Is Autonomy a Panacea?

Can we extend fundamental right of freedom to operate Institutions? In this context is real autonomy possible? Or is it a myth?


Self-regulation is obviously the best form of regulation. However, every human being and every system that supports quality of life is regulated in some form or the other. Homeostasis is an internal human body mechanism that maintains balance, harmony, equilibrium, and steady-state, all of them fundamental attributes of life and health. Externally, there is no system be it, finance, be it education, be it business or any other, that is devoid of some form of regulation. All forms of regulations are needed ostensibly to protect others rights, for a democracy guarantees equal rights to everyone and must swear by zero exploitation of one by the other. 

The right to life under Article 21 read with Articles 14 and 19 permits every person to live life to the fullest and to enjoy freedom guaranteed as fundamental rights, constitutional rights, statutory rights and common law rights. Can we extend this to the way we operate Institutions? In this context is real autonomy possible? Or is it a myth? 

Quoting from Dr. Alex Lickerman's book “The Undefeated Mind” published in late 2012, “Why have people throughout history been willing to fight and even die for their freedom? From one perspective the answer is obvious: oppression causes suffering and we're all hardwired to flee suffering. But recent research suggests an additional reason: we also seem to be hardwired to desire autonomy”. 

The Autonomy:

Autonomy is defined as the ability to make choices according to one's own free will. Whether or not that will is free, is a research topic in itself and is bound by various decrees. Existing boundary conditions, or the extent to which these conditions can be relaxed in which autonomy operates is important. More of this later. What is important is to feel free. If we feel coerced by even an internal pressure like guilt or shame to say nothing of external pressures like other people, our feeling of autonomy vanishes. 

Autonomy when defined for an army commander assumes his ability to take decisions independently on the battlefront. Autonomy for a businessman would assume legitimate profits. Hence autonomy assumes different shades depending on the context in which it is referred. When used in the context of institutions, it refers to running it free from being dictated by either the Government or any other regulatory mechanism so that the larger public good is met with. The leader obviously is the fulcrum around which autonomy would thrive. Such an autonomy would manifest itself as Administrative, Academic, Managerial and Financial in the main.

The autonomy analysis supports a claim of obligation, on one side, and a claim of entitlement, on the other, as enumerated by Martha Albertson Fineman in her book “The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency”. She further argues that to the extent that we truly value autonomy, as opposed to merely celebrating it as a myth, we should want caretakers who are, after all, serving the rest of society, to exercise autonomous choice on terms roughly equal to those enjoyed by others.

The Necessity of It

To guarantee higher quality and to attain better performance in teaching and learning processes it is necessary to encourage the involvement and commitment of all those involved with the process like teachers, students and the management. Foisting of orders and command would necessarily be a factor impeding the innovation, competence and commitment of those involved in the very process and such a course for achieving excellence is therefore, undesirable. Though this is the maxim, what does happen in reality?

The editorial in TOI of 4th May 2017 “break the chains” argues on the micro-managing attitude of the regulators and how it impedes innovation. Forget the regulators. Is it necessary, even for a society to actually inform its citizens not to spit in public? We would not have needed a Swachh Baharat campaign if that were to be so. An uphill global job-scape may be a regulator’s bother in terms of providing employability skills but can only be so, when the same uphill global job-scape, for job-creation is adequate. The need to promote excellence in Indian higher education, is certainly paramount and specialisations like cloud analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc. can only be built on sound basics. Autonomy or no autonomy.

The editorial further argues that none of the 16 central universities established since 2009 feature in the HRD list of top 100 universities but various IIMs, IITs and other institutions set up with greater autonomy fare much better. Two cardinals differentiate the world rankings of Universities. Firstly, Internationalisation both in students and faculty and secondly research that connects industry and consequent IPR and patents filed, both of which are inadequate in our universities. International collaborations that are so essential to bring in cross cultural exchanges and consequent academic expertise seems to be happening only in a few top drawer institutions.  

