Leadership and Governance in Higher Education


India’s demographic advantage lies in its young population and growing middleclass. The economic growth of more than two decades has altered the income pyramid. With a large number of people moving up the income ladder, Indian society has today transitioned to an aspirational society. Today almost every Indian family wishes to see their son/daughter acquiring professional education and moving into the corporate echelons. Higher education, especially professional education, is seen as a passport to improving one’s lifestyle. In fact, it has also been perceived as one that can have a bearing on a generation’s quality of life and value system. It is for these reasons that higher education institutions are considered as engines of transformation. Apart from this, institutions play a pivotal role in shaping the value system of an individual. They are also perceived as institutions for lifelong learning experience.

Responding to the need for higher education, India saw the emergence of one of the largest system in the world with a healthy growth rate in the number of institutions and enrolments in the lasts two decades. Today, the country ranks second in terms of enrolment of students in higher education. Private institutions have accounted for much of this growth. Almost 64% of higher education institutions are in the private sector. They are also the ones that have accounted for the largest number of student enrolment. For 59% of students today study in private institutions. Enrolment in professional courses like Medicine, Engineering and Management witnessed highest Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 21% approx. between 2007 & 2012. Despite such a healthy growth and the opportunity to educate India’s billion population, the fact is that several Engineering and Management Schools are today closing down because of a decline in their admissions. In the context of CAT, for example, the total number of applications has steadily decreased from 2008 onwards, from a high of 246000 to 205000 in 2011. What could be the reason for this state of affairs in higher education?

Planning Failure

The critics feel that there has been a planning failure in higher education especially in professional education where AICTE or Medical Council of India were involved. Consider for example the capacity expansion in management education where it increased from 95000 seats in 2006-07 to about 352000 in 2011-12.

Several studies on management graduates showed that their employability was much lower than expected. Hence, to attribute closure of institutions only to planning failure is perhaps running away from the fact that many institutions suffered systemic weaknesses. For example, a lack of academic rigor in the programs arising out of the fact that institutes did not have the requisite competent faculty and combined with poor linkages with the corporate world contributed to poor quality management graduates. To further aggravate the situation there was a significant governance failure. From governance perspective, lack of distinction between ownership and management of the institution contributed to institutional decline. Often it was observed that promoters took on themselves academic and administrative roles thereby leaving where little to the head of the institution. Non-functional boards had been the hallmark of these institutions. The `trust’ form of institution ownership also led to significant malpractices, whether these were `related party transactions’ or purchase contracts. All became the basis for siphoning of institution money back to the owners. Pliant leadership contributed to poor governance. Hence, while on one hand there was issue of quality, on the other, it was about leadership and governance of these institutions that led to the closure.

Before we move towards considering what needs to be done to improve leadership and governance in these institutions, we need to consider the characteristics of some of the outstanding institutions.

Characteristics of an outstanding Institution 

  1. Shared Vision: Outstanding institutions and leaders are always characterized by a vision shared by the institutional community. Many a times it has been observed that the institutions are not able to move forward and achieve the vision largely because it remained of the leader or at best of the `owner’. No attempt was made to gain community’s acceptance. One does not gain this acceptance through a dictat or by putting it up on the walls of the institution. Consultation, negotiation and letting the community know how critical it is for institution to achieve this vision, gets the commitment.
  1. Value Framework: Institutions are always characterized by a framework of values. Though on the face of it these may look idealistic statements, in reality they reflect the belief system which a leader wishes to nurture. Internalization of value is a long term process. It involves not just merely words but even the actions of all concerned in the institutions. The fact that it is a network of values is indicative that institutions don’t exist for just one single value. The value statement reflects the expectation of the leader with regard to community’s behaviour. 
  1. Network of goals and objectives: Institutions have multiple goals and hence multiple objectives both long term and short term. These objectives could further get categorized under academic, research, service to the community, research and development and intellectual outputs etc.
  1. Talent Management: Managing institutions is about management talent. Faculty is perhaps one of the most important talent that needs to be nurtured. The fact that each of them is an acknowledged expert or has the potential to be one such, makes them opinionated and at times even a lone player. Faculty needs space for growth. Recognizing their efforts and output is the hallmark of outstanding institutional leaders.

