St Stephen’s College, Delhi, going by media reports and the intensifying anxiety of its faculty, is perilously close to academic autonomy. Should the college go ahead with it, or should it warm itself up for the purpose, like athletes do, before taking the final plunge?
The teachers are up in arms. They could be predicted to. This is not a reflection on them, but on the spirit of higher education, within the over-all ambience of the Indian psyche. We are distinguished by psychic inertia, which breeds allergy to change. We want transformation, but without any deviation from what we are used to. It is like a man engaging an architect to renovate his house, giving him a detailed briefing on the improvements he desires and concluding the exercise with the words, “But please make sure that the building remains as it is.”
Also, most teachers think neither on education nor on the logic of life. Autonomy is the very foundation of every form of life. A tree, a bird, an animal, an insect: everything in nature is autonomous. The vital functions of our bodies are autonomous. Our heart does not beat as dictated by seasonal changes, or vicissitudes in politics. Our lungs, our liver, our kidneys are not open to external "regulation". But autonomy is not a matter of the absence of external control, but of the presence of an innate, inner control guided by the logic of life. No life-form is viable, without such autonomy.
Autonomy is the very foundation of every form of life.
In all theories on education I have ever read, there isn’t one which does not insist that every school, every college, every educational institution must be autonomous. Students are assessed best by the teachers who instruct them. Examinations and evaluations conducted by external agencies — our ludicrously glorified education boards — are a slur on education. They have all but ruined school education. That is because education, as Maria Montessori argues in her book, Absorbent Mind, but be guided and informed, in all its details, by the overarching purpose of preparing students for life. Life, not success in money-making, should be the relevant criterion for thinking on education.
But this has never been so with us. For teachers, the principal use of education is to make a comparatively effortless living, un-plagued by accountability and pressure to deliver. No other profession maximises professional freedom as teaching does. While this is meant, in ideal situations, to enhance education in all its integrity and creativity, in serves, on the ground, to attract manpower mostly inclined to have a laidback attitude to life. It is unfair to blame the teachers alone for this. This is what the society offers and those who are so inclined accept the offer gratefully and turn it into a right.
What needs to be appreciated — and this is at the root of the outcry of the teachers of St Stephen’s College — is that the shift from being an affiliated/constituent college of Delhi University to becoming an academically autonomous college, is a giant leap. It is like being "kicked upstairs", if you like, from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican paradigm of the universe. You can’t expect someone to sleep in the backyards of Burkina Faso one evening and wake up, the next morning, on the streets of New York. And I am in full sympathy with my former colleagues in this respect.
The University Grants Commission is aware of this problem. That is the reason why its rubrics prescribe that an institution prepare its stakeholders, especially teachers and students, to embrace the radical re-orientation involved without having to be stricken by vertigo on that count. Regrettably, this was not done. The decision was rushed through with avoidable and unprofitable haste.
I can understand this haste as well. The fact of the matter is that teachers, who are used to the comforts of a long-familiar and easy-going system, will never be voluntarily ready for a more demanding alternative. This is not a question of re-orientation, but of negativity. Time is a healer, except for the epidemic of negativity; which aggravates over time. This could well have been the logic that weighed with the governing body of St Stephen’s College in hustling the matter through.
Be that as it may, I am concerned that yanking the college into the unfamiliar territory of academic autonomy, in the present context of stiff and anxious resistance by the faculty, fortified by considerable sympathy from the student body, can plunge the institution into a tailspin of institutional disarray. How can St Stephen’s hope to formulate its own courses— presumably superior to those on offer under the auspices of Delhi University — unless the teachers put their heart and soul into the matter?
This is the time, in the interest of the institution, for gestures of magnanimity on the part of the faculty and the management. The teachers and students, on their part need to realise that knee-jerk resistance to autonomy status is self-denigrating. It is unbecoming of an academic community which enjoys nation-wide respect. Academic autonomy is, in itself, an immensely desirable thing. The management of the college, on its part, needs to realise that teachers need time to come to terms with this radical change and the added responsibilities it entails.
As regards the well-grounded apprehension of the teachers — that autonomy is a ploy of the government to palm off financial burdens to students, undermining social justice in higher education — it is impossible to fault them; except that they seem impervious that this is the hard-set policy of the government and it will be implemented one way or another, autonomy or no autonomy. It is unfair to expect the government to subsidise education and to underwrite corporate mega profligacy at the same time. A choice had to be made. And it has been made. Teachers are not going to arrest this tide.
So, all that they would achieve by persisting with the present air of obstinate confrontation is to vitiate the learning environment of the institution. A far better, nobler, option is to work with the management and to evolve a way of embracing autonomy that accommodates their concerns, especially evolving fee structures that provide for meritorious students from disadvantaged sections of the society.