A debate of a teaching institute that also does research or a research institute that also does teaching may not lead us anywhere for it is a mix that brings quality. Do we have sufficient number of researchers in every field? Do they have adequate facilities to do both fundamental and applied research? What level of inter/intra/Multi-disciplinary research exists? Are they provided sufficient funding compared with the best in the World? Are they sufficiently compensated so that they remain within the system? These are some questions that will need answers before autonomy can be bandied as a panacea for all ills. India is a large country. Is it really feasible to provide autonomy to say five hundred institutions in each of the States and monitor them with standard sets of do’s and don’ts?  Even an autonomous Institute is answerable to its stakeholders sometimes the Government and sometimes the people. What are the benchmarks against which this will be done and achieved?

Though education budget has risen over the years, is it adequate to support more than 150 centrally funded institutions, so that they start looking at innovation and compete with the best in the world not to speak of the very onerous task of providing adequate finances for primary education? With more Institutions in the category of IIT or an IIM or a central University coming up does this budget not spread too thin? More importantly, we also need good academicians, researchers and innovators to fill the great void that seems to exist. Project GYAN is a welcome inclusion in this space. Mere autonomy without adequate support systems may only lead to unfulfilled promises.

It will be a worthwhile exercise to audit the performance of autonomous institutions, do a gap analysis between what was expected and what is the current status that will benefit such future interventions. Many institutions as a routine thought process, were chaired by industry bigwigs. Have they delivered? Is this a sustainable model? Like a deficit of good academics, would the system also not have a deficit of good industrialists? If the audit throws up uncomfortable fallout, would we then reinvent the wheel?  

Universities were set up to operate as a State within a State. This presupposes that they were autonomous to begin with. Any cursory glance at the Act under which they operate will signal that they are anything but autonomous except in a few academic matters. Here again, the autonomy is only to the extent to which the faculty understands it, for there are any number of cases that can be cited, where a certain unwanted coursework would be retained or a new one added in a curriculum, since otherwise the concerned teacher might lose out on his/her job or would be required to relearn. 

Affiliations have only exacerbated the situation by rendering a University to an examination house. De-linking Institutions from the affiliation system through autonomy may look good on paper but would they be in a position to deliver at the required quality levels would be a question to answer besides the massive finding that would be required to sustain this process. This could even be private funding which also is not very forthcoming. Would the powers be, allow these institutions to pass on the cost of education to the knowledge seeker, without for example a fee regulatory commission? Would an IIT ever be allowed to fix its own fees like an IIM does? Quality needs funds. So the shackles have to come off. 

Unlike Universities in the West, ours are too small to be viable. Many of them would collapse without external funding let alone provide quality. Traditionally Universities have come up with almost all disciplines that included, basic sciences, applied sciences, social sciences, liberal sciences and library sciences. Innovation thrives in inter/Intra/multi-disciplinary eco systems and not in isolation. None of our Institutions lay stress on productization leading to disaggregated research. Several departments in social science, liberal sciences and even basic sciences are closing due to unavailability of students, faculty and so on. Autonomy would really need to be retrofit with innovation to stop further degradation.

A new phenomenon that we are witnessing currently is where yesteryear colleges are being converted to universities in the private sector in the name of quality. A hard look is probably warranted here, for a reason not often cited for this is the escape that it provides from many of the regulators and function with unbridled freedom as business houses, by closing courses/departments or starting new ones as they perceive the markets, to cite just one factor. Social causes are invariably given a go by.    

True autonomy blossoms when the mind is unshackled, the academic environment is facilitating and adequate external links exist for support. This calls for all four attributes, academic, administrative, managerial and financial to be ingrained in autonomy. Free enterprise must be encouraged with negligible regulatory control for autonomy to deliver. This calls for a leader who leads from the front, is committed, passionate, a team builder, one who has a great domain expertise, understands the environment and its links with the external world and above all has integrity, honesty and a foresight that has matured with hindsight. Sourcing all these qualities in multiples is indeed a tall order. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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