Karnataka state university reform could improve quality and autonomy

Aiming to reverse falling standards in state universities and increase the focus on research and innovation, the southern Indian state of Karnataka has become the first to separate academic and administrative university functions from affiliated colleges – a move that could have an immense impact on Indian’s higher education system.

The state legislature unanimously passed the Karnataka State Innovative Universities Bill 2011 last June. Two of the state’s oldest universities, Mysore and Karnatak, have been chosen to pilot the new system, which includes greater autonomy for universities to devise their own curricula.

“The academic freedom that this revised governance structure will provide will be critical in making the university world class,” said Dr SS Hugar, chair of the department of commerce at Karnatak University.

State-funded universities in India have a large number of affiliated colleges, sometimes as many as 800, often leading to mismanagement.

“The function of universities in India is to manage colleges, conduct exams and bring out results on time. There is no time and scope for research and innovation. In no other country do we have universities whose job is to manage 500 to 800 colleges,” said Professor NR Madhava Menon, founder-director of the National Law School of India University in Bangalore.

“The role of universities is not to manage affiliated colleges but to produce knowledge, apply knowledge to research and build an academic culture,” said Professor MK Sridhar, executive director of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, a think-tank under the chief minister’s office, which recommended the changes.

If successful, Karnataka’s experience could be replicated in other states. Of the country’s 450 government-funded universities only 40 are central universities. The rest are state funded, which some believe has led to weaknesses in the system overall.

The central government has been attempting to boost innovation and research capacity in higher education, announcing plans to set up 14 innovation universities specialising in various themes including energy, environment and leadership.

While these new universities will be set up from scratch, with the freedom to decide their own charters and regulations, Karnataka’s innovation bill is far-reaching as it targets existing universities, changing entrenched governance and academic structures.

Pilot universities

The two pilot universities will now have two parallel systems – unitary and affiliating.

The unitary system will comprise the university, its constituent colleges and schools, postgraduate education and research. The affiliating system will manage the affiliation of undergraduate and postgraduate colleges, examinations and curriculum development.

“The university will be free from the burden of looking after affiliated colleges. It can develop interdisciplinary schools with highly flexible curricula and focus on research. These will be two independent systems with clearly defined functions,” Sridhar said.

“The higher education system in India which lives in the affiliated colleges is crumbling. State governments have chosen not to take any active role in building higher education in the country,” said Professor R Govinda, vice-chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, describing Karnataka’s attempt at innovative reform to university education as “laudable”.

Academic freedom and research

The changes envisage greater university autonomy.

“The legislation minimises political involvement in the university’s administration and gives autonomy to the process of selection of vice-chancellors and teachers and curriculum development,” Sridhar explained.

The restructuring will give the two pilot universities much-needed freedom for curriculum innovations and increasing the interface with industry, according to Karnatak University’s Hugar

“There is a lot of political interference with non-academics represented in university academic bodies,” Hugar said, adding: “At present there are lots of checks and controls. Whatever course we want to introduce has to be approved by the government.”

Both universities will have a director of innovation, research and quality, and a research and innovation council to promote innovation and assist teachers and students on intellectual property and patent acquisition. The councils will maintain a catalogue of funding schemes available to researchers in all disciplines at the state, national and international levels.

“This is a first-of-its-kind initiative. While the [elite] Indian institutions of technology and the Indian institutes of management have similar bodies, universities in India have until now not actively pursued research or incubation or even actively competed for research funds,” said Hugar.

Vice-chancellor selection

The selection of vice-chancellors for government-funded universities has long been marred by charges of lobbying and attempts to influence selection committees. The aim of the new system is to free the selection process from political interference.

Karnatak and Mysore universities will be headed by a president, appointed by a collegium comprising the chief minister of Karnataka, the leader of opposition in the state legislature, the speaker, the Karnataka chief justice or his nominee not below a sitting high-court judge, and the higher education minister.

The president will pick a name from among a three-member panel recommended by a search committee set up by the Karnataka State Council for Higher Education.

There will be no nomination for the post of vice-chancellor from the state government or the state governor – who is also the chancellor of the state university – as is currently the case, thus eliminating the state governor’s role in university management.

The university president will be a mentor “and not have any role in the day-to-day functioning of the university”, according to Sridhar.

Not all of the changes have been positively received.

The governor of Karnataka, Hansraj Bhardwaj, disagreed with the new appointment procedures for vice-chancellors, arguing that they do not conform with University Grants Commission regulations.

As the state legislation is contrary to the central one, he has sent it back to the law department before seeking presidential assent. According to Sridhar, the state is awaiting a decision from the central government, on what is seen by some observers as a technicality.

Opposition to reform

The selection reform and other areas have aroused opposition.

The All India Democratic Students Organisation in Mysore questioned the justification for politicians to be in the collegium and their qualification to elect a university president.

The bill also allows contributions from industry and private player to improve the financial health of universities.

While these are similar to recommendations made by the National Knowledge Commission under the Indian prime minister’s office, some Mysore University academics say this is akin to privatisatising higher education.

Karnatak University’s Vice-chancellor HB Walikar said: “I don’t see anything wrong with the existing system. The university has freedom to conduct its activities even now.”

Both houses of Karnataka’s legislature passed the bill without debate. Irrespective of the central government’s decisions on the role of the governor, the bill ushers in much-needed reform in university governance in India.