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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Autonomy of Educational Institutions

What is the most important pre-requisite for university excellence. The experts are unanimous in their answer - it is autonomy. Budget is important, and obviously to do anything, you need money. However, with autonomy, it is possible for a university to create strategies to solve funding problems. But without autonomy, no amount of money is going to lead to excellence.

Autonomy means that the university is free to decide its own course of action, be it admissions, curriculum, hiring of faculty, starting new programs or closing old programs, and so on. There should be no interference from the government in any such decision. There can be incentives, but they should not be so strong that university really does not have any option but to follow a particular path. Of course, autonomy can only be in conjunction with accountability, but the evaluation of performance should be done by peers in line with norms followed by academic community.

While no one can claim to have unlimited autonomy in all spheres of university operations, but if one looks at the top ranked universities, one finds that they typically are the places which have a lot of autonomy.

Unfortunately, academics in India have not been able to communicate the importance of autonomy to the society at large, possibly because they themselves have not understood it, and perhaps because mostly those persons are appointed Directors and Vice Chancellors who will not demand autonomy. The times of Nalanda are gone.

It is commonplace for people to argue that the system of affiliated colleges is necessary since autonomy to these colleges (in terms of deciding their admission, curriculum, programs, etc., and giving degrees) will lower the quality of education. It is commonplace for Directors to argue that since the government writes a check to us, we must listen to them. It is commonplace for people to argue that we should have common syllabus across not just school boards but across universities, we should have common entrance exams, we should have "one nation, one test," and so on.

I recall that in IIT Kanpur, we used to get many good MTech students from government engineering colleges in UP (like HBTI, MMM, BIET, IET, KNIT, etc.) in the 1990s, and till about 2002 or so. And then suddenly, we had a couple of years, when there was not even one student from all these colleges could get admission to our MTech program. We were worried about our graduate student pipeline drying up, and I volunteered to visit some of these colleges and find out what exactly was happening. Were they preferring to go to other IITs. Were they no longer interested in higher education. What were these students doing, and why were they not coming to IIT Kanpur.

I met hundreds of students and dozens of faculty members, and a very tragic story developed. Most of these colleges happen to be the only colleges in their respective universities till the year 2000. So, even though, they were affiliated colleges on paper, by virtue of their being the only government college of that university, essentially they were driving the academic agenda till 2000. They would decide the curriculum, what books to follow, what should be academic policies of the university for engineering, and so on. In many cases, they would even set the question paper, and grade them for their class. In the year 2000, UP government decided to follow the herd, and did what many other states had already done - set up a technical university. All government colleges were forced by law to get affiliation to UP Technical University. And instantly, their control over academics was gone.

Every faculty member that I talked to felt dejected. Now, a group sitting in Lucknow would decide whom and how you will admit students, what you will teach, what books will be followed, how many lectures you will take. If you studies something exciting on your own and wanted to share with the students, there was no time for it in the schedule, and even if you shared that anyway, the students would know that this was unimportant as the paper would be set by some anonymous person elsewhere. Someone in the other part of the state would grade those papers. Basically, the faculty could be ignored completely. The curriculum obviously could not take into account the expertise available in each college. So these teachers who used to take a lot of pride in their work, and produce good quality graduates, suddenly became demoralized. Many of them left.

The quality of education had declined in all these colleges to such an extent that very few of their graduates could do well in GATE. That was the reason why our MTech pipeline from UP colleges had dried up.

So, here is a simple formula to improve quality of engineering education in the country: disband technical universities, even if you have to have affiliating universities, make sure each university has no more than a handful of colleges affiliated to it. Common curriculum and common exams have ruined education in this country, since they go against the very grain of autonomy.

Of course, people talk about why affiliating universities are a must in India, because of poor quality of colleges. My take is different. In the last few years, several colleges have become universities - either through deemed university route or through the state act route. The quality of these universities may not be very good, if you compare them with good institutions in the respective disciplines. But is there any doubt that each one of them is providing better quality of education today than what it did when it was a college. This is not saying much, but it is still saying a lot.

Autonomy matters to even a low quality institution to improve its quality.

If you study the decline of great universities of yesteryears, one can immediately notice that it has happened because of erosion of autonomy or in other words, interference from the state.

Since complete autonomy is only an ideal and does not happen in reality anywhere, it becomes difficult for anyone to defend it from any attack. Every time the government chips away a part of autonomy, one wonders if the lost autonomy was part of ideal world, or have we reached a point where one needs to protest. And in general, if we do not see an immediate loss, we don't protest. So the government wants common syllabus, we don't protest. The government wants common admission process, we don't protest. The government wants same fee, and same salaries, we don't protest. And it goes on, till we have nothing left to protest.

