Our Universities Need More Autonomy and Less Bureaucracy

In September 2017, the Chemical Engineering program at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech, USA) announced in an open letter that it will no longer pursue accreditation with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The reasons cited included “the restrictions and requirements imposed by ABET criteria” and “the narrow definition of engineering subjects imposed by ABET examiners” that did not allow the students “to take full advantage of Caltech”. Caltech’s Chemical Engineering program has consistently been ranked among top 10 in the world since the inception of the ranking.

In September 2016, the Council of the University of Cambridge (UK) submitted the nomination of Prof. Stephen J. Toope, a Canadian, to the Regent House of the University for appointment as the next Vice-Chancellor (Cambridge University Reporter, No. 6436, dated 26-09-2016). The Council and the Regent House of the University of Cambridge can be compared with the Syndicate and the Senate of a Pakistani university, respectively. Overall, 8 out of 10 members of the search committee, including its chair, were professors of the same university (Cambridge University Reporter, No. 6411, dated 20-01-2016).

OU Endowment Management oversees the investments of over £4 billion on behalf of the University of Oxford (UK). However, the constituent colleges of the University have individual endowments and can choose to invest with other investment managers.

Random pieces of information, right? Not really! They are in fact testimonies to the academic, organizational, and financial autonomy the world’s top universities enjoy.

As far as the situation in Pakistan is concerned, a single aspect of the methodology for international university ranking is sufficient to expose the inertia and outdatedness of our system. The international faculty ratio and the international student ratio are worth 5% each in the overall score of the much-celebrated QS World University Rankings. We, on the other hand, begin our advertisements for faculty positions and student admissions with “Applications are invited from Punjab-domiciled…” It is like betting on a three-legged horse to win the derby.

University autonomy is a complex concept and lacks precise definition. Broadly stated, it is the right of a university to be free of interference by the State in its affairs. The European University Association considers (1) organizational autonomy, (2) financial autonomy, (3) staffing autonomy, and (4) academic autonomy as its essential aspects.

To get a glimpse of what organizational autonomy encompasses, consider that to score high in this area, a university should be free to set the criterion for the selection of its executive head (that is, the Vice-Chancellor in Pakistan), to define the terms of contract including procedure for dismissal, to make the appointment for any period of time, and not be required to get any of these actions validated by any level of the Government.

If you are not surprised (or shocked) yet, here is more for you. Universities are considered academically autonomous if they are, among other things, free to define their admission criteria, to launch new programs at all levels of study without prior accreditation, and as highlighted above with the Caltech’s example, choose whether or not to get any particular program accredited. They are considered autonomous in staffing (that is, human resources) if they are free to decide the procedures for recruitment, promotion, and dismissal as well as to decide the salary bands for senior academic and administrative staff.

For a comprehensive list of the indicators of university autonomy, the reader is referred to the University Autonomy Tool (www.university-autonomy.eu) developed by the European University Association.

Explain these aspects of the concept of university autonomy to a “babu” in the Higher Education Department or the Higher Education Commission and he/she will be having nightmares for the rest of his/her life.

The vision (might I say delusion) to create a uniformity of charters between different public sector universities is not only counterproductive, it is an outright assault on the very foundations of university autonomy.

The problems with the existing charters of the public sector universities may be real. There may even be instances of vice-chancellors misusing the executive authority. But to add further layers of bureaucratic or political interference is not a solution to these problems. The solution is to strengthen the existing statutory bodies (that is, the Syndicates, the Senates, and the Academic Councils) and the process of internal accountability of the executive. The solution is to empower the chairpersons and the deans and the pro-vice-chancellors, not the section officers and the secretaries and the ministers.

We cannot solve today’s problems, and those of tomorrow, with yesterday’s mindset. Our babu’s mindset, on the other hand, belongs not to yesterday, but to yester-century. It will be foolish to even think about taking a chance.

So, is there a need to review the charters of the public sector universities? Of course, there is. But to make them more autonomous and freer from the bureaucracy, not the other way round.

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