the number of hours to be spent in the office, how many lectures will be delivered per week, how exams will be held and grading done. So, a view has developed that standards in institutions of higher learning can be achieved via standardization. This undermines autonomy and in turn originality of the serious academics and that sets back knowledge generation. Those who want to play truant can anyway do so by gaming the system. It is not difficult to fulfill the mechanical criterion set by the UGC as has been the case with say, the API, imposed on academics by the UGC.

In India, this is the picture in most institutions — whether funded by the private sector or directly by government or the public institutions that are government funded at arms length. Most of the privately funded institutions are coaching places or profit making endeavours. In institutions under government control, the what the Ministries desire has to be followed. It is in the public institutions that autonomy is feasible if the right conditions prevail.

Role of the Head of Institutions

Till the 1980s a VC of JNU or Delhi University was listened with respect in the UGC and Ministry of Education and could assert autonomy. That has changed since the 1990s and often the VCs argue with the faculty that we have to abide by the rules laid down by the Ministry or the UGC even when they are not suited to the university. The university bureaucracy finds this convenient to truncate academic autonomy. In the 2000s JNU faculty resisted the imposition of civil service rules but they have crept in. The highly restrictive financial rules which have been increasingly imposed in JNU have made administering projects and laboratories difficult. Even when scientists who have suffered due to such rules which makes procuring equipment and supplies difficult have become VCs, they have not been able to reverse them and restore autonomy. Consequently, some faculty stopped doing projects or gave them up.

The current moves in IIMC to impose the Central Civil Services (Conduct) rules are a part of the trend. As more and more institutions give in, it becomes easier for the government to impose such rules where they are not operative. These rules helps the administration to tighten its hold over the academics.

Elite institutions, like, Medical Colleges, the IITs and IIMs which had branched out from the mainstream academic bodies were the first to lose their autonomy. Faculties in these institutions considering themselves as elite, voluntarily gave up their autonomy to a considerable extent. They claimed they were too busy doing their academic work to be bothered by niceties like autonomy. They were happy to get a higher salary than academics in other institutions and also earn handsome amounts from projects. To most of them autonomy has simply meant being allowed to earn more.

Elitism has also strengthened in the universities as the divide between the senior and junior faculty members grew. The seniors largely did not participate in the meetings of teachers’ associations and could have their issues resolved via individual negotiations with the authorities. This created the wrong model for the younger faculties to follow. It also undermined the collectivity of teachers which played into the hands of the authorities. The associations which could take up the teachers’ issues have weakened. That has made it easy for the authorities to marginalize the democratic bodies of the universities and establish greater control over academics and embed bureaucratization in the universities.

Narrow View of Autonomy

It is not that the teachers and their associations do not have to bear their share of the blame for this state of affairs. There is much politicking which plays directly into the hands of the authorities.

The trend of bureaucratization and curbing of autonomy in India is a direct result of a vast majority of academics holding a narrow view of autonomy. Most academics do little research and follow a set pattern of teaching determined by someone else. They mostly prepare students for passing exams in a standardized format. In fact, in the name of setting standards, the UGC had devised syllabi for various subjects in early 2000. After that whenever the UGC teams visited Universities and Colleges to assess them, a standard question asked was whether the UGC syllabi was being followed by the departments?

What is autonomy for if one is doing little research and largely teaching what someone else prescribes?

Autonomy is needed for teaching what one considers to be important and that can differ from one academic to another. But most teachers hardly have a view of their own on the subject they are teaching because they are not researching that area. It is research in the subject that helps develop one’s own view since it forces one to explore the state of the knowledge, its limitations and how to advance it. Developing a critique of existing knowledge is crucial to advance it.

Academics committed to learning feel constantly challenged. Often, they confront the limits of their own understanding of the subject and that leads to research questions. Questioning by students can also trigger new ideas and research. That is, if one is not limited by a standard syllabus to be taught to enable students to pass exams. In that case, questioning in the classroom or outside becomes a hindrance and is discouraged and autonomy becomes a dispensable luxury.

Autonomy is often treated as a black box - a term bandied about in seminars and reports - like, in the New Education Policy 2020. Since autonomy implies freedom to the academics to present their subject the way they consider appropriate, it cannot be limited to the subject but extends to how exams are held, research is conducted, getting funding, the functioning of the university academic bodies, selection of students, how they are to be encouraged, etc. Thus, freedom encompasses all the activities of the institution and the authorities don’t like that. They try to truncate it in various ways and for them autonomy is a nuisance - to be tolerated, at best.

Categories of Academics

Academics may be divided into three categories — `good’ by western standards, `bureaucratized’ academics and the `independent’ ones, generating socially relevant knowledge. `Good’ is defined by their standing abroad which gets them a high standing in the Indian institutions. The second category is the one that wields power and governs the education system. They are the ones who are in Committees and important positions in the education bureaucracy and seek compliance from academics rather than dissent. These two groups are often challenged by the third category. So, to marginalize them, they team up. They also frown on unions in their institutions and treat them as trouble makers. These two groups undermine the critical role of the unions in checking arbitrariness in institutional functioning which is crucial for promoting democratic functioning and autonomy.

It is largely the bureaucratized academics who become the VCs, the Directors and the Principals. They network with the powers that be who recognize them for their pliability — it is this more than their academic standing (which may be good) that gets them their positions. Once selected, they are expected to fulfill the agenda of their mentors and this purpose cannot be served by intellectual persuasion but by diktat. So, they govern the institution not by the dint of their intellect but by creating a coterie of loyalists around them who help push the agenda. Consequently, intellectual capability becomes secondary to the loyalty quotient in governance of the institution.

This raises the critical issue of the importance society attaches to higher education which can lend it greater dynamism.

The selection at the top is via search committees consisting of favoured people who then select those who would fulfill the pre-determined agenda. An apparently fair system is often gamed. In a letter exchange between Prof Bhatnagar who was made the Chief of CSIR in 1954 and Prof Hill of UK, the former suggested that most VCs are political appointees. If this was the situation 70 years back one can imagine how far down the road we have come.

Incidentally, some did have a broader vision like in the case of JNU and the institution delivered. But that has not been the case with most institutions which started on a weak wicket and deteriorated rapidly. Even Delhi University and JNU, which sustained themselves academically over long periods, have declined with recent appointments of VCs. This illustrates the fragility of our educational institutions in the face of determined onslaught by vested interests.

Conclusion: Autonomy a Societal Issue 

Society should have a high stake in quality education to not only be able to compete globally but to become dynamic to face the rapidly emerging challenges. But all this loses importance if knowledge is increasingly imported and recycled. Academics also then have no special place in society and get marginalized and this impacts their self-perception. Some individuals can still do well but societal attitudes seep into the general milieu in which academics function and systems deteriorate over the long run. The elite further marginalize Indian institutions by sending their children abroad to study so that effort at producing quality education is not needed in India.

In brief, the issue of autonomy thrown up by what is happening in IIMC or what Prof Mehta faced represents only the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing process of curbing autonomy in Indian institutions of higher learning. Its reversal requires a holistic societal understanding and action.

Author of ’Challenges Facing Indian Universities’. 2002. JNUTA and also former President of JNU Teachers’ Association

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