Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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core definition

Autonomy is being able to undertake activities without seeking permission from a controlling body.

explanatory context

Autonomy usually refers to the higher education institution although in some circumstances the term is applied to the individual scholar.


In higher education, autonomous institutions can establish their own programmes of study, have control over their own finances (once received) subject to normal auditing procedures, grant their own degrees. However, this has been argued that this is only relative, rather than absolute, autonomy (see below).

analytical review

For Consejo Superior de Educación (1996), Autonomy is defined as ‘the ability to offer freely all kinds of degrees’, without external monitoring of any kind.


Snyder (2002) states:

At first glance, the definition of autonomy seems clear enough. Derived from the Greek words for "self" and "law or customary usage," the word describes the practice of self-government that we consider the right and responsibility of colleges and universities. But the issue is not so simple.   autonomy is always relative. What colleges and universities should seek… is reasonable, not absolute autonomy. Total autonomy, total independence and separation from society, is simply impossible. The degree of an institution’s autonomy varies according the nature of its relationships. Perhaps, then, it is most useful to think of multiple autonomies or degrees of autonomy. …

The issue of college or university autonomy inevitably raises the question of the purpose of autonomy and the purpose or purposes of colleges and universities themselves. Institutions of higher learning have always served their societies; they have never been the isolated "ivory towers" of popular imagination. Since their inception, they have engaged the issues of their day, discovered and distributed whatever was at the time deemed "useful knowledge," and established various, often idiosyncratic, financial relationships with patrons, donors, and governments. These relationships suggest varying degrees or types of autonomy.

Luc E. Weber argued in his 2000 contribution to Responsiveness, Responsibility, and Accountability: An Evaluation of University Governance in Switzerland that the mission of a university is twofold. It must be both "responsible" and "responsive." The former involves the long view of the university’s mission and society’s needs. The latter addresses the immediate strategies for meeting the short-term economic and social requirements of the community.


Dlamini (1997) noted:

The definition of autonomy that has become a classic not only here, but has also been quoted with approval in numerous American cases, is that it entails the freedom of a university to determine for itself on academic grounds only who should teach, what should be taught, how it should be taught and who should be admitted as students. Although this definition has later been found to be narrow, it still remains a useful guideline in demarcating the limits of legitimate autonomy. The limits of this autonomy are important, because some people have problems as to how an institution that is subsidised by the government can claim to be autonomous from the government. Is it not true that he who pays the piper calls the tune, they ask?

Notwithstanding this view, there is no doubt that a university needs autonomy and a measure of freedom for its academics if it has to play its role of generating and disseminating knowledge effectively. Academic freedom is important because it enables academics to think freely, to speculate and to experiment with new ideas. Important developments have been spearheaded by those people who think freely and creatively. Knowledge generated through this creative and critical thinking is important for the development of society. Academic freedom is also important because it allows for critical scrutiny of all aspects of society, social, economic and political, and facilitates re-evaluation and renewal. Knowledge is advanced through critical inquiry and not through encouraging orthodoxy or adherence to accepted dogma.

In some cases autonomy refers to the individual and reflects what is normally called academic freedom. For example, in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly (2008), Mr. T. Marshall reminded the Assembly that:

what academic autonomy means, and that it is no interference with what a professor would say, teach or publish; the right of the professor to criticize the university and criticize the government.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Consejo Superior de Educación (CSE), 1996, Boletín Oficial, Normas Generales, (Santiago, CSE).

Dlamini, C.R.M.. 1997, Academic Freedom and the Autonomy of Tertiary Institutions, Based on the author’s unpublished LL.D. thesis, University Autonomy and Academic Freedom in South Africa, UNISA, 1996.

Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly, 2008, House of Assembly Proceedings, November 25, 2008, Vol. XLVI No. 39, available at, accessed 20 September 2012, still available 31 December 2016.

Snyder, M. D., 2002, A Question of Autonomy: The View from Salzburg No longer available at this address, 3 February 2011.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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