Andre Beteille: Academic Autonomy

The subject of academic autonomy may be discussed in more than one way. There is firstly the autonomy of the academic institution — the university or college — in relation to the government or other organ of society. Closely related to this is the autonomy of the academic profession, involving a particular kind of work viewed as a service by society as a whole. In the latter case the problems are similar to those of the legal and medical professions, although lawyers, doctors and academics function in institutional settings that differ considerably from each other.

There are self-employed doctors and lawyers, but hardly any self-employed academics. Doctors certainly recognize that when they give up their private practice to work in a public hospital, they give up a part of their autonomy in return for other considerations, including those of security. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from this about professional life in general: it may not be possible beyond a point maximize both professional autonomy and occupational security at the same time.

It may be argued that doctors and lawyers who value their independence above everything else should work as self-employed professionals. At the same time, even when they seek employment in public institutions, they should not be made to surrender their autonomy as professionals, because that would harm those whom they serve and not just themselves. The demand for professional autonomy is based on something more than trade union rights of the ordinary sort. It is recognized in so far as there is a link between the strength of professional autonomy and the quality of professional service. I am not sure how widely this link is recognized in our society, or how far doctors, lawyers and other professionals employed in public institutions carry conviction when they claim that they want more autonomy for themselves in order to be able to serve others better.

In cannot be too strongly emphasized that the strength of academic autonomy will depend ultimately on the value assigned by society as a whole to independence in academic life. This value is formally acknowledged by making academic institutions self-governing. In India universities are not department of government, they are governed by own Acts, statues and ordinances. It is not always relaized that at least formally Indian universities enjoys greater institutional autonomy than universities in many other countries, including some European countries with strong academic traditions.

Even in the best of times universities have not enjoyed complete autonomy anywhere. Because the institutional autonomy of the university can never be complete, it can never be fully secure. In Europe, the principal threat to university autonomy in the past was the church, now it is the state. The long arm of government has reached into the inner recess or universities in one European country after another, and I have heard academics in Belgium, Holland and England say that their government are determined to destroy their universities. Without yielding to hysteria, one has to take note of the changes taking place in the relations between universities and government throughout the world today.

In India, the government is making its presence increasingly felt in the universities even though it has not shut down university department as in Holland or told university professors to take early retirement as in England. The main instrument of intervention, whether it is applied directly by government of through the University Grant Commission, is the financial sanction; if universities were not perpetually in need of more money, the intervention would probably be less odious. The justification most commonly given for intervention is the affairs of the universities is that they are not able on their own either maintain standards or control corruption.

Indian universities would be able to protect their autonomy better if they were less open to charges of corruption and inefficiency. No public institution can insist on enlarged rights of self-governance against universal suspicion of corruption and inefficiency. The university’s right of self-governance is damaged most when the strongest charges against the authorities of the university came not from outside but from university teachers themselves. A growing number of young and talented teachers have convinced themselves that professors, head of departments and deans, not to speak of vice-chancellors and the pro-vice-chancellors, are corrupt as well as inept. A very common argument in support of time-bound promotions is that academic selection committee can not trusted to either recognize or reward merit. When academic selection committee cannot be trusted by new entrants to the professions, what happens to the academic self-governance and university autonomy?

While it is undeniable that corruption and inefficiency are widespread in self-governing institutions, it would be foolish to tar all universities or all sections of any university with the same brush. In talking about corruption and inefficiency, we must never forget that universities are perhaps the most exposed among institutions and therefore their faults are always exposed to public gaze. And if it be argued that these particular faults in our universities must be corrected by tightening government control over them, who is to say that our governmental bureaucracy is lily-white in its purity? It will be very hard indeed to prove that our better universities — like the University of Delhi or Jawaharlal Nehru University — are more corrupt or more inefficient than the University Grant Commission.

Denigration of their own profession has become a way of life with our academics, and it sits ill with their plea for greater academic autonomy. The attack from within on the university’s organs of governance has acquired a new character with the development of an active, vigorous and militant trade union movement among college and university teachers. Whereas in the past vice-chancellor, the academic council and the executive councils were criticized privately and discreetly, the onslaught against them is now direct and open. The indefinite strike provides an occasion to otherwise sedate men and women to express themselves without let of hindrance against the constituted authorities of the university.

Where a union of college and university teachers is particularly strong and self-confident, it might seek to negotiate directly with the education secretary or even the education minister, over the heads of the vice-chancellor and the executive council. An irresponsible government might even encourage this as a way of setting one part of the university against the other. The union defines the university in the image of capitalist enterprise and other, willy-nilly, come to acknowledge the definition. To the extent that teachers play their part in accordance with such a definition, the case for autonomy and self-governance becomes weakened.

It can of course be argued that by union leadership that the constituted authorities of the universities are so inept that they are forced to bypass them the enter into direct negotiations with the government. This way well turn out to true in future, although I do not believe it to be true today. But when it does turn out to be true, if it does, the university will hardly be in position to ask for greater powers of self-governance. No vice-chancellor should be above criticism, but university teachers must recognize the damage done to the case of autonomy when they allow their unions to undermine the dignity of the vice-chancellor’s office.

Unionization has not only led to increasing confrontation between elected leadership and the constituted authorities of the university, it has also provided a foothold to political parties within the university. Our political parties being what they are, it would be surprise for them to miss an opportunity, while in opposition, to embarrass the constituted authorities. Moreover some parties are committed to the view that in a class-divided society every institution conceals a division of interests as in a capitalist enterprise.

University teachers have the freedom to join political parties of their choice. This is a part of their professional autonomy, and it is a good thing that they enjoy the freedom, provided they respect their non-partisan colleagues and provided that they do not always put loyalty to their party above loyalty to their university. We must surely acknowledge that if interference by civil servants in the affairs of the university is a violation of university autonomy, so too is intervention by leaders of political parties. Throughout the strike of August-September 1987 major decisions concerning the resumption of normal academic work were taken not in the universities but in the offices of political parties. The record of these parties do not inspire much confidence int heir commitment to the principle of academic autonomy. And it is one thing for academics to be unwilling victims of bureaucratic hight-handedness, but quite another for them to court party leaders and seek direction from them in the conduct of their own affairs.

Andre Beteille

Times of India, February 6, 1988

About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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