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AUTONOMY REVISITED
- Discrimination, but of the right kind

If the recent Review Committee Report of the National Council for Teacher Education created a stir among the teacher educators, I think that the reaction also went a little off the track. The point that was missed was that the recommendation the committee made to return the regulatory powers in teacher education back to the universities opened a new vista again for the entire system of university education in India. Right or wrong, this recommendation is an exciting one, for it reopens the question of who should rule the university system — the universities or the regulatory bodies like the UGC or even yet another apex body for the whole of the education system as recommended by the Knowledge Commission'

I have seen how a regulatory body is almost, by definition, a relatively small body of experts who are assembled together for a relatively short period of time, spending most of it in meetings to decide what to do with the fates of other people working somewhat more diligently in the colleges and universities. Instinctively, I would prefer a change that would allow the latter to enjoy autonomy in how they organize their own research and teaching and run their academic administration in their own way. I only wish I could agree with such a change without any further qualification. But the ground reality is more complex.

What exactly is a university' I am unable to accept automatically as a university any institution given that name and recognized as a university by the UGC or deemed by the government as such under a section of the UGC Act. Universities all over the world are neither similar nor equal in all respects. This is why the market or we would not give equal credence or assign equal value to their judgments in academic matters. Most people will agree that there may be some universities for which academic autonomy without interference from any external regulatory authority in normal circumstances would only be a recognition of their nationwide, if not worldwide, acceptance by the academic community and the market. For others such recognition will have to wait. I do not think governments can have much say in this matter except in the role of observers and protectors of consumer rights — the consumers, in this case, being not only the students but also the teachers, researchers and the nation. This is discrimination, but of the right kind.

Much of what I have said about the autonomy of universities would apply symmetrically (and interdependently) to the autonomous regulating agencies like UGC. I must confess I would not know enough to judge the quality of autonomy exercised in all these bodies. But having been an interested ringside spectator in this arena for long, I can say with some confidence that the lapses in autonomy were often more to do with the moral courage of the leader at the top than with personal political loyalties. Let me tell you an otherwise unremarkable story to make my point.

I had been a member of the northern regional committee of the NCTE fairly recently. We were, one day, hearing the case of a man who wanted to turn his small tailoring shop into a teacher-training college. He showed us all the documents, or nearly all. He could not prove his wife would donate the land on which his shop stood to the college to be. Somewhat crestfallen, the “tailor master” (as he called himself) went on to show us a list of teachers he was going to hire for the college (another requirement that strangely every applicant seemed able to fulfil). This list, we had just seen, was also on other applications. When this was pointed out, the man was understandably furious. Who would undertake to join a tailoring shop taking it for a college unless he got the sanction first' He left in a huff.

The next day, the tailor master came back to show us a photograph. He was standing chummily with the Central minister. The minister would speak for him, he said. We still could not help him. Later, we came to know that he carried other photographs too. One was with an Opposition chief minister benignly standing by him. We eventually found out when the man had sat finally on a “fast unto death” (that was to end soon) to get his sanction, that he had obtained his no-objection certificate from the state government, got support from the vice-chancellor of the university that would affiliate his college and had even gone to the Central ministry concerned and made someone call up the regional committee office and speak for him. And everywhere he had spent unascertainable amounts of money. We had many such suspected cases, but could stop only a few — the most blatant ones. The moral was the same every time: regulatory bodies or universities could not tackle corrupt practices not always because of politics but for more mundane reasons.

But I did see gentle firmness too and a blow for autonomy. In a distinctly political milieu, I had always liked our NCTE chairman — a distinguished scientist who once had worked with the great Abdus Salam. Inexplicably, he was also in the good books of the minister. I liked him even more when I heard the following. The NCTE chairman, the gossip goes, had been asked by his superior to remove some of us from the northern regional committee (I need not name the other targets). The chairman politely listened, but failed to remove us because of certain “technical” difficulties. Then one day, the minister called him and ordered him to dissolve the entire committee. The chairman cheerfully replied that this would be easy because the minister had the powers to do it without showing any reason. The exasperated minister then reportedly told him, “You are here to obey my adesh; but you always give me only your upadesh!”

I would love to see all the heads of UGC, NCTE, NCERT and so on and all the vice-chancellors do exactly that: give the right upadesh to the powers that be; never pay heed to any irregular adesh that you think is not in the best interests of your autonomous institution; quickly leave the scene when dismissed. You will have a better life waiting for you. And strangely, even people of persuasions different from yours will remember you for having done your duty.

In the end, I want my readers to hear a voice from the past offering you a model of what one can do for educational autonomy. This is Asutosh Mookerjee, vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, replying to a letter on March 26, 1923, from the Earl of Lytton, sometime viceroy, governor of Bengal and chancellor. Sir Asutosh was declining the offer of a second term of office. He was never a political demagogue and he fully understood this was not a mere chancellor. Lytton had the might of the British Empire behind him. Sir Asutosh wrote: “I shall, finally, consider your offer to reappoint me as Vice-Chancellor subject to a variety of conditions. There are expressions in your letter that imply that I am an applicant for the post and I am in expectation of reappointment. Let me assure you that if you or your Minister are under such an impression, you are entirely mistaken. You ask me to give you a pledge that I shall exchange an attitude of opposition for one of whole-hearted assistance. You are apparently not acquainted with the traditions of the high office which I have held for ten years...I send you without hesitation the only answer which an honourable man can send — an answer which you and your advisers expect and desire: I decline the insulting offer you and your advisers have made to me”.

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