Aiming to reverse falling standards in state universities and increase the focus on research and innovation, the southern Indian state of Karnataka has become the first to separate academic and administrative university functions from affiliated colleges – a move that could have an immense impact on Indian’s higher education system.
The state legislature unanimously passed the Karnataka State Innovative Universities Bill 2011 last June. Two of the state’s oldest universities, Mysore and Karnatak, have been chosen to pilot the new system, which includes greater autonomy for universities to devise their own curricula.
“The academic freedom that this revised governance structure will provide will be critical in making the university world class,” said Dr SS Hugar, chair of the department of commerce at Karnatak University.
State-funded universities in India have a large number of affiliated colleges, sometimes as many as 800, often leading to mismanagement.
“The function of universities in India is to manage colleges, conduct exams and bring out results on time. There is no time and scope for research and innovation. In no other country do we have universities whose job is to manage 500 to 800 colleges,” said Professor NR Madhava Menon, founder-director of the National Law School of India University in Bangalore.
“The role of universities is not to manage affiliated colleges but to produce knowledge, apply knowledge to research and build an academic culture,” said Professor MK Sridhar, executive director of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, a think-tank under the chief minister’s office, which recommended the changes.
If successful, Karnataka’s experience could be replicated in other states. Of the country’s 450 government-funded universities only 40 are central universities. The rest are state funded, which some believe has led to weaknesses in the system overall.
The central government has been attempting to boost innovation and research capacity in higher education, announcing plans to set up 14 innovation universities specializing in various themes including energy, environment and leadership.
While these new universities will be set up from scratch, with the freedom to decide their own charters and regulations, Karnataka’s innovation bill is far-reaching as it targets existing universities, changing entrenched governance and academic structures.
The two pilot universities will now have two parallel systems – unitary and affiliating.
The unitary system will comprise the university, its constituent colleges and schools, postgraduate education and research. The affiliating system will manage the affiliation of undergraduate and postgraduate colleges, examinations and curriculum development.
“The university will be free from the burden of looking after affiliated colleges. It can develop interdisciplinary schools with highly flexible curricula and focus on research. These will be two independent systems with clearly defined functions,” Sridhar said.
“The higher education system in India which lives in the affiliated colleges is crumbling. State governments have chosen not to take any active role in building higher education in the country,” said Professor R Govinda, vice-chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, describing Karnataka’s attempt at innovative reform to university education as “laudable”.