Autonomy of higher educational institutions/universities (HEIs) is now widely acknowledged as a necessity for excellence and improvement, particularly for those HEIs that engage in research as well as education.  In India we hear about the need for more autonomy in newspapers and debates. Most discussions and articles talk about autonomy as a broad concept and its desirability or how it can help improve the level of education and research.  What specifically needs to be done to improve autonomy is rarely discussed. This note discusses a few issues, which I believe are most important for autonomy of our HEIs, and without which  autonomy, and therefore aspiration for excellence, will not come about.

Recognizing the importance of autonomy in HEIs, the EU had started an autonomy scorecard for its member countries. The framework for autonomy had these four key dimensions:

  • Academic
  • Organizational
  • Financial
  • Staffing

Academic autonomy has been sometimes in the news, largely due to the requirements imposed by key regulators (UGC and AICTE) on the HEIs. While it is important, I believe, that many Act created HEIs (e.g. IITs, IIMs, IIITs, many Universities etc.) can exercise due control in this sphere. In any case, it is a topic for discussion on its own. (Perhaps a future note will discuss this.) in this note I will focus on two fundamental issues in Organizational and Financial dimensions.

First issue relates to the organizational dimension. Organizational autonomy starts with how autonomous are the HEIs in appointing their Chief Executive – i.e. the Director or the Vice Chancellor. This is the most important aspect of Organizational autonomy, as it impacts all other organizational issues. In most western countries, this selection is generally done by the bodies of the university – the Board, Senate, a Board of Trustees appointed search committee, etc. (though the selection may sometimes be subject to approval, which is usually a formality).

In our country, the Chief Executive is selected by the Government or the Ministry, though there is generally a selection committee to recommend a set of names from which the final choice is made. If the final decision of the Head of the Institution is left to the Government, the same person(s) will be doing the selection for all the HEIs of the state/center. Hence, it may be perceived by potential candidates that being in the “good books” of the person(s) is important. This creates distortions – from some good candidates not applying to some lobbying for posts. This has created a general perception that factors other than merit influence these decisions.

Suppose each HEI was to select its own Chief Executive through a documented and transparent process that involves the stakeholders from the HEI, as is done in many countries. With selections/appointments distributed, there is no single authority that needs to be convinced, thereby giving candidates multiple opportunities of assessment by committees of different HEIS. Furthermore, in selection by a single authority, the selected person is more indebted to that authority rather than the HEI for selection. If the HEI was to select the Chief Executive using its stakeholders, then the answerability of the Chief Executive is naturally to the HEI and its stakeholders.

This single change of having each HEI select its own Head through an approved and open process can bring about a great deal of autonomy in our HEIs. Thankfully, the authorities seem to appreciate this and there are signs that this is beginning to happen – one hears that in the IIM Bill, this autonomy has been granted. Hopefully, as a next step, this change will be made for institutions like IITs, and reputed Central Universities.

The second main area in need for autonomy is financial. As long as there is financial dependence of HEIs on the government, autonomy will always be compromised. Yet, public HEIs need support from the government, to provide affordable education to citizens. So, how can one achieve autonomy while still seeking public funds. A simple method, which now many countries use, is to have the funding be based on some parameters by applying some formula. E.g. funding may depend on the total number of students, faculty, R&D projects, consultancy, etc, and the support level is decided through a defined formula. Given that different HEIs have evolved in different manner and may have different needs, the formula need not be same for all types of HEIs. For example, a business school may be given little or no support for education, while an Engineering Institution may be provided limited support per student for education, and a humanities oriented institution may be provided a higher level of support per student.

A formula based funding makes the HEI “independent” of its equations with the Government of the day. The formula provides predictability of funding, and the HEI can count on it and focus its energies on its academics and more efficient use of this public funding. This enhances the autonomy of HEI autonomous, while still retaining the public character.

While these can improve the autonomy of HEIs substantially, there is a need to also ensure that HEIs, particularly those who are taking public funds, are discharging their responsibilities to the society properly.

How does one ensure accountability? This is important as without this, autonomy can lead to inward looking HEIs which are not responsive to societal needs. The responsibility of an HEI is mostly around expanding its educational opportunities, and to align its research towards national goals or needs. (Responsibility in terms of access is already built-in through reservation laws.) Both of these can be easily achieved through financial models. E.g. if funding is tied to the number of students studying (as is the case in Australia), then there is an incentive for the HEI to increase its student strength. Similarly, research direction is often influenced by providing research projects and grants in specific areas/types of work – an approach taken by most countries, including India.

With organizational autonomy, there is also a need for internal systems of the HEI to have proper checks and balances. For this, it is imperative that the system being followed is where the approving authority is different than the recommending authority. This is most important in faculty appointments –  if these appointments are not done properly and with rigorous processes, it can lead to substandard faculty, which takes an HEI down a path from which it takes decades to recover, as faculty stay in the system for even three decades. For this, the system followed in institutions like IITs is very sound – the recommendation for faculty selection is made by a selection committee which is chaired by the Director. But the recommendations are accepted by the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Board of Governors. However, an alternate method, which is seriously flawed, is also followed in many universities in India, in which the Vice Chancellor chairs the selection committee, as well as the Board of the University, thereby making the recommending and approving authority as the same. This must be corrected to ensure that the autonomy does not get misused.

There are many factors that impact autonomy, many of them not covered in this note. This note focused on two most important issues for autonomy: (1) the selection of the Chief Executive should be done by the HEI itself through transparent and well defined process that takes inputs from the stakeholders of HEI, and  (ii) funding of each HEI should be formula-based dependent on some important parameters like R&D output, number of students, etc. so the HEI is clear about what level of support to expect. If these two can be done, we can possibly see an unleashing of trapped energy in some of the HEIs which can take them to path of excellence and global ranking/standing.