On March 20, the Central government announced that it was setting 60 universities and colleges free: they would be granted different levels of autonomy from the University Grants Commission, the chief funding and regulating agency for institutions of higher education.

The list includes five central universities – Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University and The English and Foreign Languages University. It also contains 24 state universities, 21 deemed to be universities and eight colleges. Prakash Javadekar, the human resource development minister, called it a “historic decision”.

But teachers and students are not so sure and their views should count, insists Balveer Arora, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In 1968, as a doctoral candidate at Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Arora participated in the student protests “for space and voice” that engulfed Paris that summer. He completed his studies at the French university and returned to join the JNU in 1973. “These influences matter and shape worldviews,” he said.

At the JNU, Arora found an institution that fiercely guarded its academic independence, ushered in many reforms and was a democratic space. He does not believe the “autonomous status” just bestowed upon it by the government will help make it better.

The student-teacher community at the JNU is vehemently opposed to the plan. It was one of the reasons they attempted a protest march from their campus to Parliament on March 23.

Teachers at Delhi University, which is not on the list, have opposed the plan since the draft rules governing the autonomy status emerged in 2017. Many higher education administrators in states such as Kerala have expressed doubts as well. They have all argued that greater autonomy is actually code for the withdrawal of public funding to the institutions. They have also pointed out the irony of granting some universities freedom when the University Grants Commission has hewn away their academic autonomy through a range of policy decisions – common admission policies for research programmes, course structures for undergraduates.

The measure of freedom each institution is to be granted will be determined by the grades awarded by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council – an off-shoot of the University Grants Commission. Shunned by public institutions for years, accreditation was made compulsory in 2012 although teachers and academics continue to question the rigour of the exercise and the validity of the grades.

As per the new regulations, issued in February, universities and colleges with grades over 3.51 out of four will be classified as Category I and get maximum autonomy. They can start new courses, centres, campuses and research parks, enter into collaborations with other universities, recruit foreign scholars and admit foreign students without having to seek permission from the University Grants Commission “provided no demand for fund is made from the government”. For “external review”, they will have to only send reports to the commission. Category II institutions, with accreditation scores from 3.26 to 3.5, will enjoy much the same freedoms but, if required, will be reviewed by representatives from Category I institutions.

Arora, JNU’s rector from 2002 to 2005, believes this will likely do more harm than good. In today’s context, he explained, it is akin to empowering khap panchayats – village councils known for enforcing as law highly regressive social customs and ordering brutal punishments for whoever transgresses them.

Arora spoke to Scroll.in about the autonomy public universities once enjoyed, how it was undermined over the years, and how without “democratic checks and balances”, the new policy will do harm. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you make of this policy of graded autonomy?
What is being proposed in the name of autonomy is fine at face value but when you look at it closely, it has many implications that are negative for the institutions. It is very contextual, it depends on how the institutions are equipped to handle autonomy.

In other circumstances, another kind of autonomy would be the best thing the university could have. It is a fact that the university is stymied by being under the rigid control of the University Grants Commission. One would say, “Please liberate us from the UGC”. But that is not what is being proposed. The commission would still remain in overall control and this autonomy is basically granting financial autonomy. Under that guise, it is pushing universities to generate their own resources through self-financed courses. This will eventually end with the state shedding its responsibility of subsidising education or treating it as a public good, as a public service, rather than as a commodity.

Protesting teachers and students argue that this will give greater power to the university administration and that may be misused. Would you agree?
Autonomy is not an absolute value and it cannot be divorced from the public good. Who is exercising that autonomy? Is it the university community, including its students and teachers, after discussions and deliberations? Or is it a small bureaucracy shut off in an administration building where all the other channels of communication have broken down?

The policy rests on certain assumptions – the university has democratic bodies in place, the consultation process is internal to the university, it takes decisions only after this process is completed. But we know in the JNU that the Academic Council meetings are very contentious, the minutes are disputed, dissent notes are not recorded. When there is such a breakdown, financial powers can be used according to the whims and fancies of whoever is in the administration.

A university having more powers is a positive thing. Once it so decides, it should be able to carry out the reforms it wants. But if the internal democratic structure has collapsed, then the power is wielded by a few people who are cut off from the rest of the university – students and teachers. Unless you have democratic checks and controls, you are handing powers to undemocratic, irresponsible and unaccountable people. Given this context of a lack of democratic accountability, granting autonomy is like handing over power to a khap panchayat.

A poster at Jawaharlal Nehru University opposes the autonomy plan. Photo credit: Twitter/V Lenin Kumar

But public institutions did enjoy some measure of autonomy even before.
Jawaharlal Nehru University was built as a self-regulating university with a high level of democratic participation of teachers and students at every level, starting with the student-faculty committee in every centre. That was the channel through which students’ participation was organised. These committees were quite apart from the unions that bring a different perspective.

