It is widely accepted globally that autonomy of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is necessary for them to excel and achieve their mission. The European Commission has identified four dimensions of autonomy to better understand the level of autonomy. In the previous note, I focused on fundamental issue for autonomy in two dimensions – organizational and finance.

This post will discuss autonomy in the academic dimension. Here again we will focus only on independent HEIs governed by Act/Statutes, or which are deemed to be university and are governed by their byelaws. (Affiliated colleges, by definition, have very little academic autonomy.)

What does autonomy really mean in academics. Broadly, we can say that if an HEI feels that something needs to be done in academic sphere for the benefit of the students and academics in general, it should have the freedom to do so. For this, let us first understand what does an autonomous academic institution do in the sphere of academics. The main actions in academics of an HEI can be grouped in these:

  • Start a new academic program (at undergraduate, postgraduate, or certificate level)
  • Decide the structure of a program
  • Start new courses which may be part of programs, and contents of these courses
  • How to teach the courses, and how to assess performance in them

And along with these which are directly related to delivering of academics, HEIs also admit students into these programs. Admission to programs is a much debated issue as it affects a large number of students. For this note, we will consider admissions as a separate issue (there are some posts on  this issue in this blog – e.g. Widen the entrance criteria.)

Most Act/Statute created universities have complete freedom for the last two – they decide what to teach in a course, how to teach, and how to assess. Starting of new courses is also a freedom all these institutions have – any challenges in this are largely internal to the HEI.

The structure of the program is also largely in the control of HEIs – they can decide which courses are to be taught in a program, how many courses/credits a student must take to complete a program, which are essential courses and which are electives, what streams/groups are permitted, etc.

The only area where the HEI does not have complete freedom is the first one – starting of a new program. In this, there are restrictions from the regulators – UGC and AICTE (and others). One key restriction is the duration of the various programs – e.g. a BA/BSc must be 3 years, while a BTech/BE must be 4 years. Some such restrictions exist in many countries. However, the modern thought is to go towards credit based requirements and specify the credit ranges for various degrees. For example, in most western countries and Singapore, for a Bachelor degree in Engineering, while the program is designed to be completed in 4 years, instead of duration, credits needed for the program are specified. A student can finish them and earn his/her degree in less than 4 years (say 3.5, though it is quite uncommon) or more than 4 – in fact the average time for completion in US is closer to 5 years. Some Institutions in India have moved towards a credit-based system, but also stipulate the minimum duration due to prevailing rules. The issue of having a BA/BSc of 4 years remains a contentious point and where the freedom of HEIs is indeed curtailed.

The second area where freedom is limited is in which areas a degree program can be started. For example, a list of areas is stipulated by AICTE, and it is expected that a degree like BTech/BE can be only granted in these disciplines/areas. This indeed is strong curtailing of the autonomy of the HEIs, and is not desirable, since in the dynamic world of rapidly changing scenario and needs, degree programs are often needed in new and emerging areas, as are needed for interdisciplinary areas. And a HEI should have the freedom to start such programs. E.g. Data Science is a new field and many certificate programs have started – clearly a well thought out degree started in this area is to be applauded, even if this is not an approved name for a degree. Thankfully, this is also an area in which the regulation implementation is of “light touch” and institutions, particularly the ones that are empowered by an Act (e.g. IITs), are not constrained by this and feel free to start programs in areas that may not be listed / approved by the regulator.

Another area where HEIs are constrained is Distance Education. Degree programs through Distance Learning are tightly controlled. Given the rapid expansion of internet based delivery of education and courses, too much control in this is undesirable and it is best to allow reputed institutions to leverage these technologies to expand access. Thankfully, AICTE has now permitted use of some amount of online courses for the otherwise face-to-face program. And Act created institutions may be able to start them, particularly if their Act allows for Distance Education (e.g. as an IIT is planning to do).

Overall, one can say that the degree of academic autonomy is actually quite high, though they have to operate within some key constraints. Then why have we not seen new set of programs coming from HEIs, who continue along the well-trodden path and programs. One does not see responsiveness from the HEIs to the changing demands and needs. For this, one has to also look at the academic decision making within the HEI.

In most HEIs the decision regarding programs and academics rests with either an Academic Senate or Council. This body deliberates and decides about new programs, changes to programs, courses, etc. And it is here the real impediment to launching of new programs lie. Many of these Senates / Councils are too large and whose members are often very senior people – precisely the ones who are likely to  be out of touch with the changing scenarios and who are more committed to their view points. These bodies are often not responsive to the needs of the country/economy and often look at issues through a very narrow academic prism, which attaches little value to things like preparing students for jobs and careers (in fact, some will argue that this is not the goal of education, which should be critical thinking and becoming a better citizen – as if these two were in conflict.)
While often there is complaint about the lack of autonomy for HEIs, which is true in some dimensions, a fair degree of academic autonomy exists. It is more the internal mechanism and their lack of initiative and responsiveness which come in the way. Unless the internal decision making structures are suitably changed, we are not likely to see much change in this area. For changing the internal decision making structures and making them more responsive, it may even require change of Act of some HEIs. E.g. for IITs, the Academic Senate structure is given in the Act, and it has all the Professors. This makes it a body of over 200 senior people – such a large body can never be conducive to taking responsive decisions. It is necessary that in all such Institutions, the Senate/Council should be specified in the Act along with a broad structure, but the details of the structure should be defined by each institution separately (e.g. as statutes) and should emerge. E.g for IITs, it is hugely desirable to have a Senate which has many more alumni in it, as well as a good representation from industry and junior faculty.

To summarize, while there are some key constraints on HEIs in the academic dimension, the level of autonomy available to HEIs is significant. It is their internal academic decision making structures that are responsible for what is happening or not happening in the academic sphere in the HEI. And unless the internal structures are made more representative and compact, we cannot expect HEIs to be responsive to the needs of the country, society, and industry.

(There is one more source of curtailing of academic autonomy which is coming due to the way accreditation is implemented – sometimes the committees tend to be more prescriptive rather than evaluating the systems for delivering the desired outcomes. This is a separate aspect which I did not discuss at all in this note – perhaps topic of a future post.)