Elephants in the Room – Who Gets the Autonomy in Autonomous Colleges? : Sanjay Kumar

Guest Post by Sanjay Kumar

In February this year, University of Delhi officials invited chairpersons of the six best known colleges to apply for  autonomy. So far, only the governing body of St Stephen’s College has reacted, authorising its principal to take up the application process. Teachers and staff associations of the university, DUTA (Delhi University Teachers’ Association) and DUCKU (Delhi University Karamchari Union), are against the move. Besides affecting the working conditions of faculty and staff, college autonomy has bearing on the academic content of undergraduate learning. It is surprising that many of the academic red flags are not even noticed in the policy. These obvious blind spots indicate that real motivations are not academic, but lie elsewhere.

The XII plan document of the UGC sets the target to make 10 percent of eligible colleges autonomous by the end of the plan period. It boldly declares, ‘(t)he only safe and better way to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to the link(sic) most of the colleges from the affiliating structure’. The claim is surprising, because world over university education is considered a good undergraduate education. A university with active research, accomplished faculty and diversity of subjects to offer is the best place for a young person to get initiated into the adventure and challenges of higher education. How taking students away from the ambit of a university becomes the way to better education requires a bit of an explanation.

In India, affiliated colleges mushroomed as a half way solution, largely in the post independence period, to provide basic higher education widely at low administrative and financial costs. University of Delhi is a good example. It started in 1922 with three founding colleges (Ramjas, Hindu and St Stephen’s) all in close proximity. The later expansion brought seven other colleges, all still concentrated in the North Campus. Till late sixties the most sought after science honours courses were taught in university departments. Colleges taught the ‘Pass’ courses and attended to tutorial and administrative requirements of students. The system became untenable as the number of students increased, and colleges were opened in far flung areas of the expanding metropolis. At present there are more than seventy five colleges scattered all over the national capital with close to one hundred and fifty thousand students. Rather than following an internal logic of organic expansion, the university allowed the logic of expanding metropolis to determine its character. Most colleges are small, with less than two thousand students on average, and non residential. In terms of the size and academic life, most DU colleges are similar to community colleges in the US, rather than undergraduate colleges in US or other developed countries.

The biggest drawback of the structure of affiliated colleges is that in its worst form it replicates the school model of teaching, evaluation and learning to undergraduate education. The learning and teaching get limited to finishing syllabi and preparing students for examinations conducted by the university. College teachers lose any trace of freedom, and with time, the ability, to share their knowledge of the subject with students, and get reduced to mere conduits of learning material. Students are forced to concentrate on doing well in final examinations. There is little motivation for independent self learning, the crucial behavioural and cognitive ability necessary for higher learning. Is not the solution then very simple? Take colleges away from academic control of universities, and let them on their own do what universities do for them. Let them decide their own courses, syllabi and examinations. That is, let the colleges become autonomous.

Indian education planners perhaps have the University of London as the ideal in their drive towards autonomous colleges. This was the model followed in the establishment of DU, and like it started with affiliated colleges. Over time all colleges of the UoL have become degree awarding institutions in their own right. However, there is a big difference between the colleges of the UoL and DU. The number of colleges in the former is only 12. All multi-disciplinary colleges are gargantuan compared to any of the DU colleges. University College has thirty seven thousand students, King’s college has nearly twenty nine thousand, and Queen Mary seventeen thousand. All these colleges have more than a thousand strong faculty.  If DU is too big to be an effective institution of higher learning, then its colleges are too small. Most of these colleges are unable to conduct even regular faculty seminars. Expecting them to undertake academic functions like developing new curricula, maintaining uniform standards of examination, conducting examinations every four months, teach specialised courses, develop productive research environment, interdisciplinary pedagogy and research, etc. is a false hope. All of these require cooperation and peer oversight impossible in a small institution. The UGC policy on autonomous colleges does not even ask the question if a typical college in India is the right site for administrative and academic autonomy. The only qualification for autonomous status is the college receiving three consecutive A grades in the NAAC assessment, which is clearly inadequate in this  regard.

Nested Autonomy

Self governance is recognised as the the best form of administration for higher education. This has two related components. One, institutional self governance, meaning decisions related to an institution’s working are taken internally. Second, and perhaps the more important component, is that these decisions be taken by those for whom higher education is a prime concern. The policy of autonomous colleges proposes to extend the principle of self governance to colleges to overcome problems associated with university bureaucracy. It however overlooks crucial aspects of the actual working of colleges in India.

Firstly, the policy does not recognise the actual diversity of administrative structures. There is no nationwide uniform structure with regard to the modus operandi of affiliation of colleges to universities. Government colleges in most states are extensions of education bureaucracies of state administration with teachers also being employees of the state government. The so-called aided colleges, which receive 95% of financial assistance form the UGC or state governments, are managed by their own governing bodies. Rather than being non-autonomous, the administrative structure of these institutions is best understood as an example of nested autonomy. They are affiliated to Universities which are autonomous. This autonomy rests on specific statutes passed by the national and state legislatures.  Different universities, while exercising their autonomy have evolved different arrangements.

Affiliation with DU is NOT a one way process. Course committees with departments have representation from college teachers. Teacher representatives are part of the university Executive and Academic Councils. College teachers are involved with examination process as paper setters and evaluators. Internal assessment marks awarded by teachers are part of the final marks awarded by the university. These processes were badly mauled by the last three administrations of the university. Semester system, FYUP, and the CBCS were forced through with little inputs from colleges. Moderation process set up by the university in the wake of FYUP has made a mockery of the examination results, with students getting inflated marks. In these circumstances, it is pertinent to ask if the lack of  academic autonomy experienced by colleges is due to affiliation, or the willful destruction of existing mechanisms that incorporate college teachers in the administration of undergraduate education in the university?

