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Autonomy to colleges, but for unions

Calcutta, Dec. 8: The state government made its first formal announcement indicating that it was not averse to granting autonomy to select colleges like Presidency and St Xavier’s on the floor of the Assembly today.

The announcement, however, was laced with the doublespeak that has always marked the Left Front government’s stand on autonomy to colleges.

Higher education minister Satyasadhan Chakraborty said a final decision was pending because of the unwillingness of teachers’ and non-teaching employees’ unions to accept guidelines recommended by the University Grants Commission. What he left unsaid was that all the opponents of autonomy were teachers’ and employees’ fronts belonging to the CPM and other Left Front allies.

The question of autonomy, which has involved political and academic circles in an acrimonious debate over the past decade, was raised in the Assembly today by Trinamul Congress MLA Saugata Roy, who asked whether the state government had really decided on a plan to grant autonomy to the more prominent colleges.

The Left Front government’s opposition to the central government policy of encouraging more autonomous institutions is well-known; critics say it does not want to let blue-chip colleges like Presidency break away from Calcutta University’s control as then the varsity would be left with nothing to boast of. Chakraborty’s statement, despite the unions-are-opposed-to-the-idea explanation, thus assumes significance.

“The government has not yet devolved any plan to grant autonomy to colleges in the state. But there is no reason to disapprove of the UGC directives,” Chakraborty said.

“The government is ready to give its approval but a concrete decision on the issue cannot be taken as some unions are not ready to accept some of the UGC guidelines,” he said.

Most of the reservations of the unions, said state higher education department officials, stem from their perception that the guidelines will rob them of the control they exercise over higher education institutes.

The recommendations of the Union human resource development wing say nothing about the inclusion of elected representatives — teachers, non-teaching employees or students — in the governing bodies of colleges that will get autonomous status, explained the officials.

Now, all government-run and government-aided colleges have these governing bodies with members mostly elected from among staff and students. This helps the lobbies control the colleges’ functioning, said officials.

Chakraborty admitted in the Assembly that he knew about the long-standing demands for autonomy for some colleges like Presidency and St Xavier’s and said he had recently discussed it with UGC vice-chairman Rajsekharan Pillai. The minister also admitted that he had lobbied on behalf of the unions.

The final decision on granting autonomy, however, rested with the universities to which the relevant colleges were affiliated, Chakraborty said.

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