Universities and autonomy

We live in strange times. While most academics claim that their institutions are under attack and their academic autonomy is being undermined, bureaucrats and their political bosses say that they wish to ensure academic autonomy (à la the new Indian Institutes of Management bill) and promote universities and institutes of 'eminence'.

For years, democratic India had promoted a spirit of free thinking and autonomy within universities. It was rare for the police to enter campuses. Nehru and his successors (including those from the Janata Party where Jana Sangh was a constituent) maintained a distance (except during the Emergency and period of white terror in Bengal). There was no accreditation or rankings or tags of 'eminence' and yet universities thrived.

Along with the older universities, such as Madras, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Allahabad and Lucknow, those born in opposition to or without the support of the colonial government, such as Jadavpur, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, grew into centres of excellence as more Indians took to learning and research. Indian Institutes of Management (where I have spent most of my academic life) secured their own place as multi-disciplinary institutions of 'eminence' long before such titles were awarded to yet-to-exist-universities. They thrived because they enjoyed academic freedom and autonomy.

Similar freedom helped technical institutes like Indian Institutes of Technology or the Jawaharlal Nehru University to become centres of excellence comparable to the best academic institutes in the world. Whether their global rankings are among the top 100 or 200 or 500 may be of interest to the new breed of nationalists who often hide their degrees and qualifications. These labels are of little interest to committed academics.

The excellence in academic standards comes from having the academic freedom to be 'different'. It is this difference or, to use the management jargon, differentiation, that is the soul of academic life.

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors asserted that there can be no academic freedom without faculty control over university governance. Their statement underlined that faculty governance and academic freedom are inextricably linked, so that neither is "likely to thrive" except "when they are understood to reinforce one another".

Faculty or academic governance means the right to select who will be taught, what will be taught, the pedagogy - lectures or seminars or case studies or simulation - the method of evaluation and how the institution will grade its students. For transparency and justice, there are checks and balances, internal mechanisms of re-evaluation and redressal. Institutes that emerge as places of academic excellence manage to carry out these tasks competently, and could do without external meddling.

Academic governance is also the right to determine how institutions will select their faculty, evaluate them, train and develop them - by providing research funding, conference support and so on - and promote them. Again, this task should be entirely controlled by academics and not administrators.

Centres of excellence each has its own unique way of carrying out these tasks. It is this uniqueness that 'differentiates' them and makes them centres of excellence. Part of Jadavpur University's uniqueness, for example, comes from the admission test that some departments hold. The faculty, as part of their academic freedom, want to select their own students based on the admission tests they have set. Unless one has cause to argue that they 'consciously' discriminate against a section of students, there is no reason to deny them that privilege. Nor is there any reason to involve an outsider.

Our bureaucracies and politicians are suspicious of these claims to uniqueness. 'One Exam One Country' - from NEET to JEE to CAT and so on - has been the motto for decades. The education minister of West Bengal asked why some departments use school-leaving marks while others have admission tests. The answer is very simple: they are 'different', and that is why they make up a five-star university.

It is this freedom that JNU, IITs and IIMs have fought to retain. This has been done through tests designed and controlled by academics. So whoever advised the vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University and its academic council that the admission process is an 'administrative' task is unaware of the academic freedom that leads to excellence.

Just as one-tax-one-nation undermines the autonomy of states in the Indian Union, all-India tests undermine academic autonomy and the ability of academic institutions to emerge as centres of excellence by differentiating themselves. Autonomy and freedom mean variations in who is taught, what and how. That alone is what helps institutions to innovate and excel.


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