I am reminded of German pastor Martin Niemöller who wrote the following words about the role of German intellectuals during the World War II.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
The debate for the last few months over the engineering admission process in this country should have been a debate on autonomy, and only on autonomy, but it was not at all about autonomy. It is not that we did not try to steer the debate in that direction. But it was futile. To me, it did not really matter what proposal came from Government or IIT Council. Even if they were the most ideal proposals, I would still want my right to consider them and not accept them as an order from the top. But whenever we talked about autonomy, many people questioned our motives. Was it our ego that we were trying to safeguard. Why don't we think of children of this country. Why can't a body that writes our check even has a write to just tell us how to admit. Aren't the goals of the Minister noble.

Of course, it helped immensely that the proposals were so completely brain dead that we did not have to do much. It was obvious to any one reading them that they would increase stress, increase coaching, make it more difficult for rural and poor kids, that none of the noble aims of the Minister were actually being met by the proposed changes. Readers of this blog and those who followed the debate on media and social media were convinced that the proposals did not do anything positive. But the same group is not convinced that we deserve our autonomy. We deserve autonomy not because it is an ego issue with us, but because it is essential for us to continue our march towards excellence, and contribute to the same society even more in times to come.

When IIT Kanpur Senate decided (and that decision stands even as I write this blog) to hold its own entrance exam, the media was critical, and so were children and parents. They became our supporters only because they perceived that our resolve is only to put pressure on the government.

What would happen if some of the IITs actually went ahead and held a different exam. One extra exam versus autonomy, which is directly linked to the quality of education. Also note that the children could have easily decided that they would give exam for this group of IITs or the other group of IITs. So actually, if you were willing to choose a set of IITs a priori, then the number of exams remained the same for you. Now consider two scenarios. In one scenario, most IITs are in one group, and only a small number of IITs, perhaps one or two, in the other. You would know which group exam to give. In the other scenario, the two groups are roughly equal in terms of number of IITs, and diversity of programs offered. Could you not decide which group without losing much in terms of your career planning. So, if there are two JEEs, a typical student would not lose much. So the choice is between losing slight flexibility versus autonomy of higher education institutions in the country. And unfortunately, the choice is very clear. That slight flexibility is more important.

And yet, the fault is not with 17 year old ones. They have never set foot on a university campus. How are they to understand the abstract notion of autonomy and its linkages with quality. The problem is with the academic leadership, who is not convinced about it. As I said above, they are the ones who really push ideas like affiliation based education system, common curriculum, common tests, and so on.

If the academic leadership of the country does not understand the importance of autonomy, sorry, we are not going to be a knowledge superpower anytime soon.

Contrast this issue of university autonomy with the issue of freedom of press.

Try having a polite conversation about media, and what do you hear. Some newspapers only report local crime. The supplements are not news, but entertainment. The headlines are written in a way to attract attention. And worse. They are biased. They give coverage to organizations who give lots of advertisements. The choicest words are reserved for 24x7 television news channels. They have to create news out of nothing. One hardly hears anything positive about media these days in polite conversations.

And then, try suggesting that perhaps the government should intervene, and fix the problems, if there are indeed so many problems with media. There is an immediate reaction. Keep government out of media.

Most people in the country realize the importance of independent media, even with all its problems. They realize that free speech guaranteed by our Constitution will have very little value, if media is not free. If media can be stopped from airing junk news, then it can also be stopped from airing politically inconvenient news. And hence despite our strong reservations about the quality of media, we must whole heartedly support the autonomy of media.

Even government ownership should not be an excuse for interfering with that autonomy. Ask anyone whether they want a politician or an IAS officer to decide the headline on Doordarshan news, a channel owned and funded by the government.

University autonomy is an absolute must for academic freedom, that is, freedom for a faculty member to work in whatever area s/he wants to work in, publish anywhere, speak out his/her views without any fear, etc. (of course, with usual accountability). Academic freedom is a must to generate new ideas, and freedom of media is a must to report those ideas. So, in a sense, independent media and university autonomy are two sides of the same coin, and two of the most important pillars of a liberal society.

However, press has done a wonderful job of convincing people that even if their performance is poor, their freedom must be protected, if they want freedom of speech in the country. I hope that one day we will have academic leadership in this country which truly respects university autonomy. India deserves better from her universities, and they can deliver only when they are autonomous.


Shishir said...

Autonomy is not some kind of perk which is being demanded by IITs and the like, which is to be considered by the Government as it provides the financial aid. The autonomy of the institutions is the functional requirement for academic excellence.

