Restructuring of Indian universities

Tags: Op-ed
Restructuring of Indian universities
MIRROR IMAGE: The twin challenges of managing academic excellence, and increasing gross enrolment ratio requires that our universities must function on the principle of ‘growth factories’
At the recent Central Universities Vice Chancellors’ Conference invited by the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhawan on February 6 and 7, the main agenda veered around three themes, viz.: academic-industry interaction; technology for quality, access, and equity; and, improving global rankings. Ironically, these were broadly the discussion points at another Central Vice Chancellors Conference we organised almost a decade ago at our institute. In effect, not much has changed since then and the policy concerns remained more or less the same. However, the context from then and at present has changed dramatically.

Chinese universities have arisen and disruptive technologies are all over us that carry transformational possibilities. We are in a position to bridge the huge literacy and digital divides in our country through use of low-cost and open-source technologies. Remarkably, during my presentation on ‘technology accelerators in higher education’, it appeared that the chasm between enthusiastic and reluctant vice chancellors on using modern technology for major productivity improvements was huge.

Most of our universities suffer from the paradox of success — almost unlimited demand from a burgeoning population (reflected in astronomical cut-offs for admission in many universities and colleges), low level of academic and performance accountability at almost levels of employees, and non-demanding customers. The resultant has been structural and cultural inertia and a strong unwillingness to change.

This situation can be remedied only through a major restructuring effort. The twin challenges of managing academic excellence, and increasing gross enrolment ratio requires that our universities must function on the principle of ‘growth factories’. Effectively, the challenge is to bring in the creativity of Einstein and Edison, and simultaneously the mass assembly line system pioneered by Henry Ford into the universities! In other words, the universities sh­ould be geared to manage continuity (maintenance engineering), and yet be able to create and manage chaos to proactively ride the next curve of technological discontinuities. But this is not possible in the existing set-up. The university colleges and departments must act as autonomous and heavyweight (empowered) entities entrusted with measurable metrics on performance including ‘breakthrough’ research, attracting funding, developing cutting-edge courses and disciplines.

One of the ways is to release the existing load on the vice chancellors by separating certain administrative, academic and research responsibilities from his or her shoulders. This kind of re-allocation is happening all over the world. For instance, LSU Health Sciences Centre in Louisiana (US) has created a post of vice chancellor for research (VC-R) for providing executive leadership for research administration and planning, and devises programmes with other board members to strengthen campus research enterprise for promoting innovative and multi-disciplinary research programme across north Louisiana. The VC-R leads the university in all aspects of research and represents it while dealing with federal agencies, developing joint collaborations with other institutions and local stakeholders.

The VC-R would be responsible for maintaining the expected standards of research across various colleges in the university including the PhD programmes. This kind of re-structuring can transform our universities where teaching excellence can co-exist with research excellence leading to superior (employable) students and better industry-academic relationships. The VC-R can be expected (or trained) on important dimensions such as intellectual property, technology transfer and commercialisation within the university settings. This is just one example of combining the super-specialty with the general administration.

Our experience of research evaluation at university level, much of the so-called scientific PhD work is mostly explorative and the results are non-reproducible. Even basic mistakes at the level of research design are made, such as basing the findings on ‘high significance levels’ achieved from small-size samples. Most of the primary data is non-transparent even in published manuscripts.

On the other hand, as the President remarked, our universities are losing good scholars to foreign institutions due to lack of facilities and absence of a supportive ecosystem. To start with, our universities can create something like an online forum called PubMed Commons lau­nched by the National Institute of Health in the US for open discourse on published articles. Authors and scholars can join, rate or contribute comments.

The job of the VC combines leadership in governance and execution. Generally, a vice chancellor is a gentleman who has spent life in a small office with never seeing either a court of law or a police station. One VC mentioned in confidence that he had never expected to deal with so many legal, police, and regulatory (including MHRD, UGC, minorities commission, parliamentary committees, CVC, CAG) agencies. It was indeed a shock and a sharp learning curve for the newly-appointed VC! Thus, training of vice chancellors on governance, strategic direction, collaborative mindsets, managing interdisciplinary breakthrough research teams, and managing multiple stakeholders is crucial.

The job of the new-age VC is to create a certain amount of turbulence so that the administrative and academic community wakes up from the Kumbhkaran-style slumber. Only then can we hope to reap the demographic dividends.

(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)

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