I want to return to the column by Tapan Raychaudhury who doesn't like the idea of converting some of the academically better equipped (and more accomplished) colleges into universities:
My particular concern here is with the new initiative to confer the status of universities on selected colleges. One assumption behind it seems to be that colleges that, perhaps after a glorious past, are now suffering in quality will regain their old excellence if turned into universities. The logic underlying this assumption is incredibly bizarre. Spelt out, it would imply that institutions which are mediocre or worse today will become centres of excellence tomorrow by virtue of having university status conferred on them. It is well to remember that in the golden tomorrow, the people running these institutions will continue to do so still. If they are sought to be replaced by allegedly abler people, the seat of learning will be converted into a battleground for power. If, on the other hand, the old guard are allowed to remain in power they will ensure that the newcomers do not excel in any way. Such, indeed, is the way of all flesh as is well-known to all but the most doggedly optimistic among us.
On the other hand, the logic behind conferring university status on a particular college may well be a recognition of its excellence, and making that excellence available for the service to a higher level of learning. If this is so, I suggest some very simple tests to ensure the validity of the judgment. First, since we are, these days, so enamoured of American academic practices, let us take anonymously the opinion of students about the quality of teaching and make a high mark a sine qua non of the relevant decision. Secondly, since these institutions will be expected to contribute to knowledge, let us have surveys of the amount of quality research they have produced in the last ten years — in terms of scholarly books (reviewed in authoritative journals), refereed articles and theses done under their supervision. Thirdly, a quiet survey of library books issued to students and teachers in an average year. Of course both may have borrowed or bought books to supplement what is available in their college libraries and an enquiry into this aspect of the pursuit of knowledge would be indeed worthwhile.
Clearly, Raychaudhury is pretty negative about converting colleges into universities. But I want to shift the focus to a related system: autonomous colleges.
In our hub-and-spoke system of higher education, academically better-positioned colleges could be given an "autonomous status" by their university (the hub). This system has been in place for at least three decades -- I still remember colleges like Loyola College and Madras Christian College flaunting their autonomous status in the 1980s. And this system appears -- going by this list -- implemented vigorously by the universities in Tamil Nadu.
As I recall, this autonomous college issue was not particularly controversial -- people just assumed that the better colleges would eventually get the autonomous status, and many did.
For all practical purposes, the autonomous college is a university -- it designs and implements its own curriculum and grading schemes, with the parent university's role being limited (largely) to issuing degree certificates. At least, that's the theory.
There's much going for this theory. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in a recent op-ed on the reforms at the Delhi University,
Ideally, a semester system allows you to achieve the following objectives. It can facilitate the creation of a credit system, and hence allow more choice and flexibility. In institutions where the semester system has real pedagogical bite, it is premised upon one important fact: that the teachers teaching particular classes evaluate their own students. [...]
A semester system works well when each individual faculty member has substantial freedom to innovate in course offering at his or her level. This is possible only where there is no disjunction between those who set the syllabus, those who teach and those who evaluate. The crisis of undergraduate education has its source, in part, in this disjunction.
The academic autonomy enjoyed by these elite colleges has all the ingredients identified and recommended by Mehta. And this system has been around for over 30 years now. Has there been a review of this system? Is it seen as a success?