Autonomy essentially translates into freedom of thinking . Autonomous institution will have a DNA which will support thoughts and actions for keeping pace with the times and hence move towards betterment. It is something like competitive markets which drive human efforts towards newer vistas.

What Government control takes away from academic institutions (even business enterprises also)is the ability to think independently and academic excellence is all about independence and experimentation. Govt control makes the following governmental procedures and government hierarchy a prime objective of the institutions as against blossoming of even a modicum of excellence. This is true anywhere in the world , even communist countries like erstwhile USSR and China . All Governments , by the very nature of it, can't promote academic excellence by controlling , they have to do it by facilitating.

Drawing analogy to sports, who would like BCCI to tell Sachin Tendulkar when to hit a six or to square cut? Will the spectators enjoy the game then?

Saswata said...

An old report where IIT Directors had argued that they didn't want autonomy:

Maybe, they are afraid that an autonomous institute might elect it's Director directly, not through the education minister!

Manish Shrikhande said...

While I agree that the autonomy should in general improve the academic standards, however, I have reasons to believe that the deemed university route is being pursued by several private institutions essentially to retain a control over the examinations and eventually pass percentage. Many so called deemed universities come out with full page advertisements seeking fresh admissions to their B.E./B.Tech. programmes with claims of 100% placements for the graduating class. It so happens that in most of these cases, the 100% placement is actually stage managed by bribing the company representatives visiting these campuses for recruitment. These "unemployable" candidates are summarily shown the door a couple of months down the line by means of an induction programme and test. The percentage of drop outs at this stage never makes the headlines and we do have a major human resource crisis developing here. Parents of these hapless children have invested their lifetime's savings for the promised "secure future" for their ward and four/five years down the line they find that the degree that they get is not worth the paper it is printed on. We are approaching a situation about 25 years back when there was a large army of unemployed graduates in arts/commerce/science. But then these degrees did not cost much and nobody had to invest a lifetime's savings to get those. It is only a matter of time before the bubble of overpriced, useless engineering degrees bursts and we'll have a major social unrest unfolding on the streets. In this respect, I don't think that the indiscriminate autonomy to any businessman venturing into the business of engineering education would lead to improved quality of education.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Manish, First of all, I was not referring to deemed university only. In fact, a larger number of universities have come about through an act of state legislatures. Second, do you have any example amongst these either deemed or private state universities where the quality of education did not improve after they became university. Third, if you argue that university should have a minimum standard, I would agree with that, but only suggest that even colleges should have that minimum standard. Minimum standard should not be for a university, but minimum standard should be for the quality of education that a student receives. If you are willing to have a poor quality college, I am willing to have a slightly better quality university. Fourth, if a certain deemed university is below the minimum quality that you deem necessary for university tag, do all state universities meet that minimum standard.

The bottom line is that even the poor quality college improves when given autonomy.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@aaa, I am deleting your comments as they are irrelevant for this blog.

Arpan Maheshwari said...

As always I agree with all the things you have written. :)
But this time I think it's incomplete. We(you and I) admit that autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. And then we talk about "why" and "how" aspects of our autonomy only and not a single suggestion/thought on the same dimensions ("why" and "how") of accountability. That's not fair! Let me try a little bit.

"Why" accountability :
This question should also settle to whom should we(IIT community) be accountable. I think we are a premier institute in the country and our country is facing a myriad of challenges. As an important organization of the country, its our duty to support the country in achieving its ideals and aspirations(The Preamble of our constitution would be a good reference). So, to some extent, we are accountable to our fellow citizens and thus to their representatives. Also, we survive heavily on taxpayer's money(unfortunately we don't have our own big alumni corpus or fundings from the private sector), so they are also stakeholders in our organization(may not be in the decision-making, but
of course in the dividends). This DOES not mean that if some of our efforts(like research in physical sciences) do not yield any applications, they should not be carried out.

"How" accountability :
Well this is an easy part. One way is that we can sign some MoUs with the government through which we would deliver some amount of performance and social service in exchange of autonomy. There could be many other ways.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Arpan, In my view, the accountability or the performance measurement, if you will, should be as per the norms of the academic community, and not as per a government MoU. Let there be academic peer group which should tell us what we are doing right or wrong. Of course, this is one issue where both sides, the government and the institutes are in the wrong. Government does not want to grant autonomy, and the Institutes do not want accountability.

The point I am making in this article however is that the current situation in the higher education space in India is such that the autonomy is so little that it makes no sense to even talk about accountability in most institutes and universities, except the top few. And in those places, more autonomy should be granted without worrying about an MoU and increased accountability.

Saswata said...