All colleges affiliated to University of Delhi, even those fully funded by the university and Delhi Government, have their own governing bodies. These bodies are autonomous in the sense of not being directly answerable to any higher authority. They appoint college faculty and staff, manage its assets, and fix fee structure. The composition and nature of these governing bodies can be broadly divided into three categories. First is the set of so called trust run colleges. Most of the well known colleges of the university like LSR, SRCC, St Stephen’s, Hindu, Ramjas, Venkateshwara, etc. fall in this category.  Other colleges like the KMC and Miranda House have their governing bodies appointed by the University of Delhi. The governing bodies of the third category of colleges are appointed by Delhi government. These governing bodies have to work within the statutes and ordinances of University of Delhi, and accept two university nominees as members. University rules also ask for two representatives from college faculty. All selection panels have university nominees. Even though governing bodies are the appointing authorities for faculty, latter’s working rules are fixed by DU statutes. Teachers of the DU colleges are also considered university teachers.

The nested autonomy of colleges affiliated to DU is an intricate structure.  The policy of autonomous colleges removes the university oversight. Since college governing bodies are the only other organisation in this nested structure, it is safe to assume that the space vacated by the university will in effect be occupied by these bodies. This also explains why the permanent functionaries of colleges, their staff, faculty and even principals (who are their effective CEOs) are not happy with the policy. Clearly, the nature of college governing bodies, to whom the baton is  passed after autonomy, should be of paramount interest to the policy-makers. The policy however offers little insight on this and continues with the current structure.

The governing bodies of DU colleges nominated by the university, or Delhi government, are at least appointed by public institutions. The majority of members in the governing bodies of trust run colleges are appointed by private entities, namely their respective trusts, which also appoint the chairperson. The trusts running these colleges are generally of pre-independence vintage. The colonial government encouraged these trusts to enter the field of higher education, mainly to reduce  its own financial and administrative commitments.  Many of these trusts rose to the challenge and played a seminal role in starting higher education facilities in the country. These trusts  are either religious (Dayanand Anglo Vedic (DAV), Church of North India (CNI), etc) or charitable started by the rich. Unlike bodies running private universities in many other countries, higher education is not the primary or the only purpose of trusts running colleges in India.  The failure of civil society in India to develop organisations working solely in the field of higher education is a lacuna that remains unremarked, even by official commissions.

Both the National Knowledge Commission (2006-09) and Yashpal Committee have highlighted the role of private initiative in higher education. The later criticised the control of ‘family’ trusts in non funded private institutions, and advocated stricter oversight and regulation. Greater attention needs to be paid to any process that transfers the control of publicly funded institutions, like affiliated colleges, which till now have been functioning within the statutes and rules of public universities, to private trusts. Even before the grant of autonomy to colleges of DU was announced by the university, teachers of St Stephen’s College have been fighting a legal case in the Delhi High Court against efforts of its governing body to change the college constitution and concentrate the control of the college to a body completely dominated by the CNI. It is widely known that the chairperson of another trust run college of DU holds its governing body meetings in his  private corporate office, rather than in college premises.

There is little academic or administrative merit in the current policy of granting autonomy to colleges. The problem of affiliated colleges arose due to ad hoc measures taken to address the problem of expansion of higher education in the post independence era. The current policy is another ad hoc measure. The earlier ad hocism took the form of state sponsorship of higher education. The current policy is motivated by neo-liberal demands of state withdrawal and privatisation of existing public institutions. Both measures disregard the requirements of the internal organic growth of institutions of higher learning, and foist models of growth determined by  political economic trends  of the day.

In the meanwhile DU colleges are confronting an important problem of academic significance which has received no attention from the university and colleges. The CBCS (Choice Based Credit System) curricula introduced two years ago offer students freedom to choose subject electives in third year of honours courses. This is a welcome development since it allows exposure to specialised papers of students’ interests at the undergraduate level. However, colleges are finding it difficult to offer meaningful choices due to paucity of faculty and resources, and the ‘choice’ given to students is turning out to be a farce. Pooling resources of neighbouring colleges, coordinating their time tables and letting students attend lectures in colleges other than their own, is one way ahead. This would be an example of institutional organic growth to solve a problem which is academic in nature. That there is little chance of this happening in near future, says a lot about the autonomy of higher education in the country.

Sanjay Kumar teaches  Physics at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.


3 thoughts on “Elephants in the Room – Who Gets the Autonomy in Autonomous Colleges? : Sanjay Kumar”

  1. Would just like to point out that neoliberalisation is not simply state withdrawal and privatisation. Its the use of a strong state to institute market-like reforms in all spheres of life including higher education. Will Davies (goldsmith college,UoL) has written about this in detail


  2. In the context of India, college ‘ autonomy ‘ denotes freedom to mint money through hiking fee structure by the management. Independent thought and free education fall outside the purview of ‘ autonomy’ …!


  3. University itself also carries an innate attribute of autonomy.The concept of autonomy is well understood and explained by the author.However ,no concept, though abstract,can be materialized without concrete conditions adequately created to that effect. Each university is established under an Act passed by the respective government.The university in turn has its own statute.It all depends upon it how the particular university wants to retain and exercise its autonomy.The same is applicable to autonomous college.


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