The Union government has granted autonomy to several public universities in India on the basis of a one-page application form. The application process did not ask for wider consultation among teachers or students, nor did it require the institution to make a detailed case for itself. Consequently, some universities seem to have submitted the data the Centre sought without realising this constituted an application for autonomy.

On March 20, Union Minister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar announced the names of five central universities and 21 state universities that had been granted a degree of freedom from the oversight of the University Grants Commission, which regulates higher education in the country.

Soon after this announcement, this reporter contacted some of the universities on the list, asking them about the application process for autonomy. The acting vice-chancellor of West Bengal’s Jadavpur University and the registrar of Aligarh Muslim University insisted that they had not applied for it, and also said that the selection process was not based on applications.

On March 27, wrote to the chairman of the University Grants Commission and the secretary, higher education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, for their version of the process followed in granting these universities autonomy. They did not respond.

In a story published on March 31, reported that several universities had been granted autonomy even though they did not apply for it.

After the article was published, the University Grants Commission’s secretary, Rajnish Jain, responded, saying that all universities granted autonomy had applied for it.

What then explained the confusion among university authorities?

‘Application format for categorisation’

The “application format for categorisation” was a one-page form asking for 11 pieces of information about the university, mainly its accreditation status as per the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, and its ranks awarded by various ranking agencies. Jadavpur University’s form, furnished to by the University Grants Commission on April 1, was signed by the acting vice-chancellor, Pradip Kumar Ghosh. Yet, on March 26, Ghosh told this reporter that the university had not applied for autonomy.

Jadavpur University's application form. (Source: University Grants Commission).

Asked on Sunday why he believed he had not sent in an application, Ghosh said that in the normal course of applying for programmes, an institution has to jump through many more hoops. “We did not have to defend,” he said, meaning that the elaborate exercise of making a case for the university’s application – which is the norm for most applications made to the Union government for programmes and schemes – was not required. There was no “interaction meeting” on the subject with the ministry or the Commission either. “It was more like: ‘We are thinking about doing this so please supply this data’,” said Ghosh. “We did, and that is also consent from us. They had asked for some data for categorisation.”

Categorisation and autonomy

On March 26, Aligarh Muslim University registrar, Javaid Akhter, had told this reporter that the “university did not apply” for autonomy. He had even added: “I believe no one granted [autonomy had] applied [for it].” He could not be contacted on Sunday, but vice-chancellor Tariq Mansoor echoed Akhter, saying: “No university has applied for autonomy, they have given the status themselves only.”

When told that that the University Grants Commission has said that all universities applied, and even provided a letter from Aligarh Muslim University as evidence, Mansoor first said, “We have to check, maybe they had asked us earlier and we applied”. Later, after being specifically asked whether the university submitted any information to the Centre, he recalled sending a sheet of data to the Commission for categorisation.

Aligarh Muslim University's cover letter to go with its own form. (Source: University Grants Commission).

The form universities filled was called an “application format for categorisation”. Besides this phrasing, the scant details required and the speed at which everything was done meant that several university officials did not see this as the application form for autonomy.

The Commission’s regulations for autonomy to universities is titled “University Grants Commission [Categorisation of Universities (Only) for Grant of Graded Autonomy] Regulations, 2018”. They were issued in February. According to these regulations, universities are categorised according to their accreditation scores – 3.51 or above out of 4 in category-I, and a score between 3.26 and 3.5 in category-II. Different degrees of autonomy are conferred upon the two categories. They can start programmes and research facilities, recruit foreigners and collaborate with other institutions without seeking the Commission’s permission. The top grade, or category I, institutions are even spared external reviews.

The application process for autonomy outlined in the regulations requires universities to “submit a request…for categorisation under these regulations” and the Commission passes “orders on categorisation”. That categorisation will automatically lead to autonomy is implied by the phrase “under these regulations [for grant of graded autonomy]” rather than explicitly stated. This may have been the reason university authorities who remember sending information, and even signed the sheets they sent, did not see what they were doing as applying for autonomy.’s March 27 email to the higher education regulator had also asked officials why some universities said they did not apply and whether their “instructions were clear enough”. The problem of clarity was not addressed in the Commission’s responses, nor did it share the letter inviting applications.

The Banaras Hindu University registrar had also expressed confusion about the programme but the University Grants Commission has shared the cover letter it sent while submitting categorisation data.

Banaras Hindu University's letter (Source: University Grants Commission).

A senior teacher from Jadavpur University said that it was “totally plausible” that universities filled up forms without realising they were applying for autonomy. “The University Grants Commission constantly asks for data and we send it because they are a funding agency for many programmes,” said the teacher. “But they also dilly-dally for months on the applications for other programmes…That is what we are used to.”

Speedy process

But things moved much faster on the autonomy programme.

It was notified on February 12. On March 9, the University Grants Commission invited applications “only from those universities who were eligible in terms of parameters fixed in the regulations”, said Rajnish Jain, the higher education regulator’s secretary. “All the eligible universities applied and there is not even a single instance where the university was eligible as per the NAAC [accreditation agency] grading but did not apply,” said Jain.

The Commission’s regulations require dates for application for autonomy to be notified six months in advance, and applications to be posted online before final scrutiny. But for the first lot, it collected applications and announced the list of selected institutions in under two weeks, on March 20.

“They may have rushed this because they realised there would be opposition to the universities being nudged toward commercialisation,” said the Jadavpur University teacher.

The University Grants Commission’s explanation for this haste was: “Since this was the first time, and the information about the universities which will be covered under the said regulations was already available in [the accreditation council], and Inter-University Centre of [the Commission], the targeted applications were called for from the eligible universities.”

Jain further said that “as this was the new initiative, the UGC [University Grants Commission] acted in a proactive manner so that the universities are benefitted by the regulations at the earliest, in view of the ensuing academic session” which starts in three or four months.

The University Grants Commission has also taken exception to allegations that its graded autonomy policy promotes commercialisation. Jain wrote that it is “not a step towards privatisation” but towards “more academic freedom”.

But why were teachers and students who will be most affected by the autonomy decision kept in the dark about the application?

Jain clarified that since the grant of autonomy depended on accreditation scores or being listed on university rankings, there was “no need to discuss the application with departments and teachers, nor [were] resolutions…required to be passed in their statutory bodies”. A university’s administration could apply without consulting anyone else.

“This leaves the whole thing to the management, which can do anything,” said Aijaz Ahmed of the Aligarh Muslim University Teachers’ Association. “We did not get to know anything. Teachers should have been consulted before applying and I think most would have been against it.”