26 Oct 2020 20:14 IST

Looking for right leadership in higher education

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Academic leadership is different from teaching skills and this has led to ineffective leaders in many institutions

In any discussion on the challenges facing higher education (HE) in colleges/universities, in India, the oft-quoted primary reason is “faculty shortage”. For instance, the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) indicates a deficit of 3.4 million teachers by 2025 based on a student to teacher ratio of 15:1 and gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 50 per cent. This leads one to believe that creating a vast pool of quality faculty is the panacea for overcoming the ills of HE.

While faculty are the fulcrum around which the teaching-learning process revolves, no one seemingly is talking about the ingredient of ‘Leadership’ for bringing about the transformation in the HE scenario of the country. A leadership survey of Fortune 500 companies found that only 5-8 per cent of leaders are effective. If this be true of the corporate sector that can attract talent with high salaries, the world of education is far more seriously handicapped especially in India.

Amongst the numerous definitions of ‘leadership’, the one widely accepted is “a process whereby an individual influences individuals and teams to achieve a common organisational goal”. In the modern era, leadership also resonates with the ability to manage ‘change’ emanating from a host of factors, in particular the external environment.

When one looks back on the great educational leaders of India, one thinks of the likes of Chanakya, Rabindranath Tagore, Maharshi Karve, Dayanand Saraswati, Savitribai Phule, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and more recently Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. This list would not be complete without Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru but for whom the premium HE institutes of the country – the IITs and IIMs and the multifarious research establishments - would not have been established within the first two decades after Independence. So what does leadership in HE entail in the coming years?

Contours of leadership in HE

The NEP 2020 attempts to make a paradigm change to the face of HE with a multi-pronged approach to (a) create multidisciplinary universities (MDU) (b) provide education in local and regional languages (c) provide access to socially disadvantaged persons even in remote areas and (d) augment research, backed by funding. This is a mammoth task that calls for diverse leadership capabilities and positions not only confined to the Vice Chancellors, Deans, Directors. While the hierarchical or command and control leadership model is not suited for HE, the (i) individualistic (ii) collegial (iii) collaborative (iv) transformative models may be considered relevant.

The NEP has recommended that there should at least be one MDU with 3,000-plus students in each of the 935 districts of the country. While 19 of the 29 states have more than one university per district, at least 100 new universities need to be set up to serve the underdeveloped states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the north eastern states and hill states and union territories. Besides, even in the more developed states, most of the universities are not truly multi-disciplinary and need to be radically transformed.

Presently, instructional design philosophy is sparsely employed in India. Building multi-disciplinary universities(MDU) calls for both collaborative and transformative leadership involving educationists who possess the integrative skills of breaking departmental silos, aligning different disciplines and programmes and leading teams of instructional designers to design programmes, courses, pedagogies and assessment frameworks based on the learning outcomes approach. In the post-Covid scenario, while designing programmes these leaders must also be adept at determining the appropriate blend of face-to-face (F2F) and online learning components.

Providing education in local/regional languages calls for a high degree of skills in scientific translation of the vast number of text books in different disciplines. While the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) and their state wings have already initiated this, the sheer magnitude of the 270 languages, number of disciplines/courses (existing and new) and the need to complete it by 2025 render it a Herculean project. This is more in the nature of a transitional role for an academic leader and necessitates hands-on operational leadership entailing monitoring progress, empowering staff to get things done with a project management focus.

Mentoring to be inbuilt

HE access to socially disadvantaged groups comprising women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, physically challenged, remotely located rural folks is a challenge of multifarious dimensions ranging from awareness creation, amelioration of social norms, design of appropriate pedagogies and logistics. For disadvantaged learners (be it social or physical) mentoring has necessarily to be inbuilt in the pedagogy along with F2F and online/video-based classes.

This involves monitoring progress through calls once or twice a month to enquire about progress/ difficulties; clarification of basics and concepts, conducting objective tests, making a study plan, analysing where the student is going wrong and encouraging them and providing tips/solutions. Leaders would be expected to lead teams embedded in collaboration at the grass roots, marketing and promotion, setting up technological infrastructure, pedagogy selection, mentoring, and render placement services. For leading diversity and inclusion that are inherent in this effort, both the collaborative and transformative models of leadership need to be employed.

Setting up of the National Research Foundation (NRF) that the NEP has proposed is a low hanging fruit. Unlike in the US and other developed countries, industry and government seldom involve academia for research in India. By the same token academia is not active in soliciting involvement with real world problems that industry and government can offer.

Societal challenges

What is therefore more important is the collaborative leadership for creating an appropriate eco-system for research that entails cooperation amongst academia, industry, government and the social sector to create and update a pool of research problems and ideas for research. These can then be linked with the funding from the NRF. If this is done, societal challenges like clean drinking water, sanitation, quality education, healthcare, energy, infrastructure that are in a very poor state in the country would be addressed and research that is beneficial to society would be produced. The key driver for research is professional recognition and herein the individualistic leadership model must also be encouraged.

Academic leadership skills are vastly different from teaching skills and research skills and this non-clarity has led to appointment of ineffective leaders in many institutions. Thus, if the four main pillars of the HE vision of the NEP have to fructify, those implementing the plans in each state would need to adopt varied leadership models and the associated skills and capabilities. They also have to understand the process and ingredients for effecting change including setting and communicating the vision, identifying champions of change in every district. This calls for visionary transformational leaders in education and it is the combined responsibility of central and state governments, universities and the social sector to unearth, identify and select such leaders for implementing the vision of the NEP.

(The writer is Director, NMIMS, Bengaluru.)