Autonomy: the MCC experience


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WHEN the idea of setting up autonomous colleges was mooted at the national level in the 1960s, Madras Christian College, which had completed 125 years of its educational service in 1962 as a premier institution of higher education, began to contemplate a ‘new role’ for itself in the post-missionary phase. The mantle fell chiefly on the first Indian principal of MCC, Chandran D.S. Devansesan, who later became the Vice Chancellor of North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, to chalk out the future course of the college in the area of physical assets, innovative curricular and co-curricular programmes, and alumni and public relations.

In the academic year 1963-64, the college launched a self-study project under Devanesan’s guidance to review its role, examine its past record, assess the present potentialities and set its priorities for the future in ‘light of the new demands on educational institutions arising from the rapid advancement of knowledge in recent years and from the revolutionary changes in the political structure, the social fabric and the economic objectives of the country.’1 This project was based on the broad understanding that, ‘no institution can stand aloof when everything around it is involved in change, and that no institution can make a positive and constructive response to these changes without a well-formulated plan based on its own drive and initiative.’

Two major consultations were held under the auspices of the self-study project, with preliminary exercises carried out at various levels, particularly the departmental. The outcome of the first consultation was published as a booklet, Rethinking our Role as a College (May 1964), which was primarily concerned with a review of the performance of the college and its auxiliary units, and the initiation of planning for the future. The second consultation resulted in the publication, Developing a College in a Developing India: Summary of a Ten Years Plan of Development for the Madras Christian College, 1965-1975 (May 1966). Based on these consultations, the college embarked on the specific task of programming future activities, to be initiated as and when the college had the freedom to decide its own academic policy and the funds to support it.



It decided to work out a plan on the grounds of selectivity and autonomy so clearly enunciated by the Robbins Report. The report (1963) submitted by Lord Robbin who led the British Committee on Higher Education in U.K., laid down among the criteria for new universities, a campus of over 300 acres and a location away from big cities. The Madras Christian College, with a 363 acre campus, a variety of plant and animal life in the suburban town of Tambaram, bestowed with teaching, administrative, residential and recreational units fulfilled this requirement.

Autonomy came to be viewed as an essential feature and ideal of institutional planning. The Kothari Commission on Higher Education (1964-66) had recommended the establishment of autonomous colleges. However, a final and definite scheme was evolved only in 1972. In the interim, the Madras Christian College went ahead with its institutional planning so that it was in a state of preparedness when chosen as the first among the 50 colleges throughout India to be conferred an autonomous status.



The criteria laid down for autonomous colleges is best stated from the recommendations of the Education Commission:

Where there is an outstanding college (or a small cluster of very good colleges) within a large university, which has shown the capacity to improve itself markedly, consideration should be given to granting it autonomous status. This would involve the power to frame its own rules of admissions, to prescribe its course of studies, to conduct examinations and so on. The parent university’s role will be one of general supervision and actual conferment of the degree. The privilege cannot be conferred once and for all – it will have to be continually earned and deserved and it should be open to the university, after careful scrutiny of the position, to revoke the autonomous status if the college at any stage begins to deteriorate.

Autonomy thus provided the college academic freedom to revise and update the curriculum and content of the syllabus, to introduce new courses of study, and devise innovative methods of teaching and evaluation in order to ensure a higher quality of education and performance. The autonomy involved in the scheme was academic and not financial. The funds for the autonomous colleges were to be drawn from the UGC and the government, which implied that the norms prescribed by the funding agency for admission (reservation, etc.), recruitment of staff (qualification and size of the department etc.) were to be strictly adhered to. Moreover, since the autonomous college depended on the government for financial aid, there had to be constant and continuing interaction with the government at the level of Director of Collegiate Education and the Secretariat. The autonomy granted is thus not permanent but subject to periodic assessment by a review committee constituted by the UGC, the state government and the university.



Some at Madras Christian College visualised the concept of autonomy very differently. Their notion of ‘autonomy’ did not favour any financial linkages with government agencies. For them, genuine autonomy in pursuit of academic excellence, knowledge or truth meant full freedom and independence; that autonomy structured around the norms and codes of the financial benefactors was counterfeit and could not be expected to maintain its perceived goals and ideals. This expansive vision of autonomy was articulated in the following terms:

The concept of autonomy arises from the conviction that some educational institutions will achieve their purposes better by self-government than with the public authorities breathing down their necks. Designing one’s own syllabus, setting one’s own norms – these are aspects of autonomy, but secondary aspects. It is the raison d’etre of the concept that needs to be focused on.

The autonomy of a university or college, like that of the judiciary, involves freedom from state control and the exigencies of social pressure to pursue its own values – truth in the one case, justice in the other. It is the responsibility of an autonomous institution in a free society to examine issues independently of state policies and to function as the conscience and critic of that society. This role cannot be fulfilled if the institution is subservient to the government.... Well, the academic freedom, I am talking about will not be handed out on a platter by a government agency. It is always the result of a long struggle in which a community of scholars pits ideals against its rulers, and persuades society to commit itself to providing academics with the freedom they need to do their job.2

It was argued that the MCC as an autonomous college was bound to become elitist. It was claimed that the college, in its new avataar, would exclusively cater to the needs of upper middle class and high-income groups with a good command over English, and drawn mainly from urban areas. In other words, it would deny the under-privileged the opportunity to gain access to this premier institution.



Despite these misgivings, the Madras Christian College entered the new phase as an autonomous college in 1978 with great enthusiasm and hope; the so-called sceptics were actively involved in the process of the college working its autonomous status. The newly acquired academic freedom was nurtured in all earnestness so as to achieve academic excellence, social relevance and religious vitality.

Within a few years of working autonomy, the positive and negative aspects of the system become evident. While the apprehension of the college drifting into elitism was belied, primarily because of the reservation policy of the government, the other misgivings proved to have some basis. Commenting on four years of autonomy, it was observed:

Our use of the word ‘autonomy’, confined as it is to the right to draw up a syllabus and evaluate students without reference to the university, is not just a sadly attenuated version of the original concept, our main thrust is differently directed. Out colleges are not bodies of scholars jealous of their intellectual independence and anxious to pursue truth without bureaucratic interference; they are simply institutions that hire men to train the coming generation in some of the basic skills needed to make its members employable. Nor do we often get students who want anything more than the marks that will get them the certificates that will get them the jobs. In this situation autonomy could mean a cheerful arrangement between the teacher and his class by which the latter get marks and former is absolved from work. It is sanguine to suppose that this never happens or even that it happens infrequently.3

This comment is a pointer to the current state of affairs in the college. It also highlights the crucial role of teachers in autonomous colleges. A competent teacher or an academically sound faculty alone can design a ‘challenging, inspiring and useful curriculum.’ The sustainability of a superb or excellent curriculum and syllabus is the core to the success of autonomy, which depends on the merits and demerits of the teacher concerned. A study (1981) by a student on autonomous colleges, using Madras Christian College as a case, pointed out that:

An excellent syllabus may be framed; good students, good library facilities, and proper management of the examination system – but all this will be of no avail if capable teachers are not around.... In an autonomous college much depends on the teachers who are put in charge of imparting education to the students. They need to have the required competence to teach subjects and they must have the aptitude for teaching as only then new methods of teaching can be used. A syllabus, which is excellent by nature, needs proper handling or will not serve any purpose at all. This leads directly to proper recruitment of teachers.... This is a factor which needs to be considered by all autonomous college in India, as innovations are of no avail if the right kind of men are not behind the most excellent machines.4



Similar concern about the quality of teachers was voiced by a teacher at MCC. He demanded that the teachers in an autonomous college should be at par with university teachers in qualifications, achievements and pay; the college should be ‘prepared to pay the price for quality teachers.’ However, his experience made him categorically declare that:

Teaching technology is once again left to the originality and freedom of a resourceful teacher, but still one would be pained to hear that some teachers survive even today only by dictating notes, even at the post graduate level and that too in autonomous colleges. Yet other teachers who cancel classes or never even turn up have obviously taken up a career for which they have no real aptitude and are dishonouring the dharma of a guru.5



The remedy suggested to cure this malaise is proper recruitment of teachers. Failure to adopt proper selection procedures to attract quality teachers will lead to a decline in academic standards – as the Madras Christian College experience at one level confirms. Inordinate delay in sanctioning grants for filling vacant posts and the creation of additional posts is a major constraint, leading to the employment of mediocre teachers. Under such circumstances, the college has willy-nilly to depend on a teacher who is willing to work for the meagre salary provided by the management till the post is sanctioned, which normally takes six to seven years. Only a person who cannot find placement elsewhere will fit this category. Having served the college for half a dozen years, the college is constrained to regularise him when the post is sanctioned. This process precludes the likelihood of recruiting competent teachers.

This is apparent from the fact that the only privilege enjoyed fully by an autonomous college is in the sphere of framing the curriculum and course content. The newly acquired academic freedom gives considerable scope to be innovative and flexible in the area of designing the syllabus, introduction of new courses, devising techniques of evaluation. It is significant that in autonomous MCC, the curricula in several courses were revised and updated, new courses introduced, testing techniques diversified. Overall research and extension programmes received impetus. A member of the MCC faculty wrote:

I think one must admit that things could actually get worse with autonomy as we have it.... Scientific education subserves technology and so has obvious value in our scale. But the humanities, besides churning out clerks, could be valuable to the extent that they transform individuals into critical and creative citizens, who could in turn transform the society of which they are a part.... This classical function of the humanities can only begin to be operative when they are engaged in at a serious level. It is at this point that I see autonomy, even in a diluted form, as our one hope. University courses in the humanities go no further than inducing the level of literateness and informativness that is required of subordinate officials. The teacher in an autonomous college is given the chance, the almost breathtaking responsibility, to raise the humanities into their transforming role. Perhaps it would be realistic to see that this chance will not be availed of but, at least, for us, it is there.6

In other words, the field is fertile for autonomous institutions to exploit the freedom in the academic realm. But this opportunity could be squandered away leading to stagnation and erosion of academic standards and indifference to the academic autonomy granted. An autonomous institution can easily slip into complacency when its teaching community lacks vigour; MCC is not immune to such trends. A recent paper by the students pointed out that the college had not assessed the curriculum in-depth for almost 20 years, though a few revisions in syllabus had been made. Worse, that the difference in graduate and postgraduate programmes was insignificant.7 All this would not have happened had the teaching community been alert to the changing needs of the times. Students being the ultimate judge of the success or failure of any academic institution, these comments clearly show that the burden of getting the best out of the autonomous colleges rests on the quality and motivation of the teachers.



1. Proposals for Planning Session – 1970, Madras Christian College, Chennai, Unpublished mimeo.

2. H.R.T. Roberts, ‘Autonomy as She is Done in’, The Madras Christian College Magazine, 1981-82.

3. Ibid.

4. P.W.C. Davidar, ‘MCC (autonomous): A Student Survey’, The Madras Christian College Magazine, 1981-82.

5. P. J. Sanjeeva Raj, ‘Reflections’, The Madras Christian College Magazine, 1984-85.

6. H.R.T. Roberts, op cit.

7. College Curriculum: Student Perspective, paper read at the millennium seminar, MCC, February 2000.