India’s move on university autonomy raises funding alarm

Experts question whether 60 universities granted special status will face budget cuts or be free from interference

April 2, 2018
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The Indian government’s decision to grant 60 universities “autonomous” status has been hailed as a “welcome step”, but question marks remain over how it will impact public funding of higher education.

Last month, the University Grants Commission gave 60 institutions special status that will allow them to start new courses, set curricula, offer more competitive salaries and establish off-campus centres without requiring approval from the government.

It follows the approval of a bill in December to grant the 20 Indian Institutes of Management more autonomy so that they can freely award fully fledged degrees, appoint new staff and set their own tuition fees.

The move also follows plans by India to create 20 domestic “institutions of eminence”, which would be allowed to recruit up to 30 per cent of their student body from overseas and would have the aim of becoming “world-class teaching and research institutions”. The 10 public and 10 private institutions to receive this status are expected to be announced soon.

Antara Sengupta, a research fellow specialising in higher education at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent thinktank based in India, said that the latest shift was a “welcome step” but that it is “difficult to say” whether the autonomous status will “truly untangle [universities] of all the regulatory dictatorship that they face still”.

“For instance, in the past, several institutes have declined autonomy for fear of being financially autonomous. The ones that are currently autonomous claim that they have only partial autonomy,” she said.

“While his intentions are noble, education minister Prakash Javadekar clearly stated that an institute can start a new course or department as long as they don’t demand funds from the government.”

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The “autonomous” institutes also need non-financial support around issues such as “good leadership” in order to “take advantage of the granted status”, she said.

Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “autonomy itself does not guarantee excellence” and agreed that a “big question mark remains on what autonomy means for public funding of higher education”.

“If the autonomy is accompanied by at least maintaining, if not increasing, funding for higher education – which may not be for institutions as block grants but to students as scholarships – as well as investigator-based funding for research…then I think one can be cautiously positive that this is a move in the right direction,” he said.

He suggested that one option would be for the government to maintain the overall levels of higher education funding but “redirect it from the elite institutions” that have been granted autonomy to “the ones in the next tier to strengthen them in ways that allow them to be autonomous the next time around”.

But he said that it was “very important” that the new autonomous universities do not make up for any potential public funding gaps by raising tuition fees for students.

Another “key” issue, he said, is whether the changes will improve the “internal quality” of the universities.

“Indian higher education has two big challenges. One is external, which is the broad regulatory structure, which has been very suffocating. What you see here is a move to somewhat relax that structure,” he said.

“The second is the internal governance of these institutions. That is far less commented on. The internal administrative structures [and] the quality of the staff, in many of these places, is very modest.”

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