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Why students, staff are up in arms over 'autonomy' for St. Stephen's College

Praneta Jha | Updated on: 3 March 2017, 22:54 IST
(Courtsey: Facebook)

While the administration of Delhi University's St. Stephen’s College has decided to apply to the UGC for an autonomous status, teachers and students are up in arms against the decision on the grounds that “autonomy” would pave the way for privatisation and commercialisation.


Besides, the protesting staff and students allege that the college's Governing Body took the decision in an “autocratic” and “undemocratic” manner, without consulting the stakeholders and disregarding the dissent of the four teacher representatives in the GB.


Hundreds of students have been protesting daily since 25 February, when the GB meeting was held, while the Staff Association passed a resolution on Wednesday against the decision. Teachers have also decided to resign from all voluntary administrative posts in protest.


So, what is the problem with “autonomy”?


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Speaking to Catch, Prof Nandita Narain, an elected teacher representative in the GB, said, “Autonomy has various aspects, including financial autonomy. While the college would be able to decide its own fees, the UGC Guidelines for Autonomy do not mention anywhere that the college would continue to be fully funded by the University Grants Commission as it is now. The guidelines also say the college would not get money for hiring additional teachers.”


She said while academic freedom was already being eroded in the DU, just like in other public universities across the country, the central university was still autonomous and extremely flexible to accommodate the needs of individual colleges, including starting new courses.


The need for funds would lead to the introduction of “commercial, revenue-generating” courses, including short-term ones, while the regular courses might suffer. Narain pointed out that the college principal already planned to start a host of short-term courses for revenue, such as cyber security, etc. While the college has 1,200 regular undergraduate and postgraduate students, there are around 1,500 non-regular students enrolled in various courses such as foreign languages.


Narain said once the college becomes autonomous, the quality of courses could deteriorate, as the college would no longer be subject to the quality audit of the DU as the statutes and ordinances of the university would not apply.


Besides, the structure for autonomous colleges has no provision for a Staff Council, which provides certain protections to the staff and gives them powers to make recommendations and take certain decisions. On the other hand, the number of teacher representatives in the GB would be reduced to two from four.


Narain pointed out that being a constituent college of the DU, St. Stephen’s was getting “the best of both worlds”. The college already enjoys autonomy in selection of teachers and students – its processes of recruitment and admissions are different from the university – while getting guaranteed access to central funding as well as to the DU’s “wide pool of academic expertise and infrastructure”.


Then what is the sudden emergency need for autonomy? And why is the government pushing for greater autonomy of some colleges?” she said.


By way of examples, Narain explained how things went downhill at Madras Christian College and Loyola College in Chennai after they became autonomous institutions.


She said the move was part of the larger agenda of dismantling public institutions and privatisation, as India had signed an agreement with the WTO that treated education as a commodity or tradeable service.


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On 23 February, Principal John Varghese issued a notice for an emergency meeting of the Governing Body to be held on 25 February with the sole agenda “to discuss the proposal made by the University of Delhi for grant of autonomy to St. Stephen’s College and to take necessary consequent action”.


On 24 February, Narain wrote to the principal, objecting to the hurried nature of the meeting called without the “proposal from the university” or relevant documents being sent to members in advance.


However, as members got to know during the meeting, there was no “proposal” as such made by the university, and the UGC Guidelines for Autonomy were being “incorrectly described” as the “university proposal”, said Narain.


In the letter, Narain appealed that the meeting be rescheduled so that the members could “study the issue and discuss it with stakeholders” as it was an issue with “far reaching implications for the structure of governance, financial stability, service conditions of employees,academic viability, fee patterns, etc.”


Meanwhile, a petition was signed by over 500 students and at least 30 teachers and submitted to the Governing Body, demanding that the GB meeting be deferred.


There was no response to the letter or the petition, and the meeting took place.


As nearly 500 students sat in silent protest outside the meeting venue on Saturday, the GB decided to seek autonomous status for the college, ignoring the objection by the teacher members.


On Monday, over 600 students, along with faculty members and karamcharis, marched to the principal’s house. Varghese met the protesters and promised that the GB meeting would be reconvened on Wednesday and that the process of application for autonomy would be “halted” until this meeting, but the meeting did not take place.


Speaking anonymously, a third-year student of St. Stephen’s said, “When we met the principal, he kept telling us that autonomy would make our college better, because of greater industrial investments, there would be collaborations with industry and universities abroad, etc. But he did not give us a satisfactory answer as to why the decision was taken in such an undemocratic and fishy manner.”


On Thursday, the students, teachers and non-teaching staff gathered on campus for a public lecture on “autonomy” for colleges by academic Satish Deshpande, who teaches at the Delhi School of Economics and is an alumnus of St. Stephen’s.


The Staff Association on Wednesday had released a press statement, in which it “strongly condemned the threats meted out by the Principal, Prof John Varghese, to two teacher representatives on the Governing Body after its meeting held on 25.2.2017 purportedly for giving their dissent on the issue of autonomous status for the college”.


The association also demanded “that the Governing Body takes back the decision to apply for autonomous status taken in a secretive and hurried manner without application of mind or consultation with stake-holders”.


The release stated that the move “could change the very character of college as a premier public-funded institution, providing high quality affordable education to diverse sections of society”.


When contacted by Catch, Principal John Varghese refused to comment, saying he would call a press conference soon.


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First published: 3 March 2017, 22:25 IST