What came out of this participative democratic structure was that consensus was built within the university community. If the university wanted to function in a certain way, we had to battle with the University Grants Commission to see that through.

Hyderabad Central University came after us and was patterned on us, but the JNU was a pioneer. We had youth movements for space and voice for students starting the free speech campaign at the University of California, Berkley, in 1964, the students’ movement in Paris in 1968 and unrest at universities in India as well. So, when the JNU started functioning in 1971, the idea that universities could not function without involving students in decision-making was well established. The JNU has never functioned in the way it is functioning now. We cannot build on aberrations.

Teachers and activists also argue that the academic autonomy of universities has already been significantly eroded. There is a common policy for admission to research programmes, for instance. The course structure and even syllabus for undergraduate studies in central universities has been standardised.
The University Grants Commission has progressively curtailed the autonomy of institutions that were doing well to bring up the standards of those that needed a little streamlining. There has certainly been erosion for the JNU. There is reduction of intake in research programmes even where teachers are willing to supervise students because the commission came up with a one-size-fits-all solution. This also happened in the case of student elections. We were holding elections in a certain way and with no problems. Suddenly, there is the JM Lyngdoh Committee saying universities must do A, B, C. We had the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment but they decided to replace it with a different committee (Internal Complaints Committee).

The University Grants Commission has standardised these practices across universities, framed common policies.
I do not believe uniformity is a virtue in higher education. Uniformity is not something you strive for. The lowest common denominator is what gives you uniformity. You strive for minimum standards, achieve them and do it differently. You do not fix it till it is broken.

There was one rule that came about in my time [as rector in the early 2000s] that for every selection committee for appointing a teacher, a UGC representative had to be present, particularly for appointments to reserved posts. They were there to ensure all procedures were being followed. But we made it clear – even Delhi University authorities made it clear – that they may satisfy themselves that all procedures are being followed but sit outside when the subject experts conduct the interview.

But the government continues to appoint vice-chancellors.
They have not relinquished powers of appointment. Here, appointment of the vice-chancellor is according to the [Jawaharlal Nehru University] Act. In the case of central universities, the chancellor is the president of India but effectively, it is the prime minister who appoints the vice-chancellor. Now if the government of the day is determined to put in every institution, wherever it has the chance and openings arise, people who would function in a certain way and for certain causes and purposes, there is nothing in the rules that can stop it. And we have seen this happening in so many institutions in the last few years but the fault is with those operating these rules. You had it in the Film and Television Institute of India, you have it in Raj Bhavans, in the judiciary, you have it all over.

Autonomous universities will now be allowed to recruit foreign faculty and have foreign students. These will be supernumerary positions and seats and the university can decide their salary and fee independently. What impact do you see this having on public institutions?
The broader angle from which one looks at this is the commercialisation of education, where you partly privatise it. The same pattern is being followed in other government sectors like public-private partnerships in healthcare.

There are, of course, positive things about this policy. I am in principle not opposed to tapping talent from outside. Many of us are called upon to go and teach. We take a sabbatical, go for a semester and come back.

Earlier, if a foreign scholar wanted to come here and teach for a semester, we could not have him because the rules did not allow this. So, what I would welcome is some flexibility.

But it should not become a regular channel of recruitment. I personally have no objection to allowing universities to hire from outside and on a different pay scale, provided it remains within a certain limit. If you have a faculty of 500, you cannot stretch [the number of foreign recruits] to more than five or 10. There has to be a ceiling on that number, otherwise the internal balance gets upset.

The number has been capped at 20% of the faculty strength.
That is very high.

Is allowing universities to pay teachers extra incentives over the standard salaries recommended by the Pay Commissions a good idea?
Well, here, if you have favourites you can give them higher pay. This is happening in universities even now – people are being superseded, being removed from their posts. Others are assisting because in a body of 20-25 people you are sure to have a few who will say “Yeah, yeah, I’m game.”

The accreditation process by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council now plays a crucial role in determining the fate of institutions. What do you think of the autonomous status being granted on the basis of the council’s scores?
They needed some criteria for granting autonomy. I have a very poor opinion of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council because we have seen it working. While I was the rector, we had refused to submit our reports. We said we were not interested in being accredited. But once you attach money to it – and that is the only way government functions –people do it. My successors had to do it to get plan outlays approved.

But why are these ranking agencies necessary? There are so many question marks on the methodology of agencies who do it abroad. Universities globally have had to toe the line, however, not because their finances were affected but in terms of attractiveness to students and scholars. But with the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, we have seen the kind of universities that have been graded A+ and A++ and it was shocking. Its system is opaque – you do not know why one university has an A++ grade and another B.