When the first three universities of pre-Independence India started functioning in 1857, all the 27 colleges running at that time were brought under their ambit. From that modest beginning a century-and-a-half ago — when the Madras, Calcutta and Bombay universities were set up — the number of colleges has seen an exponential increase. Today, there are 343 university-level institutions, managing no less than 16,885 affiliated colleges.

An educationist is not needed to figure out that the proportion of universities to colleges appears to be more than a little skewed. Indeed, it is this discrepancy that has been at the heart of a call for granting autonomy to colleges, an idea that was mooted nearly 40 years ago. Many discussions and debates later, the University Grants Commission — the apex body regulating higher education in the country — recently accepted in principle a report submitted by the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) in June 2005, recommending granting of autonomy to institutions, on the ground that it is a "pre-requisite for enabling them to achieve their goals and objectives."

Though autonomy seems to be closer at hand now than before, the debate on the level of freedom that institutions can enjoy is nowhere near its conclusion. Worries that institutions may follow arbitrary employment policies and charge high fees from students, thereby putting higher education out of reach of the poor, persist. As Furqan Qamar, professor and director at the Centre for Management Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, who organised a seminar on the subject last month, points out: "Everyone agrees that autonomy is a must. But this freedom cannot be without responsibility, there has to be accountability too."

Then and now

The report of the CABE committee (www.education.nic.in/cabe/AutonomyHEI.pdf), headed by West Bengal Education Minister Kanti Biswas, recommends that institutes should be given autonomy for designing curriculum. Some of the other suggestions include:

 •  Granting autonomy to universities and colleges to start self-financing courses.

 •  An Internal Quality Assurance Cell to be set up in institutes to assess their performance.

 •  All institutions to adopt "certain disclosure standards with a view to containing malpractice in relation to fees." Also, the government could set the ceiling on fees.

 •  Higher education institutes should be given autonomy to establish links for "academic and research collaboration with their counterpart academic and research institutions, industry and professional organisations both in India and abroad."

 •  Code of professional ethics to be developed for teachers and "mechanism evolved for ensuring its observance."

The need for autonomy came to the fore because of concerns that affiliating universities were being bogged down by the number of institutes they had to manage. This, in turn, meant that even small administrative matters, for which the university's approval was needed, took a considerable amount of time. Apart from cutting red tape, autonomy is seen as essential to meeting the requirements necessitated by the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), under which foreign universities will be able to set up shop in India.

Of course, GATS was nowhere in the picture when the Kothari Commission report first recommended autonomy in 1966, stating, "…when there is an outstanding college or a small cluster of very good colleges within a large university, consideration should be given to granting them an autonomous status." The National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986, suggested that autonomous colleges and university departments should be developed within universities. Tamilnadu was one of the first states to have autonomous colleges. While the NPE-1986 suggested that 500 colleges should be developed as autonomous by the end of the Seventh Plan period in 1990, that figure hasn't become a reality even now. According to the CABE report, there are now "204 autonomous colleges, spanning 11 states and 43 universities."

It's worthwhile examining India's experience with autonomy before looking at the current debates on the subject. In a paper titled "Autonomy in higher education closer in India: Old wine fails to attract…", presented at a seminar in 2004, Jandhyala B G Tilak of the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi, notes that the growth in the number of autonomous colleges has been slow. He points to the geographical concentration of autonomous colleges, mainly in Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa; to the worrying fact that more private colleges have opted for autonomy than government colleges; and that "most of the colleges that have become autonomous are located in urban areas."

Tilak attributes the lukewarm response to the fact that "there were several apprehensions about the scheme, lack of clarity on the objectives and intentions of the government, and its likely impact on the development of higher education. The most important apprehension was that this was a step in the direction towards privatisation of higher education, and towards the reduction of the role of the state in higher education development." None of these fears have been mitigated over the years, though it's widely accepted that autonomy — if used judiciously — can improve quality.

"In real terms, autonomy has been used to introduce programmes but not mechanisms by which the standard and quality of the programmes can be improved."