The question of autonomy

Public universities are State-funded bodies. Hence, the State comes in the way of running such institutions in various ways. Institutions of higher learning are particularly vulnerable to this as these are widely believed to be locales where the ideological State apparatus - to borrow a term from Louis Althusser that has apparently fallen into disrepute - functions directly and political ideas are shaped and tested as well. Universities and colleges are political capital for the parties in power and there is hardly any let-up in attempts to politically capture such 'spaces'. Yet, unlike the coercive agencies of the State, educational institutions need to dress up in more acceptable terms. Autonomy is the widely chosen idiom across political systems. I am not arguing that the idea of autonomy is wrong. However, a State can never grant real autonomy to institutions under it. This goes against the rudimentary idea of politics conceived as a process by which all collective choice is made.

By Shibashis Chatterjee
  • Published 11.07.18
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Public universities are State-funded bodies. Hence, the State comes in the way of running such institutions in various ways. Institutions of higher learning are particularly vulnerable to this as these are widely believed to be locales where the ideological State apparatus - to borrow a term from Louis Althusser that has apparently fallen into disrepute - functions directly and political ideas are shaped and tested as well. Universities and colleges are political capital for the parties in power and there is hardly any let-up in attempts to politically capture such 'spaces'. Yet, unlike the coercive agencies of the State, educational institutions need to dress up in more acceptable terms. Autonomy is the widely chosen idiom across political systems. I am not arguing that the idea of autonomy is wrong. However, a State can never grant real autonomy to institutions under it. This goes against the rudimentary idea of politics conceived as a process by which all collective choice is made.

Some institutions are more capable than others in keeping the State at an arm's length. The courts are an archetypal example. The State cannot make the argument that since courts are maintained out of the public exchequer, they must be subservient to its fiat. However, universities do not have this privilege. They are far more direct sites of institutional capture. Hence, the case for autonomy here is far more complex and contested. But the reasoning is not fundamentally different. Courts need to be independent so that they can perform their tasks properly. Institutions of higher learning need not be unduly interfered with so that they may fulfil their designated tasks. These tasks are what matter as ends. Autonomy is the condition that makes the realization of these ends possible.

Why must universities have autonomy? Autonomy is needed to insulate them from political interference so that the institution may chart its chosen lines of enquiry on its own terms. Agents need to be autonomous in two senses. First, they should not be interfered with. The more the political diktats, the less is the worth of autonomy. However, meaningful autonomy can only be achieved if the situation is conducive to the flourishing of the agents involved. In other words, autonomy must benefit the stakeholders in identifiable ways. While society certainly has the democratic right to question the meaning and objective of education or seek regular audits of academic performance, matters pertaining to the inner lives of universities need to be decided by their practitioners. This happens in nearly every professional setting. Higher education cannot be an exception. The pluralists had made this argument a long time ago regarding the need to separate the State from other institutions. Rulers from the left, right and centre often forget the distinction. The fact is that the State cannot perform this task through its own chosen personnel. It lacks the required expertise as well as legitimacy. The State can certainly oversee the financial management of public institutions, demand timely audits, clamp down on irregularities, punish dereliction of duty and streamline administration. But it cannot legislate on the substantive core of education. While it cannot gain anything by doing so, it certainly risks the destruction of institutions if it does.

This brings us to the core of the autonomy argument. Autonomy is a Kantian value. It is fundamentally about a person living a life from within, by means of internal self-determination, and free from the external influences. Hence, votaries of autonomy should not associate it with any central end value of life. Autonomy is quintessentially a non-perfectionist political or ethical notion that does not carry any preferred concept of a desirable destination. Universities may err with the autonomy they have. But if an institution self-corrects, its chances of performing its required tasks are far better than when it is 'forced' to bend to authority's will. A moment of crisis in an institution's life is not necessarily a bad thing. If we are not doing the right thing, the institution will find a solution. The statist hammer may not only be entirely inappropriate but may also destroy the innate capacity of the institution to bear the burden of any 'autonomy' that may be bestowed on it later.

Finally, the State needs to understand a couple of things clearly. Autonomy is a matter of agency. Agents can be free only if they are looked upon as representatives and not delegates. If a State decides and asks agents to execute those decisions, there is neither representation nor autonomy. Then there is the cardinal issue of trust. Trust is needed at two levels, and State action is vital to both. First, the State needs to make public institutions trusting. It cannot hope to dictate terms unilaterally for this would only provoke resistance. Second, there has to be trust between the institution and its constituency. This is fraying not only because of what the State is doing but also because of the upsurge in democratic consciousness in our society that seeks accountability and reason at every step.

The author is Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University