"We survive heavily on taxpayer's money" - because the Indian government doesn't allow IITs to increase the undergraduate fees from the current 50K to 2.5K per annum. An autonomous institute should be able to decide it's fee structure independently.


Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saswata, There is a report by Kakodakar committee, which essentially says that IITs can charge tuition to take care of all costs, and MHRD will work out a scheme to give a loan of equivalent amount to all those who get admission to IITs. So, there are solutions, if one is willing to let go. (And this is not the only model for financing. There are many others that different parts of the world have experimented with.)

Saswata said...

@Prof. Sanghi

As far as I know, the government rejected the Kakodkar committee proposal to hike the UG tuition fees of IITs. Hostel fees are left to be decided by individual IITs.
Therefore, lack of proper autonomy is ruining the financial backbone of IITs as well, and we are forced to be dependent on taxpayers' money.


Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saswata, The minutes of the IIT Council meeting says that the Kakodakar Committee report has been accepted. My sources tell me that it was conveyed to them informally that the implementation be held in abeyance at least till the elections in 2014.

Saswata said...

@Prof. Sanghi

Thanks for the clarification. I was under the impression (through the above TOI report) that everything in Kakodkar committee report except the UG fees hike had been approved in the council meeting.

By the way, isn't it illegal to stop implementing something mentioned in the meeting minutes just because a minister "informally" asked the Directors to do so? What if the same minister continues for one more term, and asks to delay the implementation till 2019? What kind of an autonomy is this? Autonomy on paper/meeting minutes? :P

SK said...

Prof. Sanghi,
Autonomy of IITs was not disturbed for so many years as there was a public (read political) will not to mess with academic excellence. The process of decline of autonomy started slowly by diluting the brand and trying to club social and geographical equality with academic excellence. The social, economic and geographical equality is very much needed but this should not be done at the cost of academic excellence. At the same time, IIT council appointees seem to have become crusader of political and social agenda, while they were supposed to be there based on their academic credentials.
In the end, we get, what we deserve. We have not protested for so many interferences by the government (as you rightly pointed out) and now we have reached a point of no return. Academic fraternity needs to come up and throw its weight... It is not a question if government is right or wrong, but its means of achieving goals does not seem to be right. The message of “One nation, one test” is being wrongly portrayed to appease the public in general. If you notice for last few years, you would find that private engineering college (like BITS, Pilani and IIIT, Hyd) are gaining slowly but consistently and the trend is expected to continue.
Unfortunately, lack of political and academic leadership have disturbed the equilibrium and country will have to go through this phase, whether we like it or not.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@SK, I think the government has been very secular in terms of trying to bring the quality down. If you look at the UGC Regulations for Deemed Universities, 2010, the attempts at interference in BITS and IIIT are pretty serious.

Prashant said...

You know, I also think, that even without interference from MHRD, the IIT System is now too big for all the institutes to try to stick together as the recent drama reveals ( think about the stand of IIT-M versus the others ) - this idea of desperately trying to stick together also *might* be reducing their effective autonomy since they are even constrained by each other . It might actually be a good idea for one set to conduct their own test. If each IIT waits for the other, changes will never evolve in the admissions or academic system.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Prashant, Great point. You are absolutely right that with 16 IITs, most decisions will be based on lowest common denominator and not based on what could be good for an individual institute. Since IIT Council has become a very large body, it also means that the Chairman (the Minister) is now more powerful than ever before, since in such a large body, it is very difficult to keep opposing something that the Minister wants, particularly when the body consists of mostly those who have been appointed by the Minister. So we have to brace for decreasing autonomy as time progresses.

Chandresh said...

Implementation of OBC reservation just before last elections resulted in 50 % increase in student numbers. Increasing number of IITs was also done without creating minimum facilites. Implementing both decisions in close proximity resulted in a severe strain on faculty, lab and hostel facilites.

With autonomy, each IIT could have come up with more realistic time frames and plans to implement the decisions. I fear standards have dipped at least temporarily. The dip might become more pronounced if government cannot come up with enough resources on a consistent basis to support so many IITs meet capital, revenue and social obligation subsidies.

Transparency is the alter ego of autonomy. Ideally, while both decisions could have been taken by the political masters, the implementation should have been left to the academic community.

Ungrateful Alive said...

Why would any government in India allow IITs to increase tuition to levels that will let IITs become financially independent of the government? Isn't governance in India a synonym for rent-seeking? One plausible explanation is the rent-seeking will move from "owning" IITs to buying vote banks via loans to students. Certainly, the number of student loans will be vastly larger than the number of directors and deans. But many students may avoid a government iou by taking out a private loan. So is this a working theory behind the existence of the Kakodkar committee, or do you spot a flaw?