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Abhijit Bora
Date of Publish: 2017-04-18

Autonomous Colleges in northeast: A long way to go



The University Grants Commission(UGC) document on the X Plan profile of higher education in India clearly states, “The only safe and better way to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to delink most of the colleges from the affiliating structure. Colleges with academic and operative freedom are doing better and have more credibility. The financial support to such colleges boosts the concept of autonomy. It is proposed to increase the number of autonomous colleges to spread the culture of autonomy, and the target is to make 10 per cent of eligible colleges autonomous by the end of the Plan.”

Taking a cue from this declaration that holds true even today it needs to be said that a lot of water has passed, since the setting up of the great Alma Mater Cotton College more than a century ago and Gauhati University about half-a-century later in Guwahati, in the erstwhile undivided Assam and today’s north-eastern region. Many changes have taken place in the field of education in this region during this intervening period to the point that a student can take admission in a university within a few hours of journey from his or her home.

Even in other states of the region, educational opportunities at the university-level have increased nowadays than a few decades back.

Let’s take the case of Assam. The state has about ten universities and similar higher educational institutions including Indian Institute of Technology, agricultural university, women’s university etc. which cover both old and well-established ones to those recently set up. There are about 400 colleges in the state which offer various disciplines in all walks of life. However, there is an important cliché here which is not an ideal reflection on the state’s standard of education at college level.

At present, Assam has only two colleges under the scheme of Autonomous Colleges of UGC which is a reflection of quality of that particular college to a large extent. And both these colleges- North Lakhimpur College in Lakhimpur and Jagannath Barooah College in Jorhat are under the jurisdiction of Dibrugarh University. Gauhati University and Assam University, Silchar do not have any college under this scheme, according to a list of autonomous colleges published by the UGC on November 17, 2016.

Photo courtesy : Dr. Arabinda Rajkhowa

The UGC list also shows that in the whole of the north-eastern region, next to Assam, only Nagaland University has two of its colleges under this scheme and none of the other six states have even one college recognized as Autonomous.

In contrast to this, at the national level, Tamil Nadu has a record 174 colleges under this scheme with 35 as the highest number of colleges under a single university – Anna University. Andhra Pradesh follows suit with 132 of them. This is out of a total of 581 such colleges under this scheme from 101 universities in 23 states (out of 29 in all) across the country.

The question that arises here is why such a dismal scenario despite a lot of ongoing debates and discussions happening about improvement of higher education in the state and the region in general.

The status of Autonomy awarded by the UGC is accorded only after a rigorous process of selection-cum-scrutiny from amongst eligible colleges qualifying in various parameters with high academic standards as basic criteria of the courses. This award comes with a considerable degree of freedom like opening of new courses and programmes, independent conduct of examinations, award of degrees, financial matters etc. Obviously, this is not an easy task to be accomplished.

But, the moot points remain the same. Why such a minuscule number of colleges in this category and whether the number of applicant colleges is reasonably good enough. Though we could not manage to get a list of colleges applying for this status, it is our personal impression that it would not be quite a comfortable number.

If a smaller state like Nagaland with a small population and number of colleges can have two Autonomous colleges why does Assam also has only two such colleges. Let us rather not compare the situation with major states like Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh.

Can this scenario be taken as a result primarily of ‘lack of interest and inspiration’ among the college fraternities?

Further, do the esteemed readers of this article recall any write up or news on this particularly- encouraging and inspiring development that these two colleges have managed to achieve? This is because the media of the state have also failed to highlight such a positive development that has a potential to inspire many others concerned.

There are a few associations, organisations directly or indirectly related to this issue which include Assam College Principals’ Council, Human Resource Development Centre in universities (not all of course), Assam College Teachers’ Association, Internal Quality Assurance Cells in universities and colleges. They have to shoulder a major responsibility of taking the required steps for encouraging more and more colleges to apply for the status.

Further, the vice chancellors, principals themselves, senior teachers among others need to encourage the colleges to apply for this award. The facilities that come with this status are highly beneficial and crucial for advancement of the entire teaching-learning process. Besides, such a status should also be considered as a prestige for the very society in which these colleges exist in the state and the region alike.

Photo courtesy :http://jbcollege.org.in

Looking beyond the general and overall day-to-day management of the colleges and setting the goals for the distant future requires adequate vision and foresight. This needs to be developed earnestly if we would like our institutions to be reckoned with in higher education after 30 or 50 years.

This is becoming extremely crucial every passing day as students’ enrolment would depend to a large extent on special honours like this one in the foreseeable future. This is because competition for attracting students is becoming highly tougher over the years.

A good and respectable grade from National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is essential for financial and other recognition. But possessing a status like autonomy is another feather in the crown that students and even faculty would look to in future before enrolling in a college in any discipline – whether technical or general.

Hence, the writing on the wall is very clear. Under such circumstances, those institutions foresighted and visionary ones would prosper and others would be left aside on the race to survival and excellence in the ultimate analysis.

According to a UGC publication, the affiliating system of colleges was originally designed when their number under a university was small. The university could then effectively oversee the working of the colleges, act as an examining body and award degrees on their behalf. The system has now become unwieldy and it is becoming increasingly difficult for a university to attend to the varied needs of individual colleges. The colleges do not have the freedom to modernise their curricula or make them locally relevant. The regulations of the university and its common system, governing all colleges alike, irrespective of their characteristic strengths, weaknesses and locations, have affected the academic development of individual colleges. Colleges that have the potential for offering programmes of a higher standard do not have the freedom to offer them.

The 1964-66 Education Commission pointed out that the exercise of academic freedom by teachers is a crucial requirement for development of the intellectual climate of our country. Unless such a climate prevails, it is difficult to achieve excellence in our higher education system. With students, teachers and management being co-partners in raising the quality of higher education, it is imperative that they share a major responsibility. Hence, the Education Commission recommended college autonomy, which, in essence, is the instrument for promoting academic excellence.

As against this dismal scenario, in the recent times, it is seen that there has been frenzy of opening new universities anywhere and everywhere as well as initiative to upgrade reputed colleges as universities. Not only in general streams, but also in technical and professional disciplines.

It would have been a much better idea to develop and consolidate the existing institutions of higher learning like the state universities, colleges among others rather than populist measures like declaration to set up a university or a medical or engineering at the drop of a hat.

Has the Education Department bothered anything about the fate of those like – Assam Women’s University, Jorhat, Rajiv Gandhi University of Cooperative Management, Sivasagar among others.

Why not take steps for strengthening these existing institutions prior to going for wholly-newer ones in the bargain.

Abhijit Bora

( Abhijit Bora is Professor and Head of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University. The views expressed are the author's own. )



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