Millennium Post

Anatomy of autonomy

The FYUP debate in Delhi University in the recent past has repeatedly brought the phrase ‘university autonomy’ into focus in rival discourses. Both armies ranged on opposite sides of the FYUP fence accuse each other of violating university autonomy, albeit on different occasions. Both are right; autonomy was violated on both occasions: at the time of introduction of FYUP and its unceremonious rollback. The vital difference is that rollback took place under intense popular pressure by the university community, while introduction took place despite popular opposition.

But what does the pious concept of autonomy mean? Obviously it means unfettered empowerment of statutory university bodies to take academic decisions within the framework of national policies. But the effective exercise of this autonomy requires as a pre-condition that those who comprise these bodies are persons of intellectual convictions who express these convictions with freedom and courage. Autonomy is not safe with academics whose convictions are ever wavering and whose spines are not even visible. If the university autonomy has been violated in the recent past it is only because those who are occupying high positions in our university systems and the University Grants Commission (UGC) do not respect its sanctity. Serving self interests is far more beneficial than protecting a vague philosophical concept such as autonomy!

Now observe what led to FYUP fiasco. The UPA government bigwigs ordered DU Vice Chancellor to remould the undergraduate structures to American model under the false pretext of globalising education. The VC considered himself as the CEO of a corporate entity otherwise called Delhi University. He ordered his Board of Governors (read his team members, Deans, HODs)  to constitute special Task Force and Empowered Committees to produce the baby (read FYUP) in less than the proverbial nine months. Forget wider consultations, meaningful debates, critiques! Forget that their decisions would impinge upon future of lakhs of students every year! The Academic and the Executive Councils were used only as necessary statutory platforms for the formality of approvals. HODs, Principals, Deans and senior Professors who dominate the Academic and Executive Council were told  as they are  constituent parts of the ‘establishment’, it was their obligation to support whatsoever the CEO proposes. Those who showed any sign of contrary view were reprimanded and punished. Imagine high academic functionaries allowing themselves to be used as errand boys without a ripple of protest! Privately many complained against the oppressive environment but in the statutory University Bodies they dutifully raised hands with the Vice chancellor.

And the story was repeated when the FYUP  began to unfold in the reverse direction. Under intense public and political pressure the UGC ordered rollback of FYUP and all the VC’s soldiers dutifully raised their hands in favour. Merit or otherwise of FYUP was never the reason for the raised hand. Only some elected teacher representatives opposed on both occasions.

And the role of the UGC! Hilarious! Prompted by the Ministry of HRD in June 2014 it suddenly realised that FYUP was against the National Policy of Education. But when during 2012-13 period, when the violations were pointed out, the Commission conveniently looked the other way. The UGC knew Dinesh Singh had the  ‘do anything permit’ from Congress bosses. Most ridiculous was the Chairman UGC  fawning all over Dinesh Singh at a University function telling the assembled guests that Dinesh Singh was the divine gift of god to DU. The Chairman in his effusive enthusiasm wished  god to assign his remaining life to the VC. Contrast this to the harsh tones of UGC’s orders to the university in the month of June 2014 under altered circumstances!!

Why does it happen in the domain of  institutions of higher education and research? It happens because over the years there has developed a well entrenched and efficiently managed system of creating groups of favourites and rewarding them. High positions are offered not on merit or competence but on proximity to powerful persons in the academia or in governments. Rewards are too many and too tempting: professorship, principalship, being put on the panel of experts, made government nominees, being assigned lucrative projects, vice chancellorships, membership of UGC, chairs of various apex academic councils, etc. There is a mad race to become favourites of ruling cartels and individuals for advancing career. Any consideration for autonomous thinking loses any relevance in this race for raising selves.

What is the lesson in all this? Autonomy is to be deserved. It has to be protected by women and men of courage. Those who sway as weather cocks with changing political winds cannot enjoy or protect autonomy.

The author is former member Executive and Academic Councils, Delhi University
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