Landmark decision gives more freedom to top universities

In a landmark announcement last week the Indian government announced greater autonomy for 62 leading higher education institutions to start new courses, plan their own curriculum and syllabi, decide their own admission procedures and enter into academic collaborations with foreign institutions.

In a boost to internationalisation, 25 top-ranked universities out of the dozens selected will also be able to hire foreign faculty and enrol foreign students – up to a fifth of the student body and faculty – and be allowed to fix fees and charges from foreign students “without restriction”. The others will be able to do so with government approval.

In all, five centrally-funded universities, 21 state universities, 26 private and so-called ‘deemed’ universities and 10 other colleges will benefit from the government’s initiative announced by Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar on 20 March.

The minister described it as a “historic decision” that would enable institutions to function more efficiently.

Javadekar said the government is “striving to introduce a liberalised regime in the education sector” and added the “emphasis is on linking autonomy with quality”.

While the institutions will continue to be under the ambit of the national higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC), they will have the freedom to start new departments, off-campus centres, skills development courses and research parks, and provide incentive-based emoluments to the faculty, the minister said in a press briefing.

The selected institutes can engage in academic collaborations with the world’s top 500 universities, and also set up distance-learning courses, the minister added.

The centrally-funded institutions include Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Aligarh Muslim University, the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Mumbai and the University of Hyderabad, among others.


A day after the announcement, students and teachers from a large number of colleges from Delhi University – which was not among the universities given autonomy – and JNU, which was, held a protest describing it as an “ill-conceived decision”. The Delhi University Teachers’ Association said it was a step towards privatisation of publicly-funded institutions.

The Federation of Central Universities Teachers' Associations (FEDCUTA) said financial autonomy would enable institutions to decide fees, but it also means cuts in government funding. “The government wants to reduce the institutions’ dependence on government funding and this would make education commercial, market determined and market dependent,” FEDCUTA said in a statement.

JNU teachers said in a statement it would bestow on “authoritarian university administrations” the impunity to “flout all rules, norms and codes and exercise unchecked power in privatising universities and undo the agenda of social justice”.

Dinesh Singh, former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, criticised the fact that the UGC will continue to have oversight, despite the proposed autonomy.

The role of the UGC has been regressive and counterproductive and it was important to do away with UGC control and regulations, he said, adding: “The institutions can work better without the government meddling in their affairs.”

Two categories of autonomy

Universities will not be equally autonomous. Depending on these institutions' score in the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) rankings, autonomy is granted in two categories.

The top 50 institutions with a score of 3.5 or above (on a scale of 0 to 4) will enjoy complete financial and administrative freedom. Exempt from regular UGC inspections, they will be reviewed based on self-reporting.

Category two institutions with a score of 3.0 to 3.49, of top 51-100 institutions, will have autonomy with some conditions. They will also be free from UGC inspections but their performance will be peer-reviewed. Unlike the category one institutions, they will require authorisation to enter into collaborations with foreign institutions.

Arun Kumar Grover, vice-chancellor of Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh, which has been granted category two autonomy, said in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper the university, which was “battling a financial crisis already, will have to become more self-reliant. Any new academic programmes will have to be funded by the university. Though it can build an incentive structure for faculty, it will still have to strictly adhere to pay scales as laid down by the UGC. The incentive structure shall have to be paid from PU’s own revenue sources.”

He noted that to attract foreign faculty PU would have to devise a “better remuneration system for outsiders, while there will be no such freedom for regular faculty for whom it will have to adhere to UGC norms”.

Grover added that PU was likely to launch twinning programmes “of short duration” with universities in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

One of the two private universities to be granted autonomy, OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat in northern Haryana state, described the decision as a “milestone” for the university, with category two autonomy.

"This recognition initiates a major paradigm shift that will mark the future of Indian universities and encourage our pursuit of institutional excellence in higher education,” said C Raj Kumar the university’s vice-chancellor, in a statement on Thursday, noting the university would be able to hire global talent.

“It is imperative for India to take stock of the state of its universities and redefine their roles in the fast-changing global scenario. It is time for India to join ranks with world-class universities and improve the academic environment for our students," the non-profit university’s founder, Naveen Jindal, said.

Ten colleges – among them engineering, management, arts and law institutions – have also been granted autonomy, but unlike universities they do not have the authority to award their own degrees. Their degrees are awarded by the universities the colleges are affiliated to.

Javadekar said the colleges will have autonomy on admissions, curriculum, the organisation and assessment of examinations as well as announcing exam results, while degrees will
carry the university name along with theirs.

A list of 60 of the 62 institutions and their autonomy categories is available at this link. Two institutions were added after it was published.