India’s recent decision to grant “autonomous status” to dozens of universities has been praised as a model which could help other developing countries to increase student numbers, an international conference has heard.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit in Rabat, Morocco, Alan Ruby, senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, said the move by India’s University Grants Commission to give special status to 62 higher education institutions could be copied by other countries seeking to offer a more varied set of undergraduate courses, which often, at present, do not meet the demands of students or employers.
Under the policy, which was announced in March, the leading Indian institutions will allowed to start new courses, set curricula, offer more competitive salaries and establish off-campus centres without requiring approval from the government.
At the THE conference on 9 May, Mr Ruby, a World Bank education consultant, said he was heartened by India’s decision to let “faculty at these universities…create their own courses rather than require them to be mandated by an office in Delhi.”
“This decentralisation can happen in one of the most centralised countries in the world,” said Mr Ruby, who is Australia's former deputy secretary of employment, education, training and youth affairs.
India’s decision to allow universities to differentiate their courses was commendable because it recognized that students are increasingly looking for more bespoke options, said Mr Ruby.
“There is a desire for more choice as people see a changing world around them,” he said, claiming that rapid industrialization seen in developing countries in the 21st century was likely to lead to a massively increased demand for higher education, as witnessed in US, Europe and Asia in the 20th century.
However, India’s decision to give more academic autonomy to institutions also carried risks, warned Mr Ruby.
“Faculty members will need to become more powerful and committed to creating programmes [that meet] the highest possible standards,” said the Ivy League scholar, adding that “independence comes with the possibility of…corruption.”
While professional bodies, such as those in law and medicine, would offer some protection of standards, but questions might arise around other subjects, such as engineering, added Mr Ruby.
“We need to think about whether we trust universities to protect standards…and this makes assumptions about the ability of professors to self-regulate,” he said, adding that “in low-trust environments you could have a problem.”
Raj Kumar, dean of Jindal Global Law School at OP Jindal Global University, which was one of two private universities given autonomous status under the new powers, said the historic move would aid in particular efforts to internationalise India’s universities.
Speaking at the Rabat summit, Professor Kumar said that his institution could now create “different pay structures for international faculty” to assist in recruiting overseas staff.
“A large part of this autonomy is connected with internationalization and creating new research paths for faculty,” he said.
India’s decision to give institutions more academic freedom 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.