May 24, 2024


Will more autonomous institutions help India’s education sector?

Over the past several weeks, some important news flew relatively under the radar. The University Grants Commission (UGC) granted the “autonomous status” to several universities. That might not sound headline-grabbing, but it’s pertinent for the country’s education sector.

From the universities’ point of view, this might come as a welcome surprise as it’s seen as a feather in their caps. Autonomy can help them diversify and expand their offerings and faculty. However, some have pointed out that granting autonomous status doesn’t always translate to better learning outcomes or quality education.


In 2017, the UGC released a draft blueprint called the Grant of Graded Autonomy to Institutions of Higher Education Regulations. It stated that the performance of educational institutions will determine the extent of autonomy they enjoy and the regulatory scrutiny they face. The government also said that top-ranking institutions will be exempt from this mechanism.

The Prime Minister strongly pitched for institutional autonomy despite resistance from the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry. The regulations also followed the announcement to restructure the UGC-led regulatory framework for higher education, which many committees recommended.

Graded Autonomy would be decided based on a score from the Academic and Administrative Audit (AAA) peer team and the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). It was divided into tiers. Tier 1 was the highest, where an institution scored A+ or A++ and ranked among the top 75 in the NIRF rankings for that year. These institutions can have new courses and departments, collaborate with foreign universities, and build new campuses, among other things.

As you go down the tier list to 2, 3, and 4, the level of freedom reduces, and the universities need to adhere to the UGC’s regulations and be subject to its scrutiny.

The 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) envisions a future where colleges evolve into autonomous institutions. The UGC decided to change course to be in line with the NEP’s goal. Last year, the UGC decided to make things easier for universities to get an autonomous status.

Now, a college running for at least a decade with simple accreditation from any agency can apply for autonomous status. A joint committee of the state government, affiliating university, and the UGC will no longer inspect the applicant to help save time. The UGC gives the universities 30 days to send its recommendations.

The UGC sees the future of higher education in autonomous institutions and has been encouraging more universities to apply. Most recently, it granted full autonomy status to 8 central universities, including Delhi University (DU), University of Hyderabad, and Central University of Himachal Pradesh (CUHP).

Is the UGC right in its assessment that more autonomous educational institutions are what the country needs to improve education standards?

VIEW: It’s a good thing

If the goal is to liberalise the Indian education sector, then granting autonomy to more institutions is the right move. Many universities that aren’t necessarily the top-ranking ones are as ambitious in wanting to spread their wings. Why keep them grounded? With autonomy, they’ll be able to have new courses and departments without constantly having to check in with and get the approval of the UGC.

One example is CUHP. The university saw this as a milestone. CUHP Vice-Chancellor Prof Sat Parkash Bansal said the university could begin diploma and certificate courses, off-campus centres, hire foreign faculty, and introduce skill courses in line with the National Skills Qualification Framework, without the UGC’s approval.

A lot has been written about the declining standards of India’s higher education institutions. Some see excessive central control as one of the reasons for this. What the UGC’s recent decision has done is give universities freedom. It’s seen as a reward for maintaining a certain level of quality, which the Indian higher education sector has struggled with over the decades.

COUNTERVIEW: Not necessarily good

While the UGC sees graded autonomy as the natural evolution of academic freedom, some argue it’s quite the contrary. It’s a ruse since what’s really being considered is revenue and resources and not necessarily quality of education or research. While autonomous institutions can offer new courses, build new departments, and hire more faculty, the question of who pays for all this remains murky.

The UGC also ignores the relationship between financial autonomy and academic excellence. On the question of funding, since the UGC’s approval isn’t needed for a university to expand its offerings, this leaves the door open for the privatisation of public education. Bringing in private players is the last thing that needs to happen since the focus will move away from quality education. Another thing that could happen is the university will increase its fees to pay for expansions. Either way, that’s not good for the education sector.

Education should be a public good, not a private luxury for a few. The danger with the UGC granting autonomy willy-nilly is that education will become a privilege for those who can afford it. The concept of graded autonomy will also gradually erode any reservation policies meant to keep education open to all. It also absolved the state of its responsibility and obligation to fund education instead of making universities profit-driven entities.

Reference Links:

  • From now on performance to determine autonomy of educational institutions – The Economic Times
  • UGC mandates recognition of colleges to nudge them towards autonomy – Education Times
  • Open to granting autonomous status to more universities: UGC chairman – Times of India
  • With UGC’s ‘graded autonomy’, Central University of Himachal Pradesh sets its ambitions high – Tribune India
  • A Trojan Horse for privatisation of education – Deccan Herald
  • Autonomy in Higher Education, a Trojan Horse for Privatisation – The Wire

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) More autonomous institutions will help India’s education sector.

b) More autonomous institutions won’t help India’s education sector.


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