It is a reversal of sorts. While teachers and students of other colleges campaigned for years to bring autonomy to their institutions, faced with the prospect of autonomy, the staff and students of Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College are saying, “Thanks. But, no thanks.”

On February 25, the college’s governing body decided to apply to the university for autonomy under the provisions of the University Grants Commission. However, over 500 students and faculty members opposed what they referred to as the governing body’s “autocratic” decision. They expressed their displeasure at being allegedly excluded from the discussion and submitted a petition demanding an inclusive consultation on the matter. On Friday evening, they claimed that college principal John Varghese had agreed to “write to the governing body” requesting that the process be postponed till all stakeholders had been consulted. But Varghese refused to confirm this.

The University Grants Commission has offered about a dozen other trust-owned colleges affiliated to Delhi University such as Shri Ram College of Commerce, Hindu College and Sri Venkateswara autonomy too, and their staff are girding up for battle.

As of April 2011, there were 374 autonomous colleges affiliated to 70 universities in 19 states. This does not include the institutions that became universities.

Those against autonomy fear that once colleges are granted autonomous status, teachers’ service conditions will change, the college management will have greater control over its functioning and, most importantly, it will gradually lose its public funding, possibly pushing colleges towards commercialisation in the long-run in which fees will rise sharply.

The experiences of colleges of similar vintage and pedigree that fought for autonomy or university-status, and succeeded, such as St Xavier’s College in Mumbai and Presidency College (now University) in Kolkata – which are facing autonomy-related issues – show that the concerns of the St Stephen’s College community are not entirely unfounded.

The scheme

But what exactly does autonomy mean in this context?

The basic contours of the latest scheme for granting autonomy were outlined by the University Grants Commission in April. Devesh Sinha, dean of collegess, Delhi University, explained that it implies “autonomy to decide your own matters – academic, administrative, financial”.

Thus, if its application for autonomy is accepted, St Stephen’s College will continue to be affiliated to Delhi University, which will award its degrees. However, the college will have the freedom to design its own course programmes, syllabi, and evaluation methods.

Sinha further pointed out that the University Grants Commission will continue to be the funding agency for the autonomous colleges. As of now, the statutory body funds 95% of all college expenses. But under its autonomy scheme, it will provide a grant to colleges that will cover expenses such as re-training of teachers, bringing in guest or visiting faculty, examination reform, and appointing a controller of exams to manage the examination system. The grant will also cover infrastructure like libraries, offices and repair work. This grant cannot be used to create new posts or to pay salaries, which will be paid through the regular funds the University Grants Commission gives.

Financial autonomy

“What it [autonomy] will eventually mean is freedom from any kind of accountability,” argued Nandita Narain, mathematics teacher at St Stephens and Delhi University Teachers’ Association president. “Colleges will be asked to find funds on their own.”

This could lead to controversy, fear teachers. For instance, teachers believe that the autonomous status of Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College had something to do with it being linked to the multi-crore Rose Valley Chit Fund scam.

Narain further pointed out that her college, a minority institution, was already spared many of the university regulations that governed other colleges. For instance, St Stephen’s has been exempt from Delhi University’s centralised admission system for years. “They [the management] now want to use the name of the college, the brand that generations of teachers and government funds have created,” she said. “The financial stability will go.”

The good, the bad

Authorities at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, which became an autonomous institution affiliated to Mumbai University in 2010, have the same concerns about funding.

The change in status yielded many a positive result – its syllabi are updated frequently and therefore stay relevant, examination results are declared on time, and internal assessment is continuous and rigorous. The college is still funded by the state government but there is a slow withdrawal of funding. For instance, the state does not pay for new courses being launched. “In subtle ways they are encouraging us to self-finance,” said Agnelo Menezes, its principal. “We started a master’s programme in public policy and we were told that the course will be self-financed and unaided forever.”

He added that the college authorities were against financial autonomy “to keep the staff from being under the thumb of the management”.

St Stephen’s College runs self-financed languages courses too. But, as Narain pointed out, such programmes have their own issues.

“Will reservation be implemented in these classes?” she asked. “Withdrawal of funds could lead to an increase in fees in the future, and departments like Sanskrit, which don’t have many applicants, becoming unviable altogether. Also, with the university we had infrastructure such as a ready examination branch already available.”

A statement from St Stephen’s College principal John Varghese, issued on the day the governing body decided to apply for autonomy, had countered all these claims.

The statement said: “The governing body also noted that the proposal to seek autonomy has no adverse impact on the service conditions of permanent staff nor will it affect the course content and fee structure of the present students of the college.”

Narain added that as part of Delhi University, St Stephen’s will be better able to handle any shortage of funds. “Alone, we will be swatted like a fly,” she said.

Service conditions

In the summer of 2010, Kolkata’s Presidency College became a university after decades of campaigning by the Presidency community. Now a full-fledged state university, its status is different from that of autonomous colleges as it has the power to confer degrees.

Bivas Chaudhuri, general secretary of the 200-year-old institution’s alumni association, recalled how the Presidency community had been trying to escape the “political interference” which plagued Presidency College since the 1980s.

“The campaign was started by those who believed in excellence,” said Chaudhuri. “Good teachers were transferred all the time and there were appointments that were not up to the mark.”

As a new university formed by West Bengal’s previous Left Front government, Presidency was fortunate to find a generous funder in the subsequent Trinamool Congress government.

“Even though the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is not an alumna, her government formed the mentor group and gave the university enough funds,” said Chaudhuri. “The first vice-chancellors were incredibly good, political interference ended and the university has seen its infrastructure improve too. It looks good now.”

However, as another alumnus explained, freedom from Calcutta University also meant there was no “appellate authority” when things started to slide.

“Some teachers tried to form a Presidency University Faculty Association and coincidentally had the police calling them up at night to enquire,” said the alumnus. “In a place like Kolkata, you have a public institution with no staff or teachers’ association. Nobody dares to start one.”

Narain said that she feared a similar future awaits the faculty of St Stephen’s. “It will become easier to suspend and terminate the services of teachers,” she said.

The alleged closeness of Presidency University’s vice-chancellor to the Trinamool Congress government is embarrassing for the university’s community at large.

“She always goes for a blue-and-white theme for decorating the interiors because Mamata Banerjee likes those colours,” alleged another former student. “Some teachers have been harassed and insulted. They have left for other universities. Autonomy was required but these would not have been so easy if Presidency was still with Calcutta University.”

They agreed that autonomy works if the institution finds the right administrator. As things stand now, “there is no scope for being unhappy,” the former student said. “If you are, you have to leave.”