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Breaking Barriers

Why educational institutions need nothing short of full autonomy to define their individual destinies

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That Indian institutions have failed our young is no secret. We manage to create dysfunctions through education — a small group of very bright students struggles to find intellectual challenge in the process of learning; the middle group drifts through the educational experience disinterested; and a wide majority is unable to overcome their academic deficits. The root cause of this grand abandonment of philosophy in education is a lack of imagination and experimentation, due to standardisation and control. The government defines how the faculty is selected, admissions are conducted, offices are run, buildings are built, libraries are to be stocked, projects are undertaken (where in the world does a government float tenders to award research projects?), curriculum is shaped, examinations are prepared, teachers are compensated, the number of hours teachers teach every week, and so on. And the most recent thinking to centralise the services of professors at all central universities, including their recruitments, and even to transfer them amongst institutions is an attempt to obliterate academic values. This move is simply an extrapolation of governance in government primary and secondary schools to higher education.

It is quite apparent that segments of both bureaucracy and the academia have failed to understand the fundamental principles of how institutions can be motivated to excel. The current conditions cannot inspire the best to become academics.

The rationale is, obviously, to standardise the process in order to normalise inputs across institutions in different regions of the country, when in fact the processes must be designed differently to get similar outcomes since the preparation of the students and their context vary. The result of the former has been devastating. It is rare to find faculty and students working all night or over weekends in their laboratories (and their offices), catching a wink between experiments.

The corridors become silent as soon as classes are over, but the faculty lounge continues to buzz with regulars, who sit there talking about everything but their research or contributions to the academia. Faculty members protest on the streets rather than through their scholarship, while the administration treats students and teachers like second-class citizens. An erudite academic, when asked why she left her institution, remarked, ‘The conversations were very uninteresting’.
Defining outcomes will become essential to improving the overall quality of higher education, but what will be even more crucial is providing freedom to institutions to develop their own experiments to achieve those outcomes. They will need complete autonomy—nothing short of full autonomy—to define their individual destinies. The tragedy of standardisation is that it kills the building of a community of judgement, which is the central endeavour of autonomy. We forget that scholarship is about testing the unknown; it is about experimentation.

The failure of an experiment, critique of one’s hypotheses, counterarguments, and different kinds of proofs—these are all tools of scholarship. Ideas come to life with learning and dialogue. Both require openness. They require secure environments where ideas are not crucified on the cross of standardisation; where learning is about the imagination and imagination is encouraged; where citizenship is imbibed and theory becomes the most powerful practice; where disagreement is on and the search is for better arguments; where debates are cultured because they are based on advanced knowledge; where the entire community puts the heft of their learning to solve a problem; and where merit, and only merit, is respected. That is the university of my imagination — whether you call it Nalanda, Taxila, Harvard, Oxford, or anything else.

It appears that India is the only country where every generation of students or faculty venerates the past and condemns the present (only to celebrate it in the future). Why is this the case? Is it because we do not have an academic agenda of our own? Are we so dissatisfied with the present that we cannot see our way out? Are we unable to break this circle of decline because we do not have exemplars of success and merit amongst us? This is what lack of autonomy does. Control attempts to create uniformity in the environment. Change requires unearthing differentials that learning can bridge. ‘What am I going to learn from others who are like me?’ is the question a certain academic, who gave up research a long time ago, once asked. But in order to bridge this gap and motivate others to do so, one needs rewards, incentives, enabling mechanisms, and competition. Autonomy permits organisations to choose their own viable mechanisms for governance and offers dignity in the choices they make. It allows institutions to make choices that are best for them. This is essential for learning.

If the focus of a university is on learning, and making others better through learning, then anything that stands in its way must go. Only then can students and teachers move in the directions that they choose.

Administration will matter less as it will enable, rather than control.

Everyone will concentrate on learning, and not simply on meeting the requirements of attending a class. Self-exploration and discovery will matter more than anything else, as they will help find the true potential of learners — irrespective of whether or not they speak English; whether or not they can afford education; whether they want to study famines, or how to grow food, or religion. Autonomy allows institutions to cater to these diverse choices. It is in this amalgam of a multitude of views, backgrounds, and disciplines that learning finds a breeding ground, and innovation takes root.

Good institutions are all largely autonomous. They have a vision of how they would like to serve society. No institution ever became excellent by implementing the vision of others. Someone else making decisions without an understanding of merit is a recipe for mediocrity and disaffection within academia. Fewer mistakes are made if the decisions are made closer to the university. Chances are that the decision-maker understands the context of the choice better. When vice-chancellors are selected by committees located far away from the university, or by those who do not understand the university well, it results in bad decisions. Similarly, the mass selection of faculty members through a centralised public-service commission; a central admissions process where students are not well-matched to the departments they enter; or the development of a model curriculum by a remote group of faculty for implementation everywhere — all these are efforts to standardise processes, and kill motivation, innovation, and, consequently, excellence.

Lack of autonomy exists as much in private institutions as it does in government ones. In fact, it may be more insidious in the former. The government is at a distance from the university and is largely a faceless owner of public institutions. This facelessness provides some autonomy, but does not extract accountability. The private institutions, however, demand accountability, but without providing autonomy! The government extends controls through outdated rules. It sends out nasty and meaningless letters that dictate decisions and seek explanations. Ministries and government departments seek explanations on topics at multiple times. These prevent institutions from making independent, strategic choices when it comes to appointments, funding, curriculum, or the syllabus. Still, academics in the past have largely preferred the security of a faculty position at government institutions over that in private ones. Indian academics have always felt strongly about building a public educational environment in India, and for good reason. It is assumed that private institutions are more concerned with outcomes, and allow more leeway in processes. However, a large majority of private institutions are whimsical in their decision-making, not very process-oriented, more sycophantic, and less inclined to invest in research and serious academic endeavours.

One hears of several instances of private institutions failing to provide the wages promised in contracts, hiring and firing at will, and being unwilling to entertain any disagreement. Worst still, the curriculum in private schools is not more innovative than that in government institutions.

This is why the first generation of private institutions, particularly in engineering and management, was not able to attract the top faculty from government institutions. The second wave of private institutions is more interesting. Schools like the Indian School of Business, Ashoka University, Azim Premji University, Shiv Nader University, O. P. Global Jindal, Ahmedabad University, and so on, which came up in the early 2000s, have more autonomy from their founders than their earlier counterparts. Good faculty from government institutions, who find themselves wasting in a mediocre culture, are slowly looking to move to these private institutions. Then there are colleges affiliated to universities. These colleges, unless they are autonomous, feel that they are being strangulated by the university to which they are affiliated, as the latter defines all aspects of their academic and administrative activity. It must be pointed out that wherever private players or the government have developed processes and articulated clear roles for the faculty, administration, and the board, governance has been better.

The IIMA, BITS Pilani, and XLRI Jamshedpur would exhibit some of these characteristics. Both the government and private founders need to create oversight, define broad parameters of operations, measure outcomes, and learn to govern through the boards.

With permission from Orient BlackSwan

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