Home / Go Back

Autonomy and Accountability with Special Reference to Private Universities In India

Dr. Palak Sheth
Director (Planning & Development)
Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University Gujarat

World-class University or Institutions of Excellence framework mandates excellence in issues related Governance, including autonomy and accountability, of the Institution. This paper examines the autonomy and accountability issues in practice in the Indian University System.


It is now well known that autonomy and accountability are two essential aspects, among others, for excellence of Universities. Jamil Salmi, in his framework for World Class Universities had emphatically discussed autonomy and accountability, among other factors, as the main features of World Class Universities. The factors, according to Salmi and other writers on World Class Universities are: Talent, both in terms students and faculty, Abundant Resources (Private and Public funding), and Governance, which included autonomy accompanied by its close cousin accountability. In the area of talent acquisition, Salmi and other writers had also discussed the presence of high diversity among the students (the best students from other countries) and also faculty diversity by attracting the best faculty and students from all over the world.

However, there seems an almost unanimous agreement, at least theoretically, on the need to have autonomy for our universities for achieving the best results. All the best universities in the world, however, in practice, have great autonomy. However, do we really operate under conditions of reasonable autonomy? One of the main reasons for starting Private Universities, among other things, included the need for expansion of higher education in the country in view of the growing population pressure, scarcity of resources with the government for faster growth of education sector, and autonomy related issues. In the state sector, controls related issues arise because of the finances received from the public exchequer. It was also expected that private universities would attain higher standards in educational instruction and move to excellence not only in teaching but also in research as they are: (1) exposed to market forces and competition forcing the institutions to excel in teaching and research for their survival, and (2) enjoy greater autonomy as they are freed from government financing. It was also expected that private sector education would also exhibit greater accountability at every level in view of their exposure to market competition.

Since the days of privatization efforts over 20 years back, private participation in higher education has grown in the country fulfilling one of the objectives of privatization, i.e., expansion of education sector by creating facilities for higher education to the growing masses who were putting pressures on the higher education system. On the other hand, perhaps the country has built in excess capacity, at least in terms of the number of seats available now-a-days as evidenced by the vacant seats available in educational institutions all over the country. Though this situation creates a serious new problem, it has solved one of the original problems of insufficient capacity in higher education.

However, can we state with confidence that we have been able to solve either fully or partially, the other objectives of privatization. If not, what exactly are the reasons? Here is where the questions of autonomy and accountability enter in to our analytical framework.


As discussed earlier with regard to excellence in higher education, the educational institutions should be able to attract the best talent, in terms of both the faculty and the students, from the country as well as from abroad. If we examine our performance on this count alone in the country, this has not been happening, as, for example, our numbers of foreign students in India is still small. What could have been the possible reasons for this phenomenon? One, though we are ranked higher in education than many of our neighbours, we are unfortunately not in a position to attract any large number of talented students to our country. The possible reasons could be:

One, the best students in our neighbour countries would go to western educational institutions because:

  • The students who go abroad are generally from the cream of the society and they can afford to go to universities in the West.
  • The economically poorer students, also excellent in their studies, would be able to obtain scholarships and assistantships from Universities in the West. India cannot match the western universities on this matter at the moment.
  • The most talented students after completion of their studies abroad in the Western Universities can still expect to get jobs in those countries or other countries in the West in spite of the Trump effect. For example, students who have done advanced studies in USA are easily accepted in Canada.
  • India has not, however, reached such an economic position as yet. A foreign student in India cannot expect to get a job in India at the end of her/his studies.
  • Unfortunately, Indians in India are also not able to move geographically in easier way. Newspapers have been reporting of difficulties faced by Indian students themselves when they move to different locations in the country. Similarly foreign students also face problems in different parts of the country. Perhaps, this could be because of sociological and cultural factors and/or fear of cultural invasion. It must be noted here that in Singapore and Hong Kong again there were serious debates on similar issues of cultural invasion or changes as a result of international student movement. However, we may have more inherent problems in view of the high diversity.


Now we will examine the issues related to autonomy or the lack of it in the private university and autonomous colleges.

Private educational institutions were expected to function under greater autonomy, as they are self-financed institutions and do not depend upon state grants. But do they have enough autonomy today in their operations? This has implications on the quality and economic stability of the Universities. The following are the points, in addition to the sociological factors discussed earlier:

  • Admissions: Autonomy in admissions is essential to ensure diversity factor in the classrooms. This has also influence with regard to the quality of students coming to the university. The private universities generally have to face restrictions with regard to student admissions: 50 per cent from the state quota admitted through a centralized (state level) admissions committee and 50 per cent all India quota. Even with regard to the all India quota, there could again be restrictions imposed from time to time. Foreign student’s admissions should also come from the all India quota.
  • The Universities are not left free to decide matters related to admissions, which has serious implications with regard to autonomy of universities.
  • Fee Regulatory Committees: Nevertheless to say, quality education today needs heavy investment. This is not a one-time investment, but has to be done continuously to build new systems and facilities, replacement purposes, and build infrastructure to meet future requirements.
  • University Fee Regulatory Committees do not understand future cost and the revision generally is on the basis of past cost, putting serious impediments on trouble free future growth. On the positive side, yes, this helps student welfare but it is at the cost of future.
  • If not controlled, would the universities resort into charging high fees and profiteering? Possibly not many could afford to do this as:
    1. They face severe competition in the market place for attracting students and faculty.
    2. The present state of excess seats in many disciplines, especially in the area of professional and science courses.
    3. The market forces are very strong today in India therefore the probability of such an occurrence is very low.
    4. If anybody attempts to get into the business of profiteering, of course, the state is empowered to take action against the defaulters. Is it necessary to subject all institutions alike? Would not a Mal-Practices Act, which the government was planning to introduce earlier, take care of this problem?


Competition and a Mal-practices Act, perhaps, could solve most of the issues related to institutional level accountability issues. However, with regard to individual accountability, there are issues which could plague the system. It must be stated here that most of the senior as well as middle level faculty and the university administrators came to the private universities from the state-sector, where tender-mindedness (as Van Kennedy had discussed in another context) still governs the law dealing with employees. To recall, even a performance appraisal system came to the state sector only in the early years of this century. On the other hand, private and autonomous institutions had been following rigorous performance appraisal systems even earlier.

A rigorous Performance Appraisal System, needless to add, is an essential aspect of developing responsible, well behaved, and highly committed manpower at all levels in the private university system. However, tender-mindedness as a guiding principle would not help in developing and managing a committed and accountable manpower in our university system, especially universities in the private sector.


Is the present organizational arrangement suitable for practice of honest autonomy and accountability? Practice of real autonomy and accountability needs suitable structural reforms in the university system. For example, the present organizational structure of senate-syndicate (executive Council)-Vice Chancellor combine, more of a political action drama in the larger university sector, does not allow practice of autonomy or accountability in the real spirit of the term. On the other hand an independent board, headed by a professional President and supported by a Director General, and non-political Academic Council, would serve the practice of Autonomy and Accountability in a far better way. However, caution must be exercised in this following model too, as the possibility of inclusion of friends and family members of the edupreneur may not pave way to good governance.


  • THES Global Limited, (2015),
  • Times Higher Education Ranking, (2015)
  • Salmi, J., and A. Saroyan, (2007), League Tables as Policy Instruments: Uses and Misuses, Higher Education Management and Policy, Vol 19, No. 2, p.p. 31-67 (OECD).
  • Salmi, Jamil, (2009) The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities, The World Bank, Washington DC, Vol. 19, p.p. 20-21