The word, ‘autonomy’, has a faintly revolutionary ring when it emanates as a positive idea from the Union ministry of human resource development. It has figured recently a number of times in the rather dramatically unfolding plans of the HRD minister. Autonomy seems to be emerging as part of the art of the possible that Kapil Sibal has envisioned for higher education and research in India. He wants top-level colleges affiliated to overburdened universities to work towards autonomy so that they can eventually conduct their own business and award their own degrees. A few days ago in Calcutta, Mr Sibal reiterated this — perhaps with Presidency College and the state government’s stranglehold over it in mind. But he further elaborated his vision of universities functioning “independently”, a word that invokes, without explicitly endorsing, the notion of autonomy, which is more absolute than independence. But he seems to be edging close.
“Internal freedom” from the State and its bureaucracy is what Mr Sibal wants to ensure for universities everywhere. These institutions must determine their own character and ethos down to the appointment of staff, designing of courses and the setting of academic standards. And this model of freedom should be aspired to not only by the Central government, but also by the state governments. It all sounds rather trail-blazing, but it is little more than simple common sense, or perhaps good sense, that should have been put into practice a long time back. It is precisely this sort of independence that the HRD ministry must have a clear and realistic vision of. Paternalistic control has always been its attitude to dealing with institutions of higher education, be they universities or institutes of technology or management. Independence cannot just be invoked rhetorically, its exact implications will have to be understood and acknowledged by the State. At the other end of the equation, institutions also have to be prepared for the independence or autonomy that they will be allowed to enjoy. Everything from pedagogy to fundraising, together with a host of other infrastructural skills, have to be learnt in order to do justice to this independence. This is a question of responsibility, and also of being able to comprehend the distinction between freedom and accountability. Independence is an excellent idea, but it also necessitates hard thinking.