Leadership in governance of higher education

The system of higher education cannot be fixed without fixing the issue of governance.

In the report of the University Education Commission, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had emphatically mentioned that only the people of eminence must be appointed as the Vice-Chancellors.

The issue of governance in education has been a genuine concern from the time of pre-Independence. The subject is considered so significant that it has been consistently dealt with in all the three National Education Policies. 

The first policy of 1968 recognised reconstruction of education as a challenging task, not merely because of scant resources but due to its exceedingly complex landscape. The second policy of 1986 had even recommended the establishment of the Indian Education Service (IES), State Advisory Board of Education (SABE) and Educational Tribunals to steer the affairs of education in an efficient and effective manner. 

The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 has envisioned to turnaround the dismal situation through self-governance and by establishing the Board of Governors (BoG). It has recommended that the BoG would exercise all necessary functions of governance without any external interference. Each institution is expected to transform itself into a self-governing institution through a system of graded accreditation and graded autonomy. The BoG, under the new legislative framework, will have full right and power even to appoint the head of the institution as also the new members of the Board. Such a reform measure may prove to be a key determinant of quality. This is a welcome move as it is expected to institutionalise self-governance across institutions of higher learning. 

Policy implementers will, however, have to be extra careful whilst designing the framework for its implementation. Much would depend upon the selection of the visionary leadership as education is significantly impacted when exposed to bad governance. 

Governance framework of educational institutions has to have somewhat different dimensions from other social organisations because of their complex nature. Successful governance in the university system requires blending of scholarship and accountability beyond the ordinary, as was prevalent during the pre-Independence period. The system in those days was led by persons of such incredible reputation who would never seek the position of authority. It would come unasked-for. Many a time it would rather require a lot of coaxing before they agreed to accept coveted position like that of Vice-Chancellor. 

They were not looking up to somebody to direct them. They would design what they were to do. It was the aura of their eminence that would inevitably uplift the reputation of the seat and also helped them accelerate the pace of advancement across different domains of knowledge. That was the reason why the people of every hue used to bow down before the seat of the Vice-Chancellor. Some of the most legendary Vice-Chancellors of that era were people like Sir Asutosh Mookerjee in Calcutta, Sir R.P. Paranjpye in Bombay, Sir Subramanya Ayyar in Madras, Sir P.C. Chatterji in Punjab, Sir Sunder Lal and Dr Amarnath Jha in Allahabad. 

One thing, among others, which is often quoted about Dr Amarnath Jha, is that after he took over as the ViceChancellor someone walked into his office and asked him if he had met the Commissioner. He replied that the latter had not yet called upon him. Contrarily, people now seek time to call on those clerks who process the files of their appointments.

 The practice of appointment through invitation continued for quite some time even after Independence which is evident from the appointment of renowned persons like Malcoms Adiseshiah in Madras, Tara Chand in Allahabad, John Matthai in Bombay and Nirmalkumar Sidhanta in Calcutta. Notwithstanding the severe constraints of resources, the leadership of that period, which was inspired by the ideals of freedom struggle, laid down commendable conventions of governance and produced outstanding results. There is a lot to learn from them. 

In the report of the University Education Commission, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had emphatically mentioned that only the people of eminence must be appointed as the Vice-Chancellors. However, the process of their appointments over the years has undergone major transformation with little gain. The tradition of invitation gradually started fading away with the increase in the number of universities and so the eminence and the governance. It was replaced by another method whereby thoughtful nominations were made by people of eminence for the considerations of Search Committees. Somehow, it was not as apologetic as the current practice which resorts to making appointment of a Vice-Chancellor like that of the recruitment of an ancillary staff. This process somehow sidelines quite a number of eminent professionals who do not want to undergo the humiliation it inflicts on their psyche. Consequently, the system suffers. 

There has never been scarcity of outstanding people in academia. There are scores of academics who are as eminent as the people of earlier times and like them they too do not hanker after any coveted position. There are still examples of people like Prof Goverdhan Mehta and Prof A.K. Sood who despite being invited to the most premier positions chose to decline in preference to their research work. But the irony of the governance over the years is that the number of most deserving people has been aggressively outranked by a fiercely competitive ‘New Class’ which seems to have greater belief in elements other than academic excellence and integrity beyond reproach. It is heart-breaking to note that this practice, which was earlier prevalent only in certain areas, now appears to have taken the form of an endemic. It seems to have made deep inroads causing multi-layered cracks into the governance. 

Incidents of removal or forced resignation of the Vice-Chancellors were previously unheard of. But now it has become a new normal. There have been as many as eight such dismissals in the recent past from amongst forty-two Central Universities under the purview of the UGC alone. This is the irony of the governance of a system which is looked up to by everyone to prepare youth for life and humanity and whose empowerment and contentment are the real strength of the country. It is extremely necessary to restore the credibility and dignity of the office of the Vice-Chancellor for ensuring effective governance. 

The idea of self-governance in academic institutions, as recommended in the policy, has many advantages. There are a number of good practices available around the world which can be critically examined and adapted. Since the practice of advertisement and interview has failed to yield the desired results, selection through nomination by National Professors, Fellows of Academies, prominent personalities known for making a mark in their chosen fields and heads of premier institutions may be resorted to. Once the prospective candidates are shortlisted by the Search Committees on the basis of their academic and administrative credentials, they may be invited to the university and made to share their vision and action plan in faculty-wise sessions as well as plenary session. If someone from the ‘New Class’ still makes it to this stage, by default, he would surely be knocked out with a barrage of searching questions stemming from members of the faculty and senior administrators. 

Those who truly survive insightful questions on areas like academic excellence, administrative acumen, financial probity, students’ welfare, service conditions, community engagement and understanding of regulatory provisions, may eventually be considered for the top slot. Indeed, it would be the expert power of the incumbent Vice-Chancellor that can ensure effective governance in conjunction with the Board of Governors. If it is fixed in about two hundred fifty odd degree-awarding institutions to begin with, out of about a thousand that are there, then it would be setting a good trend for the rejuvenation of the system of higher education. The bottom line is that the system of higher education cannot be fixed without fixing the issue of governance.

 The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal