St Stephen’s Autonomy: A Landmark Decision for a Landmark College

I studied at St Stephen’s College from 2007 to 2010, a place that has been in the news again. This time, for a protest after the Principal announced that the college would start working towards autonomy from the University of Delhi. My Facebook timeline was filled with videos of students and professors participating in a peaceful protest to stand against autonomy.

It takes years for a college to transition towards autonomy and faculty’s grievances can and must be addressed during the period. I also understand the students protesting – they are obviously influenced by what their teachers have to say.

However, the alumni making this noise against autonomy is what disappoints me. Unlike universities in the West, our alumni have hardly given back to college – either by donating funds or by investing their time and energy in visiting and teaching.

The Alumni that Doesn’t Give Back

Most of us have been armchair critics – at best, joining protests and dharnas to fight the establishment.

But is autonomy for St Stephen’s College really a bad idea? For starters, I have never seen a Stephanian write ‘University of Delhi’ in their CV. It’s almost always St Stephen’s College.

St Stephen’s consistently trumps in comparison to other colleges in the University of Delhi, in all the metrics that are tracked to evaluate college. The college makes the news every year, either for the highest cut-offs during admission season or for the highest packages during placements.

St Stephen’s stands out for its highly capable student body and the excellent faculty. Most of the faculty in college are members from a romanticised era – the 70’s and 80’s, where the brightest students chose to enter bureaucracy, or join the world of academia.

Today, with the economy opening up, the sharpest of students have many options in the corporate world. In my batch, less than 10% of the graduates wanted to join the bureaucracy or academia.

Aspiring students today have many other other choices. Young universities like Ashoka are offering multi-disciplinary courses to attract the best student pool. They also have better avenues for research and financial muscle to attract international academics. St Stephen’s on the other hand, has had the same eight departments for the five decades at least.

Autonomy will most likely increase student fees. It would also mean that they would have the flexibility of charging a higher fee for the rich that could subsidise education for the not-so-rich through scholarships, as it happens in international universities. Besides, it is unlikely that a student from an underprivileged background would be denied a loan to study at the college.

Advantages of Being Autonomous

Few colleges open as many doors and possibilities to graduating students as St Stephen’s does. There is a fear amongst many that it might increase religious reservations. I do feel that the Governing Council will do that at it’s own risk, as too many below par students would mean the college loses quality anyway.

More importantly, autonomy will surely help create a more dynamic syllabus compared to the one at the University of Delhi, which changes once in twenty years. Autonomy would mean a fresh lease of life, and an opportunity to free itself from the bureaucratic hurdles from the University of Delhi.

It would give the college an opportunity to introduce new courses, create more departments, encourage research, raise funds, and attract the best of faculty from the global talent pool.

“Those who run this country study at St Stephen’s” my grandfather had proudly told me on my admission to the college. Like every decision in life, autonomy will have it’s own consequences – good and bad. And St Stephen’s has always stood out for being different.

Something has clearly worked for the college considering it has been India’s top ranked institution for over a century. It would be a blasphemy to lose out on that. Yet, as with every other institution, change might be the only way this college can survive the onslaught of the 21st century.

(Nipun Malhotra graduated from St. Stephen’s College with a degree in Economics in 2010. He is currently the CEO of Nipman Foundation and Founder of www.wheelsforlife.in. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)