The government has approved a system of graded autonomy of our universities. Under the system, the best performing universities will get autonomy to do things, for which apparently they needed to seek permissions earlier. The first set of universities (and colleges) under this graded autonomy scheme was announced recently. See the complete list here.
Autonomy granted is primarily in terms of starting new programs/departments/research centers without the approval of UGC, as long as one does not seek additional funds from UGC for these programs/initiatives. There are other elements like hiring foreign faculty, deciding additional remuneration (if you have funds), etc.
I call it a baby step because this level of autonomy is available to many universities anyway. All those universities which do not get any funds from UGC (including IITs, for example, and private universities) already can start any academic program at any time. They can all recruit foreign faculty, and they can pay them extra, if desired.
But even this baby step has led to criticism from many faculty members in the universities who have received this autonomy. The criticism is primarily on two counts.
One is the fear of commercialization of education. The claim is that now, if these universities start a new program, they won't get any additional funding, and hence either this new program has to have very high fees, or fees has to be increased across the board in all programs to pay for this new program. And thus access to higher education will become restricted to upper strata of society.
My first reaction is that the claim is incorrect. That the university has autonomy to start new programs without additional funds is in no way stopping the university from seeking approval of new programs with additional funds for these programs. So a university might think of starting some new programs with approval from UGC and yet start another new program where there is a donor/sponsor, and for this latter program, they don't need UGC's approval. In fact, they can start the program and seek approval in parallel, and if they get approval, the program shifts to the list of UGC funded programs, otherwise, it lasts as long as there are donors/sponsors, and it closes afterwards. And all these teachers would have a say in their respective universities as to whether to start a particular new program or not.
However, that may be an ideal situation but the situation on the ground is different. The higher education budget has not been increasing proportionate to the number of students and inflation over the last few years. There is a lot of uncertainty now as to how HEFA funding will play out for the universities and how much they will have to repay. And considering the confusion in education policies in recent times, it is indeed a reasonable concern whether government will pay for new programs eventually or not. The policy of graded autonomy would have been much more acceptable if UGC had agreed to at least partially fund any new program. So, if you are funding Rs. 50,000 per student per year for existing programs in a university, you could have said that any new program started by the university will get Rs. 25,000 per student per year without any questions asked, and after a review of the program, if it is of similar quality as others, the funding will be of similar level as other programs. After all, autonomy is insufficient if you don't open the purse strings a little bit.
The other point of opposition is that autonomy only makes the vice chancellor more powerful, even dictatorial. Without a proper system of checks and balances, and without this autonomy percolating to schools, departments, and individual faculty members, it won't be that much effective. A good leader can enable internal autonomy and take the university forward, while a bad leader can misuse the autonomy and take the university backward.
While I sympathize with the view, I think a bad leader can take the university backward whether there is autonomy or not, and indeed the bane of our system is that far too many incompetent persons become leaders. But I think poor methods of selecting leaders is a problem that needs to be solved independent of autonomy issue. Greater autonomy will strengthen the hands of good leaders and their actions will force choice of good leaders for every university.
Of course, I always have wondered why we continue to follow the colonial model of university administration 70 years after independence. The University of Calcutta Act, 1857, was designed to have a powerful VC with very little checks and balances so that a single Britisher (as VC) could control the university. Today, when we have another very successful system of university administration (IITs) where we have proper checks and balances and the Director (VC) is not all too powerful, why don't we adopt a similar structure for more universities. An IIT like administrative structure makes it difficult to misuse autonomy.
My complaint with the graded autonomy policy is that it is giving too little autonomy to too few universities. The kind of autonomy that is being given should ideally be given to any accredited university. Also, UGC should prepare a list of all its regulations that is strangulating the academic freedom, and thus quality, and agree that good universities can ignore most of them. Also, there must be mechanism for additional financial inputs for new initiatives. And finally, one should look into the administrative structure of these universities, particularly how the VC and other leaders are selected.
Added the following links later:
An Act of Unlearning by Shiv Visvanathan in The Hindu, April 05, 2018
A 3-Tier Higher Education System for India
11 hours ago