Philosopher Immanual Kant held that autonomy is at the root of human dignity and the source of all morality. In education, excellence in academics, good governance and financial well-being of institutions can be achieved when autonomy is practised with responsibility and accountability. However this concept is alien to Indian higher education.
Right from the source of power, the HRD ministry, to the delivering unit, a teaching department in a university, lack of autonomy has been a bane. A system steeped in hierarchy, which believes in foisting orders and in commanding, disallows greater autonomy and academic freedom.
If the recent history of universities is traced, in the European model of higher education, the rise of the modern university was intricately associated with the establishment of nation-state, and the political and bureaucratic institutions.
The state limited its role as a funder and regulator and delegated matters of academic governance to universities thereby protecting their autonomy. Thus a 'social compact' developed between higher education, the state and society thereby embracing the idea of a university as social institution with autonomy and academic freedom.
Indian higher education has always suffered the brunt of over-regulation in a top heavy system. Policy are formulated in New Delhi by a plethora of agencies like MHRD, UGC, AICTE, all keen on holding the reins, and sent as directives to universities who themselves are silos having numerous colleges under them. Room for curricular innovation, shift from traditional teaching-learning methods and evaluation or changed norms for admissions does not exist with universities, let alone colleges.
A paradigm shift in education is occurring where it is increasingly being seen as a commodity to be traded internationally, a "skill-set" to be purchased for application in marketplace and this aspect of knowledge economy is even on the discussion table of World Trade Organization. While there are plenty of perils in this shift, university system as they are currently in India, will be grossly disadvantaged in a market-driven environment if they do not encourage greater autonomy.
Teaching-learning environment too is fast changing. Only an autonomous system, with decentralized management culture at its heart, can bring about much needed innovations, in order to stay relevant and change according to needs. Over the years higher education and its institutions have become more expensive with the importance of knowledge economy being asserted stronger than ever. But with the push for massification of higher education, external and governmental pressure on universities has risen.
In a study done at Keesler Medical Center, University of Texas, residents and faculty were surveyed about notions of autonomy. While nearly half the residents felt they had too little autonomy, only one-third of faculty concurred with that idea. However all of them endorsed that resident autonomy is important for resident development. Ask any Indian resident doctor about autonomy and she will tell that the autonomy she has is more often than not due to an absent senior doctor!
As much as institutional autonomy is required for higher education to achieve its vision and mission, it is important for such autonomy to percolate to the lowest and fundamental unit, the faculty member. The faculty and their student stand at the center of the enterprise called university. The ideal role of a faculty is not restricted in imparting knowledge but in inculcating qualities in students where they learn how to acquire knowledge themselves, ask intellectual questions and evaluate evidence.
Students develop the much needed cognitive complexity when they interact with people, views and experiences that are different than their own. But when faculty themselves lack the articulation, lack the ecosystem or are hand-tied to express one's ideas and entertain diverse views ranging from their subject to race, gender, religion, cultural values, etc, all which concerns a student who usually harbours a 'black and white' or dualistic view of things when she enters a university, it is unlikely that the faculty, himself a victim of control, will foster autonomy.
Autonomy with accountability
It is fundamental to autonomy that it cannot be executed without scrutiny, beyond professional norms, or without boundaries. The larger role of university, at least until now, is towards the community, the society.
Universities thus should not be exempt from public scrutiny. Accountability, output control, performance based funding, quality assurance are tools of higher education policy which can exert necessary checks and balances in an autonomous system.
There are plenty of empirical evidences suggesting how financial autonomy, constitutional autonomy have positively correlated with performance of institutions. Thus constantly squeezing budget, demanding ever greater accountability and shifting goalposts under governmental pressure does not augur well for autonomy in higher education.
Research has shown that mere asking people for their perspectives give them a sense of autonomy. At the level of departments, steps like noting revisions undertaken in response to faculty concerns, providing timely and detailed feedback, providing rationale at the face of lack of choice, encouraging individual dialogue and questioning are steps that academic leaders should take to foster autonomy.
The autonomy problem
The problem with autonomy in Indian higher education can be explained with two theories in public policy. The principal agent problem, where agent is the government and principal is the university and information asymmetry between a commanding government and receiving university. The field of autonomy gets muddled with the agent taking decisions for principal, a hugely diverse and dynamic set, about which it has not much information.
With the regime change at HRD ministry, it is warranted of the incumbent Mr Javadekar to devolve power and responsibility to universities and play the role of a good regulator only. If Indian higher education institutions are to produce quality research, if they are to generate employable graduates, if they are to compete with their counterparts globally, they need greater autonomy. The concept of autonomy must be understood by all tiers in higher education leading to the teacher in the classroom. Only then can things change for better.
Control just leads to compliance, a phenomenon the powers that be are fond of, whereas autonomy leads to engagement, a prerequisite for good education.