When word reached Jadavpur University last week that the Union government had granted autonomy to their university, leaders of the institution’s teachers’ association asked each other: “Who on earth applied for it?”

Jadavpur University was among the 60 universities and colleges that Union Minister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar said on March 20 had been granted a degree of freedom from the oversight of the University Grants Commission, which regulates higher education in India. The University Grants Commission had finalised its policy for graded autonomy a few weeks earlier, in February.

The policy allows institutions with high accreditation scores awarded by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council to start courses, research facilities and programmes without seeking the commission’s permission. The top category, those with a score of 3.51 or more out of 4, are free even from external reviews.

When the Jadavpur University teachers’ association on March 23 asked the university’s top decision-making body who had applied for autonomous status, they were told the institution had not actually done so, said association member Nilanjana Gupta. The acting vice-chancellor, Pradip Kumar Ghosh, confirmed this.

However, to be considered for autonomy, the University Grants Commission’s policy regulations require universities to “submit a request”.

The registrar at the centrally-run Aligarh Muslim University said it had also been granted autonomy without applying for it. The registrar of Banaras Hindu University was not sure “under which provision or scheme” the central university in Varanasi had been granted autonomy, suggesting that it had not applied either.

Those who confirmed that they had indeed applied for autonomy included the University of Hyderabad; Osmania University, also in Hyderabad; Andhra University in Visakhapatnam; and the National Law University in Delhi. But the application process that they described does not square with the one outlined in the University Grants Commission’s regulations on autonomous status for universities. It did not lead to wider consultation within the institutions either.

At Jadavpur University, teachers have many reservations about the policy, as Scroll.in has detailed in a previous report. In 2017, when the policy was still a draft, the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association had written to the commission rejecting it, said Gupta. They objected most to the regulations explicitly stating that autonomous institutions will be allowed to add infrastructure, launch programmes or initiate collaborations with others without taking permission “provided no demand for fund is made from the government”. Teachers and students believe this would lead to the commercialisation of public education. They also fear that this would lead to high fees, ad hoc teaching appointments and the neglect of academic disciplines less immediately connected to industry.

On March 28, thousands of people participated in a “march for education” protest in Delhi to highlight the flaws with the policy. Many associations from institutions that are not on the list of 60, such as Delhi University Teachers’ Association. Students and teachers from individual colleges affiliated to Delhi University, including St Stephen’s College, have resisted bids for autonomy made by their college administrations for the same reasons.

Participants of the March4Education in Delhi on March 28. The march was organised by the Federation of Central Universities Teachers' Associations and the Delhi University Teachers' Association to protest against graded autonomy and the withdrawal of public funds from higher education.

‘Did not apply’

The University Grants Commission’s regulations for graded autonomy outline the application process say:

“The Commission shall fix dates (at least two times in a year, preferably 1st of June and 1st of December) by which an institution shall submit a request in prescribed format for categorization under these Regulations. The dates so fixed shall be notified at least six months in advance. All such applications shall be scrutinized by the Commission and orders on Categorization shall be passed within thirty days from the last date specified for the receipt of such applications. During this period, the Commission shall also place such application on its website.” 

Practically no part of this seems to have been followed in the run-up to Javadekar’s March 20 announcement. While the regulations require application dates to be notified six months in advance, there was just a month and a half between the notification of regulations (on February 12) and the announcement of the list (March 20). Neither the Ministry of Human Resource Development nor the University Grants Commission responded to detailed queries on the matter emailed to them. [Update: After the story was published, the University Grants Commission replied to the queries emailed to them on March 27. Details at the bottom of the story.]

Although he welcomed the change of status, Ghosh of Jadavpur University explained: “Unilaterally, the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Human Resource Development have decided on granting us autonomy.” The university has applied for another scheme through which 10 public universities will be declared “institutes of eminence” and will get extra funds from the government. “For that, the university had asked departments and individuals for their views,” said Gupta. “But on this, there has been no discussion at all.”

Similarly, Aligarh Muslim University registrar Javaid Akhter said the “university did not apply”. Neeraj Tripathi, Banaras Hindu University’s registrar who was its acting vice-chancellor till a few days ago, said: “Actually we have not received any details on which provision or scheme we have been granted autonomy under.”

Three other central universities are on the graded autonomy list – Jawaharlal Nehru University, the English and Foreign Languages University and University of Hyderabad.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University registrar did not respond to phone calls or text messages. The spokesperson for the English and Foreign Languages University said the vice-chancellor would respond to the emailed questions by Monday – this story will be updated if he does. A senior teacher from that university, however, said that if the university did apply for autonomy, the views of the teachers’ association or heads of department had not been sought. “When we got the news, we did not know whether to celebrate or hold a condolence meeting,” she said. “We do not know what is happening between the administration and the University Grants Commission.”

The University of Hyderabad confirmed that it had made an application.

Participants of the March4Education in Delhi on March 28. (Credit: Rama Naga / Twitter).

‘Basic information needed’

Among universities that sent in applications for graded autonomy, the administration, in most places, did so without consulting the larger body of students and teachers. The decision to apply was not placed before or voted on by statutory bodies such as academic and executive councils.

Ashish Thomas, public relations officer of the University of Hyderabad, said that the institution had been sent a “one-page questionnaire” around March 9. It was filled and signed by the vice-chancellor and registrar and mailed back by March 15. There was “no need for” holding broader discussions within the university community or getting the decision to apply cleared by its statutory bodies.

Officials at Osmania University, a state university, followed much the same process. Zoology professor Chelmala Srinivasulu runs the Statistical Cell that gathers information and fills forms for ranking, accreditation and University Grants Commission or state government schemes on behalf of the university. He said they applied about a week before the autonomous status was declared and that the “application was very brief and asked for very basic information”. Their application for the “institute of eminence” scheme took six months. The one for autonomy took about three hours, he said.

Ranbir Singh, vice-chancellor of state-run National Law University, Delhi, too said the university administration had filled a form for which no consent was required or sought from others in the university. “We are very happy with this,” he said. “We have constituted a core group and will plan.”

Andhra University registrar V Uma Maheswara Rao said his administration was prodded to apply by an alumna now employed at the University Grants Commission, and they did. “The academic or executive councils did not vote on it,” he said. There was no time either. “We just downloaded, filled and sent.”

Consequently, there is confusion even among those who have applied.

“We do not know the modalities or rules and regulations of this,” said Rao, echoing Banaras Hindu University’s registrar Neeraj Tripathi. Similarly, Osmania University vice-chancellor S Ramachandran is under the impression that autonomous status will bring more government funds. “This gives us more freedom to start programmes, and they are also going to give more funds,” he said. In reality, the regulations state categorically that all programmes started by autonomous institutions without the commission’s permission must be financed by them.

An Osmania University teacher also argued that the commission does not fund the university anyway, so the new status “does not change [their] set up”.

But teachers resent not being kept in the loop. “We were never told they applied,” said economics teacher K Laxminarayana, from the University of Hyderabad. “They should have asked. The teachers group here is very heterogeneous – some would have opposed, some supported. But at least the decision would have been taken democratically.”

Update: After the story was published, the secretary of the University Grants Commission, Rajnish Jain, responded to questions emailed to both the Commission and the Ministry of Human Resource Development on March 27. Jain said: “All the eligible universities applied and there is not even a single instance where the university was eligible as per the NAAC grading but did not apply.” The university authorities quoted in the story, however, had insisted they had not applied for autonomy when Scroll.in spoke to them. A follow-up story will explain the reasons for the confusion among university authorities about the application process for autonomy.