India’s universities crying for better leadership

India’s higher and professional education system is passing through a phase that is turbulent, non-directional and unsustainable.

It is turbulent because it is being pulled and pushed by several stakeholders who have different aspirations and hence varied demands.
It is non-directional because there is no comprehensive policy on governance and role of education in the growth of a nation. The system is simply drifting.

The states are struggling to find their way to meet challenge of numbers in a revenue-cost squeeze, including rising costs of faculty, technology and administrative burden.

The central government is clueless as regards creating a national consensus on larger and broader legal framework to address burning issues such as protecting merits and cost of education while retaining access and equity.

This certainly is unsustainable. It is because of such a scenario that we do not have ‘winning universities’.

I use the term winning in the sense that the graduates from universities become useful driving force in knowledge-linked economy and also are talented brains that generate new knowledge.

In developed economies, winning universities are a force to reckon with. In a way, we have predominantly ‘losing universities’ — universities that are performing duties of research and education as a ritual with no commitment to accountability.

Today, we do not have competitive leadership at various levels of higher education institutions. It is true for vice chancellors (VCs). It is equally true in case of academic deans and heads of departments.

What is worst is that it is true for various advisers at the policy-making level. They work with a narrow vision guided by personal likes and dislikes and try to serve narrower political causes rather than looking at global challenges.

The last statement is true when one looks at the various difficulties the Ministry of Human Resource Development is facing in the initiation of reforms based on various reports and legal framework created by the advisers with the help of internal bureaucrats who unfortunately have no feel for ground realities.

The concept of winning is more common in the corporate world. It is linked with capital markets and their profit and loss accounts.

But for universities, the test is whether they are growing and improving their use of assets. Their primary assets are faculty. The other assets are academic and support infrastructure that makes environment of the universities vibrant for learning and research. The success of winning universities is linked to the type of leadership at the helm of affairs.

In the case of universities, it is the VC who is first an academic leader and then an administrative head. At its core, leadership is the capacity to release and engage human potential in the pursuit of common cause.

With these expectations, we need VCs who act with a purpose and a vision, a focus, and an end in mind that empowers colleagues to align their initiatives with the vision of the VC, and who believe that there is mutual benefit in individual commitments in turning common vision into reality.

Leadership is not high individual performance. It is not solo virtuosity, although leaders often are high individual performers. Leadership is something that happens only between people in relationships. It is about evoking high individual performance in others. The individuals with these attributes take the university to a higher level of success and make it a vibrant academic institution.

There is one more important and critical component in winning universities. They have VCs who nurture the development of other faculty with a potential for leadership at all levels.

Hence, there are two ultimate tests for identification of a successful VC — first is to find whether the university, by producing the right human power, has become an engine of socio-economic growth and the other is to check whether a chain of leaders is created in the system that can sustain its success even when the VC is not around.

Where does India stand in respect of choosing right leadership for creating winning universities? Indeed, nowhere.

In our country, which has a predominance of public universities, good and visionary VCs are appointed by sheer accident. The entire process of picking VCs has a strong edge of socio-political background. When one reads the interviews of education ministers and chief ministers, they unequivocally claim they would not like to interfere in the selection process.

But the fact remains that in state universities, barring a few chancellors, the rest do communicate with the government and chief ministers and education ministers do play a role of endorsement before the final selection.

In central universities, the human resource development minister also plays a role.

Just before elections for the present parliament, the human resource development minister steam-rolled the appointments of VCs for 15 new central universities.

One really wonders what these VCs are doing at present with scanty funds to new central universities. Only the passage of time would reflect whether we have added a few more losing universities in the long list of universities that have wrong leadership.

It will be interesting to visualise what line of action a VC should follow to keep the university vibrant.

Nearly 50 years ago, at the time he launched his transforming relationship with Japanese industry, W. Edwards Deming drew systemic relationships that typically exist among the enterprise, its customers and its suppliers.

Michael R. Moore and Michael A. Diamond have adapted some of the relationships we believe are critical to an academic institution’s commitment to continuous improvement and the processes that are essential to making that commitment operational.

It looks at the links between research and teaching and service processes associated with them. It defines inter-linkage and inter-forces that are the major pushing factors between various stakeholders of the education institution.
The good leader necessarily needs to have qualities to understand and manage these flow processes effectively. The prime task is to achieve and sustain continuous improvement, which requires an appreciation of systems thinking, including the notion that the success of any educational institution is connected in very real ways to its relationships with and the success of all the stakeholders.

The model of ‘Academic Leadership: Turning Vision in to Reality’ as presented by Moore and Diamond emphasises the need for taking cognizance of following critical elements for cultivating a successful leader. They include launching a strategic planning process, change management, open, interactive communications, assessment and measurement systems, continuous improvement based on periodic reassessment of the mission and distinctive capabilities and finally, mutually beneficial relationships among the stakeholders in the institution’s mission. By Arun Nigavekar