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Innovation? Begin with Governance of our Educational Institutions

by Sudheendra Kulkarni
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To achieve excellence and global reputation, our educational institutions need something more than innovative technologies and pedagogic techniques ─ they need effective self-governance and an eco-system that protects their autonomy

TThe opening session of the daylong thinkfest to celebrate the 25th anniversary of NDTV in New Delhi on December 14 was star-studded. The topic of the panel discussion was ‘Science, Innovation and the Future of India’. And the discussants included Dr. C.N.R. Rao, one of the two Indians honoured with ‘Bharat Ratna’ this year; Nobel laureate scientist Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan; renowned agri-scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminanthan; and N. Chandrasekharan, CEO of TCS.

Somehow the discussion kept coming back to the system of education in India. The panelists’ common lament was: India is neglecting quality in schools and universities. If rote learning is the hallmark of our education system, how can our country become a hub of innovation? Prof. Rao was blunt: “We’ve failed to support education as we should. Before we talk of science, we need to do more for schools.”

I would have liked President Mukherjee, as the head of the Indian Republic to point out the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is not so much the lack of innovation in education; rather, it is the lack of innovation in the governance of education, a subject that governments are loath to discuss.

 This concern was also articulated by President Pranab Mukherjee in the closing ceremony of NDTV@25, which was, unusually, held at the newly built auditorium at Rashtrapati Bhavan. India must take its rightful place among nations and invest in education and innovation to build a world-class education system,” he said. Pushing for reforms in education and innovation, he bemoaned that Indian universities had not been able to produce any Nobel Laureate after Sir C.V. Raman. And Raman’s Nobel came way back in 1930.

I would have liked President Mukherjee, as the head of the Indian Republic to point out the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is not so much the lack of innovation in education; rather, it is the lack of innovation in the governance of education, a subject that governments are loath to discuss.

The way our state universities are governed is indeed an advertisement for how not to govern universities.

Generally, we Indians debate innovation in education in terms of new technology and techniques to be used to enrich learning experience both inside the classroom and outside. These are no doubt needed. The Internet provides an ocean of useful resources for teaching and learning. Their ubiquitous use must form the basis of reforming education in our schools, colleges and universities. This is indeed happening to some extent. In another welcome development, there is far greater emphasis these days on teacher training. Here too technology can bring in ─ and is indeed bringing in ─ a lot of innovation.

Many teachers in IITs, with IITB taking the lead, are engaged in simultaneous e-training of teachers in engineering colleges in remote locations across India.

The hands-on leadership of its dynamic director Dr. Anil Sahasrabuddhe, an alumnus of IITB, CoEP has achieved a major self-transformation in the past ten years using its autonomous status. Institutional support from IITB has played an important role in CoEP’s quality enhancement.

However, the key area where innovation is most needed ─ and where it is most thwarted by the governance eco-system in India ─ is how our educational institutions are governed. There is a direct correlation between governance and excellence in education. Institutions that are not well governed ─ or, rather, that are not allowed to be well governed ─ can hardly be expected to impart high-quality education on a sustained basis, even if they are well-endowed with other pre-requisites for good education such as good teachers, good labs, good campus, etc.

The first and foremost pre-requisite of excellence in education is autonomy in governance, especially autonomy for those institutions that have proven potential to rise higher on the quality ladder. India has numerous educational institutions at all levels ─ school, college, university ─ and in all streams of learning ─ engineering, medicine, management, arts, architecture, and so on ─ which can achieve excellence and global reputation. Many of them also have capable, committed and ambitious leaders who want to take their institutions higher up on the excellence curve. If the potential of these institutions is not being translated into actual performance, the blame must squarely lie in the manner in which the educational bureaucracies in central and state governments exercise a vice-like grip over them.

The direct outcome of this denial of innovation in governance of educational institutions is the denial of opportunity for good education to millions of young, bright and aspiring Indian students.

The way our state universities are governed is indeed an advertisement for how not to govern universities. Over 80 per cent of universities in India are administered by states; the remaining are central universities, which are both better funded and also, relatively speaking, slightly better governed. In states, the baneful interference of politicians and bureaucrats begins with the appointment of vice chancellors and extends to many areas of administration. As a result, many universities which once had a high reputation ─ at least nationally though not internationally ─ are descending into mediocrity.

A case in point is the University of Mumbai. Not a fortnight passes before newspapers in the city carrying some negative report or the other about maladministration of this university, which was once not only a pride of the city but also set the quality benchmark for other universities in the country. Those in the know of the affairs of the University of Mumbai say that its steep decline is largely due to government control, which has stifled merit, bred inefficiency, indiscipline and corruption, and allowed caste and parochial considerations ─ not to speak of unionism of students and teachers ─ create havoc.

A different kind of example is that of the College of Engineering Pune (CoEP). It is one of the great success stories in quality upgradation in recent years. This happened entirely due to the fact that, a decade ago, a group of non-governmental and non-political champions of excellence in education led a campaign for the grant of autonomy to promising educational institutions in Maharashtra. Reluctantly, the state government agreed to give autonomy to four institutions in the state, CoEP being one of them. The other was the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT). The latter, thankfully, was delinked from the University of Mumbai and has now become the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT). A fully autonomous institution, ICT is well on its way to becoming a world-class institution.

CoEP, on the other hand, shows how even autonomous institutions can find their autonomy threatened. Under the guidance of an enlightened board of governors headed by F.C. Kohli, the nonagenarian doyen of IT industry in India and a tireless votary of educational reforms, and under the hands-on leadership of its dynamic director Dr. Anil Sahasrabuddhe, an alumnus of IITB, CoEP has achieved a major self-transformation in the past ten years using its autonomous status. Institutional support from IITB has played an important role in CoEP’s quality enhancement.

However, last fortnight CoEP encountered a major setback. A group of disgruntled teachers from the pre-autonomy era challenged the innovative ways of merit-based faculty selection in the court. The Bombay High Court ruled that CoEP cannot use its autonomy in respect of hiring of faculty and that teachers can only be selected by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC). The court’s reasoning was that since the state government provides public funds to CoEP, it must retain control over the college, including in the crucial area of faculty selection.

The court’s decision is prima facie retrograde. It is well known that MPSC, a state government body, is notorious for inefficiency ─ and worse. It is equally well known that quality faculty is the sine qua non of quality education. Indeed, it is precisely to liberate CoEP from such deleterious external government control that Kohli and other reform-minded eminent personalities had pitched for autonomy to this and other potential centres of excellence in Maharashtra. Sadly, the court ruling has annulled this logic.

CoEP’s experience shows that, in the Indian scenario, hurdles to autonomy can appear from unexpected quarters even after formal autonomy is given. This is happening because the principle of autonomy and institutional self-governance has not been understood and internalised by the larger system of governance in India. As a result, thousands of good and promising institutions, which can attain excellence, are groaning under the burden of irrational, unnecessary and quality-killing external control.

The direct outcome of this denial of innovation in governance of educational institutions is the denial of opportunity for good education to millions of young, bright and aspiring Indian students.

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