There is a lot of talk of autonomy these days of universities and other academic institutions. The concept of autonomy seems to be invoked in any issue in which government side differs from the academic side. But autonomy comes with responsibility, and this responsibility is much more for a publicly funded institution – something that is not always appreciated fully.

Broadly, autonomy of an institution is the ability to take all decisions regarding functioning of the institution (within the overall framework and laws of the country.) For a publicly funded Institution, full autonomy on finances is clearly not possible. Hence, while most will agree that in decisions relating to salary etc. government, which gives the funds, will have a say, call for autonomy almost always implies at least the ability to take all decisions related to academics.

But is even complete autonomy in academics possible for a institution which uses public funds?  Let us take an hypothetical case:  a publicly funded institute decides that  to improve the quality of education and give individual attention to students, it will follow a gurukul type model where a class will have no more than 20 students and student to faculty ratio will be kept to 5 to 1. Please note that this is primarily an academic issue. But can an Institution run mostly on public funds be allowed to take this decision and follow this route? The answer should be evident – of course not.

Similarly, take another situation – a publicly funded institution to which most students want to go decides to take an entrance test on subjects that are not in class XII syllabus at all and announces the syllabus for its exam well in advance (an academic argument for doing this: we want to test the learnability of students, so we will give them new material to see how well they learn it). This decision will clearly undermine the school education system. Should the sought-after publicly funded institution have the freedom to do so?  The answer is again clearly no.

Note that fully privately funded institutions can do this. E.g. a private college or a university can decide to have a gurukul style system with very low teacher to student ratio, and can decide to take such a test (how it will sustain itself or attract students to it is something it will have to figure out.)

The point is that if an academic institution uses mostly public funds  it has some responsibilities to the larger society and the Government, even in the academic decisions it takes. It cannot take decisions which are only in the narrow interest of the institution, if the decisions conflict with some larger societal issues (e.g. decision to remain highly elite and small to maintain the stature of the Institution).  In other words, there is no absolute autonomy even for academic decisions for institutions that run on public funds – they cannot take narrow institutional view and must take into account broader public interest in their decision making. (And the level of autonomy will clearly depend on the level of financial support the institution takes from public funds – many publicly funded universities in US now take as little as 20% of their budgetry support from the state – they clearly have a larger degree of autonomy than those which take most of their budgetry support from the government.)

So the autonomy of an institution in the sense of having ability to take decisions itself (rather than have the government impose them) is possible only if the institute understands and shoulders its larger responsibilities.  If this is done in a proactive manner, the larger society will understand what the institution is doing, which will help preserve its autonomy. If an institution does not live up to its larger societal responsibilities and changes with time, then changes which seem desirable for the larger society will be imposed upon it in a manner in which the government  (or the ministry) at the time understands and interprets them, which can easily get influenced by politics. In other words, to protect its autonomy, which is absolutely essential if the academic institution wishes to reach any heights, an institution must make the necessary changes proactively to keep up with the changing responsibilities to the society.