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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Complex Issue of University Autonomy

by Nandkumar Kamat

Last week the vice-chancellors from western zone converged in Goa under the aegis of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU), a vibrant organisation, for a conference hosted by the Goa University under the dynamic leadership of the Vice-Chancellor Prof Prakash Zacharias. A large part of the technical sessions of the three day conference were devoted to the discussion and deliberations on “university autonomy”. It is common knowledge that in India, illiterate, semi-literate, less educated or even some educated politicians are scared of the intellectuals and they view the universities as a threat to their political careers. Those who patronise the universities may do so for fulfillment of their own agenda, on a “pick and choose” basis. Every politician knows that state and central funded universities do not have any “nuisance value” and none can influence the way people vote. Universities may teach tomes of political economy and sociology but when it comes to calling “spade a spade” these institutions develop cold feet. It is the constitution of India which mandates every lawfully established university.

No government does any favour by sanctioning grants to any university duly established by the state or central acts and subjected to the highest level of audit — that is by the office of the Comptroller and auditor general of India. Governments show double standards when they demand accountability from the universities, which are never profit-making or revenue generating bodies. Anyone can compare the loss making public sector undertakings which lock huge unproductive investments and assets without being run professionally, with the Indian Universities. Is there any accountability on part of these corporations? At least the Universities can be subjected to evaluation using the instruments of welfare economics. A professor of economics with absolutely impeccable intellectual credentials, Dr Manmohan Singh who never hid his love for teaching, is the Prime Minister and the captain of our country’s destiny. A missile technologist, another accomplished intellectual, Bharat Ratna Dr Abdul Kalam is the President of our country. He is fond of teaching. A visionary and a man of action, Dr Sam Pitroda heads the ambitious and highly powered Knowledge commission. None of these personalities ever had any love of politics. They are highly educated, university educated professionals. Circumstances have launched them on a stage where they have to play their roles in the company of the politicians. But we know that such people bring a certain degree of dignity in politics and decision making. How many personalities like these run our states? How many of our state level politicians can spell out their own clear vision of the future without any aid or crutches from the civil servants or advisors?

Public funded Universities are suffering because there is an uniform famine of vision in politics. Autonomous universities are bound to be a great challenge to the power politics based establishment because these would not depend on the state or central funding. But the current discourse in India is not so much about autonomous universities as it is about “university autonomy”. The Goa conference at least made a gentle but determined beginning to define this area. But the debate is not yet over. A lot of demoralisation has crept in. Gone are the days when kings were philosophers and philosophers were the kings. Gone are the days when a dictator like Joseph Stalin used to bend before a visiting scholar president like Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. Gone are the days to recite Tagore’s “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” or to quote the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi who advised the countrymen to be absolutely fearless to defend truth.

Unless the Indian universities build a pro-active political constituency and spread their tentacles intelligently in the socio-economic matrix by bridging up the great knowledge divide, it would be impossible to command autonomy. It is easy to compromise and demand autonomy. But it is difficult to stand up solidly on the grounds of merit and performance and command autonomy. Universities need to establish durable, productive linkages with all the economically active sections of the society in a professional, planned manner. Once the common people begin to relate and identify with a particular university, the first brick of a new identity would be laid down. Has anyone heard in India that farmers’ or the workers’ unions went on a strike because public funding for a particular university was slashed? This is virtually impossible because India adopted the British, the western model of the university system. The context was an oriental multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, socially stratified civilisation. A rich civilisation inherited by poor people. The reason why issues like “university autonomy” or political interference within the universities do not become sensitive and volatile public issues, is the deep and ever widening alienation between the Indian universities and the vast masses of the people hopelessly entrapped in the web of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, power politics, intrigues, superstitions, casteism and communalism. Where and when the political process fails the universities have to emerge as factories of ideas, healers of the society and engineers of social opinion.

Time and again the European universities have played such roles, especially in France, England, Germany, Norway and Sweden. The best of the American senators are the best of the products of the best of the American universities. Indian university system needs a radical paradigm shift. But despite the universal declaration of university autonomy subscribed in 1965 by the International Association of Universities, in Tokyo, the magna carta signed by the rectors of European universities on the occasion of the 11th Century of the University of Bologna, September 18, 1988 and the lead taken by AIU in India not much progress has been made in “liberating” and “empowering” the public funded Indian universities. To quote Prof Snyder (2002): “Total autonomy, total independence and separation from society, is simply impossible. The degree of an institution’s autonomy varies according to the nature of its relationships. Perhaps, then, it is most useful to think of multiple autonomies or degrees of autonomy. The issue of college or university autonomy inevitably raises the question of the purpose of autonomy and the purpose or purposes of colleges and universities themselves. Institutions of higher learning have always served their societies; they have never been the isolated “ivory towers” of popular imagination. Since their inception, they have engaged the issues of their day, discovered and distributed whatever was at the time deemed “useful knowledge”, and established various, often idiosyncratic, financial relationships with patrons, donors, and governments.” Snyder may be right or wrong but the question is whether the present day Indian society at all cares for such an issue or the culture of intellectualism itself?

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