Institutional autonomy: Key to quality education

For a healthy system to operate, autonomy is highly desired. Let’s take the cases of the government managed school system, private school system, technical and vocational education system, higher education in general and professional/technical subjects. We can notice the effects of autonomy on quality.

In the government managed school very little autonomy exists. For example, the selection of the students is mostly done on the basis of local pressure; the classroom size is not determined by the teachers but by the growing demand of the local community; the teachers are not selected by the schools but are recruited by the district offices; the curriculum and the textbooks are prepared by the Curriculum Development Centre and the textbooks are published by the Janak Education Materials Centre and the schools are hardly encouraged to use supplementary materials; the performance standards of the students are measured by the external examination only; and financial systems are guided by the government system.

But in case of privately managed system, a certain degree of autonomy is visible. The selection of the students is made by the school; the size of the class is determined by the school; the teachers are recruited by the school managing committees which have the right to reward or punish the teachers based on their performance; though asked to follow government prescribed books, the teachers are free to use supplementary reference materials; except for the terminal examinations at the end of secondary or higher secondary levels, other performance standards are determined by the schools; financial rules are prescribed, but autonomy is given to work under a broad framework.

In the government-managed system, determining the student capacity per class, the appointment of the instructors, the curricular structure and the exam system are all controlled by the government system. In the more autonomous type schools, sufficient autonomy is exercised. The schools which have not followed the minimum standards of facilities and of the qualification of the instructors have done less well. But those that have followed the minimum norms and standards and maintained them have done remarkably well there too.

Sometimes it looks ridiculous to see government setting the standard that 75 per cent of the classroom attendance and 40 per cent of the pass marks in practical examinations are considered acceptable standards to declare a student skilled or competent enough. It is argued in the developed countries that the days of attendance and the scale of meeting the performance standards should almost be 100 per cent and the schools must have the liberty to decide these matters themselves. But external examinations or external bodies determining the passing standard in one final test do not look appropriate. It is argued that the standards should be gauged at the level of instructors’ competence and at the level of skill acquisition by the trainee on regular internal evaluations. A nominal external examination could be held if considered necessary. The licensing bodies or the employing agencies rather than the government bodies could judge the skill of the products.

In the higher education system the same parameters are applied to liberal education subjects or professional and technical subjects. In the latter case, the ability of the students is not only measured by the knowledge of the subjects but also by the hands-on practical skills. Scoring 40 per cent in the practical exams does not prove how capable or incapable the students are. Also, the centralised system of curriculum development, faculty recruitment and evaluation system are being debated. Many countries have realised that these cannot or should not be separated. All three aspects should be entrusted to the same faculty.

The merit of the semester system is now being accepted globally. However, the semester system and externalised examination system, in fact, contradict each other since the former is ‘autonomy’ and the latter ‘control’. These days in Nepal semester system is gradually making a comfortable entry but the external system too is followed. In a typically followed semester system, the controlling principle is only applied at the time of faculty recruiting. The faculty selected must be in charge of curricular revision/design, instruction planning and instruction and final evaluation. Therefore, autonomy probably needs to be taken as a most desired element. This should even go further in selecting the people at the top level, including the head of institutions.

We hear that polytechnics are being established with huge investments at the initiative of the CTEVT. The question we should be asking is how autonomous they would be? Without autonomy they would not flourish. The universities too are asked to offer autonomy to the deserving campuses. The quality should be measured in terms of high success rate, high employment rate and high demand in the market.

Dr Sharma is Vice Chancellor, KU