They are often controlled and enfeebled by external forces that have no commitment to education
My grandfather was the vice-chancellor (VC) of a university. My father was the founding VC of two universities, among the many roles he has played in education. When I became the founding VC of our university, in the mirror, I saw a part of reality which others did not. Social capital matters hugely, and a naïve faith in meritocracy can only lead to a gross misestimation of one’s own abilities. But many outsiders, unfamiliar with the privileged trajectory of my life, were very impressed by a person who became a VC before the age of 42.
They also found in me an oddball. First, and obviously, my age marked me; almost all VCs are much older. Then, most VCs behave with a deep sense of gravitas—such decorum is beyond my capacity. My average-guy behaviour was disturbingly incongruous to some, while being a relief for some others. But the real sacrilege was the pair of jeans that I wore everywhere.
It was a conference of VCs, one of the very few that I have attended. It took the group more than a day to accept that I was not an impostor in jeans amidst their dark suits. After lunch on the second day, as the somnolent session meandered, a VC in the next chair turned chatty. Without any preamble, he asked me “What was the rate for you?" I didn’t recollect the exact tariff the hotel was charging me, and told him as much. He was very amused by my denseness and clarified that he wanted to know how much of a bribe I had given to become VC.
I told him that I had not paid any bribe and that it didn’t work that way in our organization. He told me that I could be honest among friends and that it would help his cost estimates for the next job. So, I tried to explain to him in simple terms that my boss pays me my salary from his own money and he is the person who decided to make me VC; so, if I were to bribe my boss, I would be giving him his own money.
He was tickled by the explanation, but not satisfied. He asked which politician’s influence I had used. No politician knew me even faintly, I replied, let alone any speaking for me. Since disbelief was writ large on his face, I told him I had worked in the same organization my entire career and, therefore, there was no scope for any political contacts. The clouds visibly lifting from his face, he said “Okay, so it is the fruit of loyalty." The session came to an end and my neighbour walked off to get tea and continue his market survey on rates.
This seasoned warrior of Indian academia was speaking truths that most people know, but rarely say. The appointment of heads of our higher education institutions (HEI) is usually marred by interference and corruption. And, HEIs are controlled and enfeebled by external forces that have no educational or institutional commitment. Like anything else in our country, there are many honourable exceptions to this sordid state of affairs, but those are in a minority. Among the many ills of the Indian education system that the draft National Education Policy 2019 (NEP) faces squarely, this is one.
Let me quote from the NEP: “Leaders of institutions are often not the people who should be in these roles. Too many of them lack the competence to lead organisations and institutions. A shockingly high proportion lack the ethical standards, institutional commitment and public spiritedness that is a must to lead any education institution. This is partly a result of the selection and appointment processes. These processes are often influenced, driven and decided by people who themselves do not have the requisite commitment to the good of the institution… to exacerbate matters these processes are prone to all manner of influence—ranging from political influence to downright corruption in many cases."
The NEP confronts this matter with a comprehensive approach to improving India’s higher education. One of its key dimensions is the transformation of the leadership and governance of HEIs. The fulcrum of this transformation is empowerment and autonomy of HEIs, along with transparent disclosures and full public accountability. All HEIs are to be governed by truly independent and fully empowered boards, which select their own members and heads of institutions, and will have complete academic, administrative and financial autonomy. While academic and administrative autonomy means that the HEI decides on all matters, financial autonomy implies availability of adequate and sustained public funding.
There is nothing innovative about this. Institutions and organizations across the world and across sectors (education, business, civil society, etc.) are governed and run by independent boards. The anomaly that is the Indian higher education system, of ineffectual HEIs controlled from the outside and interfered with constantly, has become so normalized that this action seems revolutionary.
We must not forget, though, that even in India, some of our best HEIs are run in this manner—for example, the Indian Institutes of Management. Getting this done across our massive higher education system, with its deeply entrenched vested interests, will be hard. But then, the NEP does not flinch from decisive and fundamental action on any front.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd