Education & Training News

What ails higher education in India?

Barring the Kendriya Vidyalayas — and, of late, government schools in Delhi — the state of most government schools is pathetic. On the other hand, although 75 per cent of higher education is in the private sector, the best institutions — IITs, IIMs, NITs, AIIMS, NLS — have all been set up by the government. Despite having the largest base of 900-plus universities in the world, only 15 higher education institutions from India are in the top 1,000.

Excellence in higher education is impaired by: ineffective leadership; unsatisfactory talent sourcing of faculty and students; and poor governance.

Academic leadership entails integrative abilities of breaking departmental silos, aligning different disciplines, managing multiple stakeholders. Most faculty and researchers have individualistic traits whereas academic leadership calls for collaborative and transformative skills.

Academic excellence demands integrative skills across teaching, research and academic administration. Homi Bhabha, Mahalanobis, Vikram Sarabhai, who established,TIFR, ISI and IIM-A, respectively, were visionaries who appreciated these nuances and selected passionate leaders who built great teams and world class institutions. Sadly, chancellors/founders of universities and HR leaders who support them lack this ability.

Most appointments of vice-chancellors in government-run universities are political and a non-starter for achieving excellence. In privately-run higher education institutions, the key criteria currently for leadership position is: i) PhD qualification; and (ii) IIT/IIM faculty.

While a PhD is necessary considering the emphasis on research, it is not a sufficient indicator of leadership qualities. IITs and IIMs have become brands more on the strength of students who form the cream of the talent base, rather than the faculty. Yet, because of the dearth of academic leaders IIT/IIM faculty get plum leadership positions which they use for enhancing their CV and as a career springboard, showing no commitment to long term institution building.

Interviews for selection are often perfunctory, a mere 30 minutes for senior positions focusing only on the candidate’s past experience with no leading questions to assess their academic leadership qualities. The resulting sub-optimal selections bear a high cost in terms of quality, thwarting excellence in the process. Promoting from within is an option from considerations of culture continuity and growth opportunities for existing personnel. However, the leadership talent pool in higher education institutions (HEIs) is limited.

HR policies should be conducive to attract talent and create a leadership pipeline. One of the important pillars in Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM) philosophy is “Constant training and retraining of teachers” to avoid burnout syndrome by adding ‘on the job’ skills. ‘Leadership coaching’ bridges this important skill gap. However, no HEIs in India has so far had the vision to implement this development need.

Even underprivileged, rural non-English medium school children can shine in competitive examinations provided they have a burning desire to learn, as is best illustrated by the Super 30 IIT-JEE success story of Anand Kumar in Bihar. However, most entrance examinations are a test of rejection that do not assess the learnability quotient, and hence fail to attract the desirable mix of students.

TQM in education revolves around student experience, making everyone responsible, and continuous improvement. Since HEIs in India are fortunate to get students in large numbers, they have been tolerating mediocrity. Hence, it is high time HEIs address the selection process issue.

Weak governance

Governance is a casualty in most HEIs, as they ignore attributes such as participation, responsiveness, transparency, consensus and inclusivity. Consequently, many top managements function with a coterie of incompetent ‘yes’ men/women around them, side-lining competent, independent people in the system.

In private HEIs, interference by the sponsors/trustees is rampant and academic freedom is curbed. To compound matters, the so-called expert assessors from national accrediting agencies are clueless about good governance attributes. Hence, it is like a one-eyed assessing the blind, with the blind going scot-free and continuing to mismanage HEIs. Education, along with healthcare, is perhaps the most people intensive business. Unfortunately, promoters of most privately run HEIs invest on buildings, hardware and software rather than on people. Little do they realise that students learn from inspiring teachers and not from buildings — “Majestic buildings and costly equipment can never be a substitute for great inspiring teachers,” said Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan.

Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal often referred to ‘the Smell of the Place’ in the context of creating a conducive workplace atmosphere that shapes people’s behaviour to create ‘stretch’, discipline, trust and support. This is absent in most HEIs because of poor governance, which has a negative impact on employee behaviour, quality and productivity outcomes that are necessary ingredients for excellence.

Jayasankaran is a former Vice-Chancellor of Kanchi University, and Mony is currently advisor to higher education institutions

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