An autonomous university characteristically means a higher education institution which exercises independent control over its day-to-day operations and curriculum. It is generally associated with universities, institutions and implies that the funding agency or state does not have control over academic matters. Conversely, universities that are not autonomous generally have their academic programs, curriculum, controlled, and even dictated by the state or government agency regulating higher education.

The autonomy of the universities has four main dimensions: academic, organisational, financial and staff autonomy. Academic autonomy refers to a university’s capacity to manage its internal academic affairs independently, ability to decide on various academic issues, such as student admissions, academic content, quality assurance and introduction of new degree programmes. Organisational autonomy is about the university’s ability to decide freely on its internal organisational matters including executive leadership, decision-making bodies, legal entities and internal academic structures. Financial autonomy is about the university’s ability to decide freely on its internal financial affairs i.e. ability to manage its funds independently and setting its strategic aims while staffing autonomy refers to a university’s ability to decide freely on issues related to human resources management, including employment, salaries, removals and promotions. According to the higher education experts, in order to compete globally, universities must be independent, to hire the most suitable and qualified academic and administrative staff, and enter in national and international collaborations through joint academic programs and exchange of scholars without external pressures or interference. Only autonomous universities can guarantee true merit based upon their admissions and appointments. The main reason for the politicisation of universities has been the inclusion of so many politicians in university syndicates, which is affecting autonomy and performance of universities.

According to the recommendations prepared by the Task Force on Improvement of Higher Education in Pakistan March 2002, universities were termed as pillars of the higher education system. It was clearly stated that universities must have autonomy from all extraneous influences in order to govern and manage their academic, administrative, and financial functions. In particular, universities must have autonomy to develop their academic programmes; recruit, assess, and develop their faculty; and select, train and educate their students. The Task Force also rejected the idea of federal government for establishment of National Education Testing Service (NETS) through concluding that that the purpose of standardisation could be served if entrance tests were given by the institutions that select their students from a pool of applicants who present scores given by several Boards. Therefore, establishment of NETS was not recommended for selection of students for higher education as it would replicate the existing model of examination.

The real challenges to autonomy of the Pakistani universities have been raised by the concerned stakeholders i.e vice chancellors and Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association, an elected body of university faculty across the country which includes disrespecting university acts/statutory organs and undue external pressure and interference in internal matters of the universities even by public entities.

It is the collective responsibility of all tiers of the government and concerned institutions to respect and ensure autonomy of universities, which has been guaranteed through respective Acts of parliament/provincial assemblies. Realising their responsibilities in a post-18th Amendment scenario, the provincial governments should allocate 25% of total the education budget to the higher education sector during next budget 2017-18 in order to meet growing needs of higher education sector. They should follow transparent and merit based mechanisms for the appointment of university heads through independent search committee comprising of reputed academicians. The priority, for appointment of vice chancellors, should be given to experienced administrators in higher education sector rather mere researchers or teachers. The role of the provincial governments should be facilitative and supportive towards universities through autonomous bodies led by higher education experts who also need to be appointed through a merit based mechanism. The amendments in respective universities’ acts should be brought in consultation with relevant stakeholders. On the pattern of Punjab government, remaining provincial governments should also prepare roadmaps for strengthening higher education and mid-term development frameworks (MTDFs). There is also dire need to establish a permanent inter provincial form to share expertise and experience in higher education sector so that provinces may learn from one another ‘s experiences. Provincial chapters of vice chancellors forums should be established in order to deliberate over the problems being faced by the universities at provincial levels. The vacant slots of vice chancellors should be immediately filled to discourage adhocism.

The university leadership should also realise their role in the promotion of higher education in country through patronising a culture of merit and transparency, fund-raising, effective university community linkages and encouraging research to address socio-economic problems being faced by Pakistani society. There is also dire need to strengthen the role of university syndicates, senates and board of governors where matters could be deliberated and decided through collective wisdom. The effective participation of faculty should also be ensured in these decision-making bodies. An honest and strong university leadership could effectively defend the university against undue external pressure and interference.