Our education regulators have always had good intentions. If you listen to folks from MHRD, UGC and AICTE, you will hear statements like, "we will give permission for this or that." UGC allows universities to introduce credit based systems. MHRD is allowing NITs and IITs to close unpopular programs. Just to give a couple of examples. Every week, I see the generosity of bureaucrats and academic regulators and sometimes even the political class in newspapers. (It is another matter that these are often the same statements they repeat after regular intervals. But let us enjoy the positive sentiment and not worry about them not doing even this much.)
Can we look forward to an India where universities have autonomy, at least private ones.
I am reminded of a very old article I read in Manushi (must have been late 80s). It mentioned a husband who is saying something to the effect: "I believe in equality of husband and wife. And therefore, I allow my wife to do anything that I will do myself. I allow her to do a job. I allow her to go out with her office colleagues, and so on." And then the author of the article asked a simple question. Are husband and wife really equal. Of course, not. In this story, the husband seemed to believe that wife needed permission for everything. He was perhaps more enlightened than an average husband of the times and gave that permission more easily or even always, but the basic premise still was that the wife needed permission while the husband didn't.
It is the same thing about autonomy. Every one sitting in MHRD, UGC, AICTE, etc. wants to prove their enlightenment by pronouncing that they want to grant more autonomy, but each such pronouncement only ends up proving that they have no idea of what autonomy means. The fact is that you can't appreciate autonomy when your mind has been trained to "control." Autonomy means that they don't even come to you to ask for permission. They come to you only to discuss how you can facilitate something that they are finding difficult to do on their own.You can audit, not just check whether all expenses are done properly, but also whether the impact of that investment is there or not. As the funding agency, you can influence by throwing in some carrots, but if you threaten to cut funding so drastically that the university cannot even survive then you are not respecting autonomy.
If you talk to people in academia regarding autonomy, they will be quick to blame bureaucrats and politicians. They don't understand education would be the constant refrain. And indeed, it is surprising that there is no educationist or academic leader in the Ministry. Most positions are held by people who have no experience in education, whatsoever. However, is situation at UGC and AICTE any better. Those are mostly staffed by academicians. Do they believe in having autonomous universities. Is situation in our universities very different. Would Vice Chancellors empower their Deans and Heads (not just their favorite Deans and Heads, but all Deans and Heads). It is easy to dismiss this by saying that most of the time the people who will rise in academic administration are those who favor status quo and who have benefited from the current system. And hence the system will only promote those who will not threaten the system from within. While there is certainly a grain of truth in it, there is also a larger cultural issue. Most of us want to get more autonomy from our superiors but wouldn't want to empower people working for us. There is just too much suspicion in the system. So a person can trust oneself (and hence genuinely believe that s/he deserves more autonomy) but can't trust others (and hence believes that others will misuse that autonomy).
How do we bring in more trust in our universities. I think the only way to do that is to somehow find good leaders.
Travels in Chennai-ancient signboards
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