Dissecting the Notion of Autonomy
Amita Jain, 29 Mar 2019
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Prof. Suranjan Das, Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University, the only state university granted full autonomy by the UGC in the east zone, looks at what autonomy really means …


Autonomy is crucial for the growth and development of higher education. However, there cannot be anything like absolute autonomy. I will go further to dissect the notion of autonomy, raising  three points in this connection. 


Academic autonomy

There can be at one level the notion of academic autonomy. Of course, each institution has to have autonomy to sustain it onwards to excellence. But, my question is, can this academic autonomy go against the fundamentals of democratic and pluralistic credentials? For example, can we have a teaching-learning process in the name of academic autonomy which violates the fundamental contours of the constitution? Again, can we in the name of academic autonomy have universities with single classrooms and laboratories? Can we in the name of autonomy violate the principle of equity and access and as a result only enable the wealthy few to gain access to the best aspects of teaching-learning process?


Financial autonomy

Secondly, there is the issue of financial autonomy. Here I raise the problem in the context of public universities. Now, I represent a state university. Such universities are heavily state subsidized, right from the salary of the Vice Chancellor to the person at the lowest level of the employment ladder. Now, can we deny that governments also have a social responsibility to ensure that the money that is being provided to such universities is effectively and fruitfully utilized? Of course, universities should have the right to decide under which heads it should be utilized, but checks have to be there. So, where should we draw the dividing line for public universities in what we call financial autonomy and financial accountability?

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Administrative autonomy 

What would be the dividing line between the so-called administrative autonomy and the administrative laws which are formulated by the state whether in terms of recruitment, service conditions of the teachers and employees or in the context of organizing student union elections? That dividing line has to be understood. We cannot go against some of the basic contours of the State Act. In other words, whenever we speak of autonomy, we need to take a holistic view of it. There cannot be just one notion of autonomy.


Employability and excellence

Can employability be the sole guarantor of excellence? I don’t think so. I think the main aim of higher educational institutions should be to create inclusive, critical citizens. We have the onus of creating a body of students, who can raise critical questions of nation building. We celebrate Tagore, and he wanted education to ignite fire in the minds of students and this is the spirit of excellence. Swami Vivekananda mentioned emphatically that the aim of education should not be machine making only, but character building. That should be the hallmark of excellence. 


National Education Policy (NEP)

The two things that I hope to get from NEP is that the federal spirit has to be maintained. You cannot have a situation where the central government says that this is the regulation and this is the syllabus that you have to follow. Our country is diverse and we have to respect its social dynamism and pluralism. And then there have to be adequate consultations with stakeholders and all of them have to be taken into consideration.   


#As told to Amita Jain

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