Teachers in some of India’s best-performing universities are fast discovering that being on top may not be such a good thing. This is because high ranks and good scores for universities in accreditation exercises may now mean losing government support and increased dependence on private funds for expansion.

On June 2, the higher education regulating and funding agency, University Grants Commission, made public draft regulations and guidelines defining the contours of the “graded autonomy” that Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar had promised universities in February. Institutions must be “incentivised to go upwards”, he had then said.

According to the draft policy, government universities would be divided into three categories, based on their performance. They would enjoy different degrees of “autonomy” – which means relaxation of administrative control, not greater academic freedom.

In recent years, the commission has introduced regulations curtailing a university’s powers to independently frame syllabi, course structures and admission policies. Instead of restoring those freedoms, the draft rules emphasise financial autonomy – the weaning of public institutions away from public funds.

The top category of government universities, for instance, can start new courses and departments without seeking permission, provided these are done “in self-financing mode” – paid with private donations or income from fees. Some believe this could help universities create more practical courses that are better aligned to the needs of the job market. But teachers and officials argue that the new regulations will almost certainly lead to a sharp increase in fees and restricted access to higher education.

“The biggest irony is that the regulations do not seem to grant institutions the autonomy to decide if they want this [deal],” said Subhadoy Dasgupta, president of the West Bengal College and University Teachers Association.

The draft rules are open to public for their views till June 15.

Three categories

Categorisation hinges on an institution’s performance. This, in turn, is determined by its position on the National Institutional Ranking Framework, a government ranking scheme introduced in September 2015, or the score awarded by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, valid for five years. The council, an autonomous body under the University Grants Commission, awards scores out of four, factoring in a range of parameters.

The top category would include those universities – central and state – that have received a score of 3.5 or above from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council or have maintained a top-50 position in the university ranking system for at least two consecutive years. This set will be granted maximum autonomy.

Category 2 will include universities with accreditation scores between 3 and 3.4 or ranking within the 51-100 bracket. The rest will be in Category 3. Categories 1 and 2 will be spared inspections by the University Grants Commission.

‘Self-financing mode’

What has caused great alarm is the list of freedoms the first two categories will supposedly enjoy.

In addition to promoting the “self-financing mode” for new courses, centres and departments, the draft guidelines also permit universities to start skill courses and research parks, recruit foreign faculty, admit foreign students and “build… an incentive structure to attract talented faculty” – all of it funded by resources generated independently.

Rajesh Jha, member of Delhi University’s executive council, said teachers have interpreted this to mean that public institutions can no longer look to the government to finance their expansion. They have reason to think so.

“In February, the executive council cleared new undergraduate courses for the colleges,” Jha explained. “Those are stuck with [the commission], which is insisting colleges make them self-financing. The withdrawal of funds has already begun.”

Being forced to find resources elsewhere will also push universities to make more ad hoc appointments to keep costs low, permanently impacting the workforce and the quality of teaching, he added.

Self-financed expansion would be a non-starter at state-run Andhra University, which qualifies for Category 1 status. “We run a few such courses but raise only about Rs 100 crores in a year from them,” said registrar V Uma Maheswara Rao. “We need Rs 300 crores annually for salaries and pension alone. Which organisation will give us that kind of money?”

Raising fees is not an option. “We charge about Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 per year as we have many students from the weaker sections,” Rao said. “To self-finance new courses, we will have to charge about Rs 1.5 lakhs and only the rich will get in.”

A Delhi University official said a differential fee structure in which those with the capacity to pay are charged a higher fee may work, but even he admitted that it would be a highly unpopular move.

The emphasis on 'self-financing' in the draft rules would compel many universities to raise fees. (Credit: Sushil Kumar / HT)

Double bind

The government’s proposal to link accreditation and ranking exercises to funding has complicated matters. Teachers have been sceptical of these exercises as measures of performance and till the University Grants Commission made them compulsory in 2012, few public institutions bothered with accreditation.

“The assessments are not transparent,” explained Subhadoy Dasgupta of the West Bengal university teachers association. “There is suppression of facts and the final assessment does not necessarily reflect the real position of an institution.”

But the exercises have become crucial for cash-strapped universities not getting sufficient funds through regular channels, helping them secure special grants and purses either from the commission or other government branches such as the Ministry of Defence.

“We are always scrambling for funds,” said Nilanjana Gupta, general secretary of Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, adding that the state university is facing a Rs 37-crore deficit. “As many of these grants are linked to ranking and accreditation, we have really focused on them for the last few years.” Jadavpur University ranks fifth in the country and has a high accreditation score as well.

Abha Dev Habib, former member of Delhi University’s executive council, said, “But we cannot be sure such grants will continue to be available.” She added, “The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is already running dry. But the ranking system is intended to make the institution marketable for private investment.” Dev Habib said institutions also feel “compelled to run self-financed courses” because they are a factor in the assessment and ranking exercises.

Some disciplines will suffer

There are some instances of institutions benefiting from private-sector participation as far as funds are concerned. Jadavpur University’s pharmaceutical technology department has generated funds by testing drugs for pharma companies. Similarly, the departments of electrical engineering and civil engineering have checked machinery, conducted feasibility studies and tested soil for the private sector, receiving some funds in this manner. The Indian Institutes of Technology, similarly, have centres, schorlarships and lecture series funded by entrepreneurs and companies.

According to Mahesh Peri, founder of Careers 360, a Delhi-based education service provider, “industry would be happy to be a part of the public system because it will mean courses that will make students employable”. Industry participation would lead to more “practical course structures” in which students would train along the way and be employed more easily.

But scouting in the private sector has its pitfalls. “Industry will only fund what it wants to and our technical departments get a lot of it,” said Nilanjana Gupta of Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association. “But the arts and humanities will be badly hit.”

Even theoretical sciences will suffer without government subsidy, pointed out N Dastagiri Reddy of the chemistry department at Pondicherry University, which ranked in the top-50 twice and is, therefore, on track for Category 1 status and autonomy. “The only programmes that can be financed through high fees or industry collaboration will be ones directly linked to industry,” he added.

The absence of details on the fate of Category 2 and Category 3 institutions in the draft has concerned academics too. “This is an incomplete document,” said Dev Habib. “It is silent also on the colleges affiliated to these universities”.