Governance of Institution

It is in the above context that I believe institutional governance is based on the following principles:

  1. Transparency
  2. Equity
  3. Fairness
  4. Probity &
  5. Values

One of the biggest problems in governance has been a lack of transparency. Institutions have been fairly low on disclosures. Even when institutions may have disclosed information, much of it is only to remain compliant to the law. Outstanding institutions go beyond the mandatory disclosures. They put in public domain information relating to programs, faculty, learning resources, student assessments, financial balance sheet, statutory approvals and good practices. They consider disclosure from the stakeholders’ confidence perspective. Transparency in disclosures and decision making is greatly facilitated by an open culture.

Probity is acting in public good and conducting one’s behaviour in a transparent and honest manner.  It is important for those who govern the institution to examine whether the decision is for the good of the larger community or is it going to benefit just a handful of people. Given, the current ethos in higher education, probity on the part of Board of members as also Vice Chancellor or Director has become utmost important. Increasingly, there will be a pressure on the institution to cut corners to achieve desired results. When this happens, institutions slip down in stakeholders’ confidence. Institutions credibility can get destroyed in much shorter time period than envisaged. Hence, highest standards of conduct in public and private life is expected of institutional leaders. 

Equity:  Just as probity is important, equity and fairness is required in all decision making. The decision must be fair to all segments of institutional community. Only then can the larger good of the society be served. For this purpose, the views and ideas of all segments must be considered. In decision making appropriate weightage to the community’s interest must be given otherwise it would lead to disaffection within the community. For this purpose an important prerequisite is that decisions be free from political considerations and personal agendas.  I have seen at times institutional interest being sacrificed at the altar of personal interest and egos. In such a situation no decision can be fair.

Value based

If the institution promotes values, than the place to begin is Board and the CEO or the Vice Chancellor/Director. One of the good practices which reflects value system is collaborative decision making. Competitive discussion or a discussion to prove one’s point of view does not help in decision making. The basic principle of collaboration is trust, which gets developed only when discussions are held in open and fair manner. Another value is integrity.  It is important that the individual must exhibit highest standard of ethics and integrity in their conduct.  Nothing is more powerful than the actions. Another key value is confidentiality. It is important that the decision taken at the highest level must be communicated to the community as the decision of the Board or the institution and not that of an individual.

In view of the above the good governance principles to be considered are:

  1. Transparency
  2. Respect for the rule of laws and ensuring total compliance to the Regulatory framework.
  3. Democratic
  4. Respecting and guarding the autonomy of the institution
  5. Gaining institutional acceptance to a policy framework
  6. Responsiveness to the stakeholders
  7. Decisions to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the Institution and
  8. Probity in public and private life

The above issues in governance are also leadership challenges. Institutional governance improves significantly only with a strong and passionate leader.

Andy Grove the legendary Chairman of INTEL wrote, that in times of rapid change,

it is only the paranoid leaders who, can make organizations grow and survive. This is true for higher education too, which lacks `paranoid’ institutional leaders who have a passion to build and leave behind strong institutions that transcend generations.

Other characteristic of some of the outstanding leaders is their belief and commitment to consensus building in the community. For the sake of time management, often the leaders resort to pushing their decision through a voting mechanism. This is often justified in the name of democracy. However, in doing so the leader misses the fact that voice of minority is as important as that of majority. Hence, the need to build the consensus even when it means more time for decision making.

Within the community the leader has to be noncompetitive. Many a time the leader feels threatened by those who are more qualified and competent than him/her. In doing so, he fail to recognize the fact that institution grows only with multiple stars and not just with one star who could be just the leader himself. An institution is like a constellation with planets and stars. The best decision making and governance happens only when institution has multiple planets and stars.  

Conclusion: In sum, institutions grow with strong leaders and good governance practices. Indian institutions need to focus on their internal governance and leadership development if they have to survive and grow in a highly competitive environment. This holds good for both public and private sector institutions.