A Question of Academic Autonomy

An expert educationist calls for several considerations to be taken into account while deciding the fate of students

Published: 08th September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th September 2014 12:22 PM   |  A+A-

There has been a growing controversy about the duration of the undergraduate curriculum in Sciences and Humanities in university-level institutions in India caused by the Gazette notification of July 5 and the notices issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC). This is a sequel to the controversy in the Delhi University on three versus four-year degree programmes resulting in scrapping the four-year degrees in favour of three years. It will be helpful to understand the fundamental considerations for setting the duration and the validity of UGC’s stand.

The duration of the UG programmes should be set in accordance with the basic knowledge and competence to be acquired by a graduate. The landmark report of the University Education Commission headed by Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, stated that: “Anyone who wishes to live intelligently in the modern world should have some knowledge of selected materials from the three fields of (1) Science and Technology (2) Social studies including History (3) Humanities including language and literature, fine arts, ethics, philosophy and religion.”

The Radhakrishnan Commission forcefully argued against mindless uniformity. The report cautioned that the full genius of a country can develop only with freedom to create variety and our university system has not had that freedom. The report warned against regimented uniformity, which has become a habit of mind of Indian higher education and it is not inherent in the nature of good education. Currently, the convergence of the knowledge system demands exposure to several disciplines at the UG level.

PROF-M-ANANDAKRISHNAN.jpgThe Indian Education Commission (1964-66) headed by DS Kothari, recommended that: “The duration of the first degree course should not be less than three years. Apart from this, there should be no rigidity about the duration of courses in higher education. These may vary from university to university, and even in the same university, from subject to subject. The duration of courses for the second degree may be two or three years.” It also suggested that: “A beginning should also be made with the organisation of four-year special courses for the first degree in selected subjects.”

Keeping in view the demands of the modern society, most prestigious universities have adopted four-year curriculum for first degree. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, declined to follow the UGC idea of three-year UG programme. The UGC has backtracked in this case. At the same time the UGC has sent a communication to the IITs, which are governed by their own Acts and Statutes, as Institutes of National Importance, requesting them to “abide by the provisions of Section 22 of the UGC Act of 1956 and award only such degrees as have been specified by the UGC in the Gazette of India Published in July 2014.”

Apparently the UGC has not understood its own limits. The Gazette notification of July 5 specifies a minimum duration of three years for UG degrees in Arts, Science, Commerce and so on. Similarly UGC Regulation 1985 for Minimum Standards for Grant of First Degree states that “No student shall be eligible for the award of the first degree unless he has completed a three-year course”. Further Section 26 (f) of UGC Act empowers the UGC to define only the minimum standards. Thus the mandate of the UGC is to ensure adherence to minimum standards of education and not set maximum limits. If any institution offers a two-year UG degree, the UGC has the right and responsibility to stop it.

It is strange that the UGC has not comprehended the purpose of the term ‘minimum’ leading to irrelevant and confusing communication, besides interference in the academic domain of universities and IITs without any legal basis. The four-year UG programmes in Sciences and Humanities run by many IITs are quite unique and provide for graduate students to take courses in engineering disciplines. The responsibility to set the curriculum is with the Academic Senates of the IITs.

Envisaging such interferences, the Radhakrishnan Commission cautioned as follows: “..a great many of the present evils arise from the fact that most of our universities have no real autonomy whatsoever, and have proved incapable of resisting pressure from outside. Universities should be sensitive to enlightened public opinion; they should never let themselves be bullied or bribed into, actions that they know are educationally unsound or worse still, motivated by nepotism, faction and corruption. The right public policy is to give a university the best possible constitution, securing among other things of the inclusion, of wisely chosen external members of its governing body and then to leave it free from interference.”

The overwhelming majority of the academic community desires that the external interference in the academic autonomy of universities should be resisted vigorously except where minimum standards are violated. If in the opinion of the academics, four years are essential to produce a competent graduate, there should be no bar to it. The authority to make a decision on this lies with the Academic Council or Academic Senate and not the UGC.

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