Autonomy key to quality

Higher Education

Educational

There are regulatory norms for corporate affairs, industrial operations, trade and commerce, banking and finance and a host of other activities both in public and private sectors. They have statutory powers and legal sanctity. However, education, especially higher education, cannot be treated on par with other domains, for the simple reason that the issue involves enrichment of intellectual capital through innovation, creativity, novelty and unrestrained inquiry — attributes best groomed under absolute liberty and utmost freedom.

Across the world, a large number of public and private universities have excelled because of an atmosphere of free thinking so essential to draw out the best from faculty. In contrast, it is a pity that Indian universities are predominantly controlled by multiple central and state agencies. Of the many reasons for excessive restrictions, the one that outweighs all others is the apprehension that given autonomy, the system will suffer from unbridled misuse and abuse.

Higher Education in India needs less regulation and more facilitation against the backdrop of its own phenomenal expansion, private participation, globalisation and the resultant competition. It is time that the apex bodies of higher education become responsive and supportive of progressive universities/institutions of higher learning and research. Autonomy for self-governance and self-reliance, based on financial stability and well-structured management for efficient regulation from ‘within’, are urgently needed. Of course, accountability and transparency are inseparable from autonomy.

External regulation should promote quality assessment by multiple national and international accreditation agencies. It must not indulge in controlling the day-to-day functioning of universities. Past experience tells us that the UGC, AICTE and other statutory bodies and their battery of regulations have failed to elevate even one university to the list of the world’s top 200 (IIT Delhi and Bombay and IISc, Bangalore, which are deemed-to-be universities, have recently figured within this number in Quaquarelli-Suimonds (QS) Survey, 2018). Meanwhile, universities of small countries like Singapore and South Korea are doing much better.

Freedom to explore, innovate, adapt and adopt a set of best practices is crucial for transforming varied challenges into favourable opportunities to usher in quality. As is known, quality is self-imposed, self-imbibed and self-propagated. It is difficult to ensure quality by means of external regulation. Excessive regulation — central as well as state — has strangled and suffocated our institutions of higher learning. Being helpless, a large number of them are academically stagnating.

Regulation should provide ways and means of attaining and retaining quality. It should strengthen, not weaken, autonomy. The recent steps to give full autonomy to IIMs and graded autonomy to certain universities are progressive but such moves should not come with strings and strictures.

Deregulation should emanate from the ethos that only autonomy will improve performance and usher in quality. World renowned institutions amply illustrate this reality. One of the hallmarks of their global eminence is absolute autonomy. They govern from ‘within’, the way they want to and need to. They don’t take ‘instructions’ from external sources. Regulatory bodies should first promote quality of teaching-learning-research-training and then arrange to assess the functional status periodically. They should have sufficient legal authority to shut down mediocre institutions.

Regulators should encourage competition, collaboration and internationalisation (in terms of student admission, faculty appointments, dual degrees, joint certification, etc). Universities must be allowed to nurture a culture of universality of learning, transcending the barriers of regionalism, communalism, parochialism, nepotism and fanaticism. Such a milieu will bring in academic vibrance as is the case with world-class universities.

While economic reforms have occurred since the 1990s, there has been little or no change in the governance of higher education institutions. The UGC has failed to respond to the new challenges of cost, quality, global competition and increased aspirations of stakeholders. We need a semi-corporate culture of decision-making and expeditious implementation of policies and programmes.

Watchdog, not micromanager

Freedom — be it at individual, institutional or national levels — is the cardinal principle and driving force of good performance. In a globalised scenario, our institutions need refined directions and tangible guidelines for sustained growth and development, not archaic rules and outmoded controls. Prescriptions of regulations from ‘above’, should follow, not precede, consultations and suggestions from ‘below’. Given autonomy, progressive universities will nurture meritocracy and get due recognition, mediocre ones that abuse it will die a natural death.

A regulator should be a watchdog, not a micromanager. It should act like a counselor, not a police sub-inspector or a school headmaster. The current proposal of the central government to replace the UGC with two agencies –- one to support academic endeavours and the other for funding –- if conceived and executed without bureaucratic remote controls, may do well to sustain quality of our higher education.

A large number of ailments of our higher education system cannot be cured by a single magical approach. But an important step could be to switch to increased decentralisation. In the UK, the UGC was dismantled almost three decades ago, paving the way for deregulation of the country’s higher education.

Back in 1956, the Radhakrishnan Committee (its report gave rise to UGC) had suggested that “the trends towards governmental dominance of educational process must be resisted”. In 1957, Justice Frankfurter of the US Supreme Court opined that “a university should have the right to decide what to teach, who to teach and how to teach”. A corollary to this dictum could be “whom to teach, how to evaluate and what research to be done”. Let our institutions of higher learning function with unbridled autonomy and subject themselves to periodic peer review and multiple accreditations. In the ultimate analysis, it is the freedom, not control, that empowers.

(The writer is a former vice chancellor of University of Mysore)

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