It is widely accepted globally that autonomy of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is necessary for them to excel and achieve their mission. Lack of sufficient autonomy is likely to lead to institutions that are not dynamic, and such institutions cannot excel. No wonder, given the low level of autonomy in our HEIs, none of them show up in top 200 in the world.

The European Commission has identified four dimensions of autonomy – organizational, financial, staffing, and academic. Here we look at autonomy in academics – the main raison d’être  of HEIs. We will focus only on independent HEIs governed by Act/Statutes, or which are deemed to be university, as affiliated colleges, by definition, have very little academic autonomy. (In an earlier post, we looked at the issues relating to administrative and financial autonomy.)

What does autonomy really mean in academics. An autonomous HEI will have the full powers to take decisions on the key aspects of education, namely: start new academic programs; decide the structure and contents of a program, as well as the syllabus of courses in the programs; and how to teach the courses, and how to assess students’ performance. (Admission to these programs is another aspect of academic autonomy – but we will not discuss it in this note.)

Starting of new programs has some restrictions from the regulators – mostly UGC and AICTE for universities and technical education (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. While, such restrictions exist in some countries, the modern thought is to go towards credit based requirements for degrees and specify the credit ranges for various degrees rather than duration. 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 (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 where the freedom of HEIs is curtailed.

There are also some restrictions in which areas a program can be started in. 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 approach will have minimal impact on autonomy of HEIs, if the list is dynamic, and HEIs are permitted to propose new degree programs, as is done in some countries. In the rapidly changing world, degree programs are often needed in new and emerging areas (e.g. Data Science, Machine Learning, Neuroscience, …), as well as interdisciplinary areas. Fortunately, in this aspect, the regulation implementation is of “light touch” and institutions, particularly the ones that are empowered by an Act (e.g. IITs), are not really constrained by this.

For the last two aspects of academic autonomy, which impact the quality of programs and instruction the maximum, most Act created universities have complete autonomy. They decide the structure of a program in terms of core and elective courses, which courses to offer, what to teach in a course, how to teach, and how to assess students.

Given this autonomy, why do we then see outdated program structures and course syllabi? Why does one not see more responsiveness from the HEIs to the changing demands and needs. For this, one has to look at the academic decision making within the HEI.

In most HEIs decisions regarding programs and academics rest 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 lie. Many of these Senates / Councils are too large with members being mostly senior faculty, and with marginal or no representation from Industry or Alumni or other bodies who can provide different perspectives. These bodies are often not responsive to the needs of the country/economy and often look at issues through a narrow academic prism, without giving due value to things like developing strong skills for careers.

Unless the internal decision making structures are suitably changed, we are not likely to see much change in the quality of education being delivered.  The structure of these bodies is often encoded in their Act or Statutes – hence changing them will require Government initiative.  E.g. for IITs, the Academic Senate structure is given in the IIT Act of 1961, and it has all the Professors, making it now a body of over 200 senior people for older IITs. To have more responsive academic bodies, It is necessary that only a broad structure of the Senate/Council be specified in the Act, while the details of the structure are evolved by each institution, and may even evolve with time. E.g for IITs, it is hugely desirable to include many more alumni, members from industry, junior faculty, etc.

To summarise, 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 that is largely responsible for what is happening or not happening in the quality of education being delivered in these HEIs. And unless the internal structures are made more representative and compact, we cannot expect the education in the HEIs to be responsive to the needs of the country, society, and industry.