Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Autonomous Colleges

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?


  1. L said...

    "A semester system works well when......"
    The problem with this as well as other decentralised system is the quality of faculty. Given a choice, I would frame a syllabus easy for me to teach, requiring no work on my part. I would also evaluate students by my own prejudices.."I don't like the way she dresses!I will see to it she doesn't pass" or "she roams around with her boyfriend- cut her marks".
    Believe me, this has happened quite often in our colleges during the practical exams in which the college lecturer has a say in the marking, though an external examiner comes for evaluation (this clout is supposed to be used to weed out those students who never do regular lab work, but by some means or the other--like bribing lab asst-- end up with good results in their lab exam).

  2. L said...

    Please see this and related speeches for "University according to Satyabhama"


    Also students' posts re. their college.

  3. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    When I was a student in St Stephen's College in Delhi, the autonomy debate was beginning to take off (I think colleges like Loyola had already been granted autonomy) and sections of the Stephen's faculty and management, I believe, wanted to push for autonomy too. But others didn't. They believed that staying with the university kept them honest. They were right, in my opinion, and apparently won the argument: St Stephen's did not try to become autonomous (nor did any other college in Delhi, I think). Now, it is true that Delhi University is one of the better universities in the country, and has, on the whole, a good syllabus and a functional examination system in most disciplines. But I think if important colleges like Loyola and MCC were dissatisfied with their university, they should have used their influence to change things at the university level -- not push for autonomy. Autonomy without accountability is not a great idea.

  4. Chitta said...

    I like the semi-autonomy proposed by Pankaj Jalote in his article at http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/5070183.cms

  5. Yeti said...

    Reg. cmts above : The fact that you can be accountable individually (without external umpires) to a certain standard should be a parameter in granting autonomy to colleges. After all isn't that feature distinguishes IIXs from the rest. And why presume that all are guilty without being convicted. Maybe the freedom to try wil throw up a really good college much better than most universities. And if not it will end up just as the rest. Selective experimentation and risk is not a bad idea.
    I agree with the article posted by Chitta that standardization/centralization reduces the chances to develop and innovate in curriculum content and method of instructions. Some august central body is good for enforcing minimum stds. but not for pushing the boundaries.