Educational institutions are the primary instruments of formatting mind and fomenting turbulence for social change. When we deliberately try to vaccinate such institutions against excellence, and sometimes even relevance, the task of change agents becomes so much more difficult. The efforts for such vaccination have been going on for decades. If despite that India has produced outstanding students and scholarship, the credit goes to the learners and their unsung teachers and in some cases, their tolerant parents and mentors.
Why are policy makers so obsessed with tinkering in cases where they can contribute more by keeping hands off? There are so many institutions under complete control of Ministry of Human Resources Development and majority of them need surgery. But ministers after ministers over the years have ignored the widespread mediocrity and only tried to meddle with institutions that are far better and stronger. It is this malaise, which needs urgent reflection on the part of policy makers entrusted with the responsibility of blending excellence, relevance and expansion.
I completely agree with what Ashish mentioned in the previous column that easiest way of expanding excellence could have been investments in existing institutions of excellence in higher learning for creating new campuses. Institution building takes time. Good systems and norms evolve slowly but can be destroyed fast (or attempt can be made to destroy). Fortunately, despite such attempts sometimes from within and occasionally from outside, most of these institutions have proved their mettle over time. The reason is that many of the leaders who have led these institutions didn’t have to earn their reputation from the position. They had lent their stature to the position. Problem arises when people seek positions to prove their merit and therefore start succumbing to the pressures from myopic meddlers. To be fair to the policy makers, it should be acknowledged that not a single institution of excellence recognized today in India and abroad could have achieved this excellence without very positive and constructive support from the policy makers over the years. Then why are we losing out stronger spines at different levels?
No politician can really meddle in the affairs of institution of excellence if the bureaucracy does not lend a helping hand. However, a leader can contribute even if bureaucracy sometimes comes in the way. There is an old story about Bhaba Atomic Research Centre [BARC]. An old ICS officer Thapar was the Controller of Administration at BARC. Dr. H J Bhaba was leading the lab to produce a world class facility [the contributions are too well known to merit elaboration]. Once Thapar went to Nehru, exasperated with the decision making style of the doyen and complained, ‘either Bhaba stays ( at BARC) or I’. Nehru replied, ‘decision is made. Bhaba stays’. Such is the stuff of which institutions are made. During the early years of IIMA, there were once or twice attempts to influence admission from Delhi. All such calls were transferred to the admission office. When the call came repeatedly, the call was transferred to lower and lower ranks. The message was conveyed clearly. Today, the country can be proud of not one but many institutions where this sanctity of admission process is beyond doubt. Similarly, in the matter of recruitment, majority of institutions of excellence have followed peer processes of search and selection. By not interfering in the process, the policy makers have made a very positive contribution for which they must be thanked. However, when a HRD Minister decides to interview candidates for top institutions instead of relying on the search committees set up for the purpose, something precious is lost. The Minister can exercise her choice while recommending the panel to the cabinet committee on appointments. But, to expect that she will be able to judge the merit in a short interview is perhaps too much of a burden she should really bear. What can be the excuse for tampering with time tested peer process of selecting leaders of institutions of excellence? The professional accountability to the peers is generally a strong regulator of one’s motivations. The earlier process when secretary, MHRD chaired the meeting for selecting Directors of IIMs was equally dysfunctional. A deliberate attempt to create bureaucratic oversight over academic dispensations can never be justified on any criteria of institution building. Some colleagues refused to legitimize that process by not appearing for such an interview. As a matter of fact, a reluctant leader is likely to be far better than an eager seeker of the position. That process is enough indication of what is likely to follow. Wherever people lobbied or used political connections to seek such positions, they inflicted sufficient damage. Though it goes to the credit of these institutions that they could quickly recover from such damage.
The culture of peer review and regulation of academic decisions has stood its ground. Whenever directors have tried to reverse the center of gravity from faculty led governance to board led management, the motivation levels have dipped. There are no shortcuts to building ownership among all stakeholders, particularly, the faculty and the staff and of course the students. The contribution of the students in governance sometime has been muted and the result is lack of bonding. However, whichever institution has listened to the students more has also received higher alumni contributions. IITs are a good example.
Towards a new professionalism
That brings me to another disturbing feature of the professional culture. If the ability to imbue fortitude among the students is the characteristic of a good institution, then we must admit our failure as a nation. During various global and national crises, not many professionals, particularly from management discipline have blown the whistle. The silence is too conspicuous to be considered a random error. May be there is something missing in our pedagogy or purposefulness that needs a fresh consideration. Partly it could be a weakness of our own fraternity i.e., the teachers. A good artisan doesn’t blame his tools. If students have felt shy, then have teachers stood their ground. And when they have, they have earned the respect of not only students but also the larger society.
The time has come to ask us some basic questions about the direction in which the relationship between policy makers, institution builders and societal expectations has to be bridged. By appointing a mediocre as head of any institution, one doesn’t have to to do anything further. The decline is inevitable. Numerous programmes, whether space, atomic energy, railways, and many others have achieved outstanding results precisely through the trust country showed in the able hands. What is the new evidence or compulsion, which warrants a change in a paradigm that has delivered well?