New Delhi: The 14 innovation universities that are being planned as centres of excellence along the lines of Harvard and Oxford may be kept outside the purview of the nation’s top audit body so that they are financially independent, which would make them unique in the country.
Strict regulation: The campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Staff salaries and other expenses at universities and institutions in India, except in the elite institutions, are regulated. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
In a concept note drawn up by the ministry of human resource development (HRD), which oversees education, the government envisages these universities as autonomous entities, with no “regulation from outside”.
The note, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, states that the innovation universities will frame their own rules on academics and the qualifications needed for teaching positions, and get to decide their own fees, curriculum and rules for the appointment of faculty.
With regard to financial autonomy, the ministry says funds spent on research or teaching will be kept out of the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, or CAG, a constitutional body that audits and assists state and Central institutions with accounts and accountability.
The universities will instead ensure accountability through peer groups and structure public disclosure on funding expenses, research grants and admissions.
Universities and institutions in India are currently governed by regulators such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) or the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) on staff salaries and other expenses. Course curriculums are approved by the UGC.
These regulators, often criticized for being opaque, are being dissolved to create a National Commission for Higher Education and Research as part of the reformist agenda of the HRD minister Kapil Sibal, who took charge in May.
Central universities and institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are run as autonomous entities under the HRD ministry.
“Being able to fix its own fees and curriculum is one of the key steps towards autonomy for an academic institution. This is the sort of autonomy that Central universities and the IITs and IIMs have already been given but bureaucratic procedures hamper it on the ground,” says Shobha Mishra, joint director of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and a member of its education committee. “Every government Bill and policy looks good and progressive on paper but until they are implemented, one can’t say much.”
Mishra travelled with a government delegation to the US in October to discuss and invite collaborations from foreign universities to set up some of the innovation universities in India.
In the past few years, the IIMs and IITs have struggled with the government and ministers over turf. The tussle began in 2004 when the then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi ordered the IIMs to slash their Rs3 lakh fee for the two-year course by 80%, a move that was successfully challenged in court by students.
In 2007, the then HRD minister Arjun Singh asked the IIMs to delay admissions as the government fought a Supreme Court order on reservations. Admissions were allowed 16 days later after protests broke out across the country.
With Sibal, the IITs have struggled for greater autonomy in faculty appointments, a discretion diluted by a government notification on 16 September stipulating a minimum teaching experience for professors at the IITs and IIMs.
The main debate between these elite schools and the government boils down to one of finances and governance. The government wants to continue to ratify fees and hires and decide pay and promotions. The schools maintain that they can manage money and people.
The innovation universities, if set up along the guidelines in the concept note, will be free to appoint faculty by invitation (regardless of age or experience) based on the recommendations of an internal search committee. They can define their own appointment criteria and pay structures, and their teachers would be free to structure pedagogy and research curriculum.
Mishra says the real problem would be in attracting top-of-the-class faculty for these universities.
“Already, universities and research institutions are struggling to find good faculty,” said Mishra. “With more universities being set up, this is going to be one of the biggest challenges.”
The note on the innovation universities, however, doesn’t resolve the controversial issue of the appointment of vice-chancellors for the institutions.
The HRD ministry led by Arjun Singh had cleared the appointment of vice-chancellors to 15 Central universities, 12 of which were yet to be set up, a haste that had drawn protests.
Anil Sadgopal, who had a hand in drawing up education policies as a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education, however, says the present system of appointing vice-chancellors is democratic.
“No method is perfect,” he said. “What we have followed so far is a very reliable method and there is no need to change that.”
Sadgopal, who also taught at the Delhi University, says complete autonomy for any university would be disastrous.
“One cannot leave everything to internal regulation. In a university set up in collaboration with a foreign education provider, who would ensure that Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter, isn’t described as a ‘terrorist’ in textbooks? Autonomy must not mean laissez-faire,” he said.
The concept note calls for fine-tuning of the university-government relationship as the state, being the principal finance provider for such varsities, is accountable to Parliament for the money invested.
Mishra says autonomy is not a viable and sustainable concept in universities set up with only government funding.
“The foreign providers have been invited for assistance and collaboration in terms of course structures and best practices in education, and it is unlikely that they will put in money too,” she said. “What, then, is needed is an absolute industry interface, which would ensure fund flow and autonomy for the universities.”