New law for Karnataka universities imperils autonomy

In a globalised world, higher education institutions have set their eyes on becoming 'world-class' universities. Getting that tag has concomitant academic, political, economic and cultural advantages. Karnataka, touted as an 'education hub' in the country, has all the potential to be home to 'world-class' universities only when that aspiration is met with an equally progressive policy support.

But the emerging policy in the state that will govern higher education institutions is actually looking in the opposite direction, with a clear intent to curtail the autonomy of universities, which will, at best, help them maintain status quo as institutions of continued ineptitude in governance and excellence. More likely, it will lead to a further deterioration in their functioning. Institutional autonomy is indispensable for creating world-class universities.

In a retrograde move, the Karnataka State Universities Bill 2017 (KSU Bill 2017), passed by the legislature during the recent session without much debate, erodes the autonomy through increased state interference. The only 'proven' track record of the previous Karnataka State Universities Act, 2000, is that the state's universities found no place in world university rankings like QS and Times Higher Education. The reasons for that are not hard to find. Most universities in the state have functioned as self-contained 'little republics' of profane politics, bureaucratisation, corruption, lacking quality research and teaching even as they conscientiously distributed graduation certificates to students to whom they imparted redundant knowledge and skills.

The genesis of these issues lies in previous legislations governing our universities, but in all probability the current version, the KSU Bill, 2017, will continue the legacy of mismanagement. The increased governmentalisation process through political interference which the KSU Bill, 2017, has written into law will curtail universities' autonomy, on top of compounding existing ineptitude and mediocrity. It's a sure shot in the direction of exterminating the very idea of an university.

The KSU Bill, 2017, is purported to be a 'comprehensive' bill intended to bring 'discipline' in administration and address the problem of 'corruption' thriving in the state university system. On becoming an Act, it will replace the existing law and other regulations governing these universities. The bill was passed in an earlier session by the Karnataka Assembly, but the Legislative Council had referred it to a joint house committee. The Council has now passed the Bill, and it awaits the governor's assent to become law.

It is pertinent to note that since Independence, the evolution of the legislative process in Karnataka to govern universities has seen a particular trend, characterised by the archaic logic that a gradual increase in state interference would help achieve the goals of the universities. But, in relation to increased state intervention, the positive outcome of the universities has not increased. Instead, on multiple parameters, the performance has been dismal at the levels of administration, governance and academic output.

Government control

Whereas the provisions of the earlier KSU Act, 1976, had given more autonomy or, at least, less political interference in the affairs of the universities, things have gone downhill with subsequent versions. The trend of increased political interference was visible in the KSU Act, 2000.

With KSU Bill, 2017, it has moved into higher gear. It has been controversial from the start, beginning with a hurried process of initiating it, lack of consultation in its drafting, the issue of autonomy, right down to the spelling mistakes in the draft bill, all of which had drawn the ire of stakeholders in higher education.

The bill proposes for increased state interference in the administration and governance of the universities, causing apprehension among academicians, students and the general public. The interference is clearly more in the KSU Bill 2017 provisions dealing with important positions of administration. At the operational level, the intervention seems to be subtle.

It has increased the government's say in the appointment of the vice-chancellor, and in the appointment or nominations of statutory officers like registrars and the finance officer. The government will also have greater say by increasing the number of members it nominates to university bodies like the executive council and the academic council.

The world over, academicians and higher education policymakers have propagated that institutional autonomy would lead to creating a world-class university. The World Bank document titled "Road to Academic Excellence" says that 'autonomy' is an important characteristic of world-class universities. It mentions that when Singapore University became the National University of Singapore (NUS), the most important reform it underwent was to obtain institutional autonomy. It's now the top-ranking university in Asia as per the new Times Higher Education rankings.

The KSU Bill, 2017, is totally oblivious to the needs of universities and not in sync with the global higher education scenario. It is not hard to imagine that given the greater government control and interference built into KSU Bill, 2017, the new law will end up doing greater harm than good to the cause of universities and higher education. Given that universities in the state are already embroiled in corruption, the positions of vice-chancellors of several universities have been lying vacant for several months, the impending erosion of autonomy will be a death knell to these universities.

One can only hope that the government will, post-elections, take a serious relook at the new law governing the state's universities and amend it after holding broad consultations, to bring it in line with the need of creating a 21st century 'knowledge society'. Institutional autonomy is key to that goal.

(The writer is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Educational and Social Studies)

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