Ranjit Goswami 06 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 357
A recent controversy over the renewal of Professor Amartya Sen’s period at the helm of Nalanda University shows that India needs to address governance issues that are preventing progress in higher education. A lot has been said about quality, or rather the lack of it, in India’s education system. With nearly 25 million births a year, and more than a million people entering the workforce every month, the country’s future social stability, from the sustainability of its economic growth to its global economic competitiveness, is largely dependent on a single factor – the education and skills the nation’s youth possess.
Acknowledging the huge challenge – in terms of the number of schools, colleges and universities in a country with less than US$2,000 per capita income in nominal terms – surely we must say that a lot has been achieved over the last two decades.
Capacity building, at each local school and at colleges and universities, takes a huge amount of time, as do building the quality or reputation of each of the many institutions.
But what has been missing is the progressive and supportive governance necessary at the highest level, even though capacity building at that level is less difficult than in each institution.
Two critical aspects are at fault: One is the role of the regulators; the second is the interface between local governance of each institution with that of its promoter. For public institutions, the promoter is invariably either the state or the central government, because they are ultimately funded by taxpayers’ money; whereas for private institutions, the promoter is the non-profit private entity.
The role of the regulators is said to be directly responsible for various deficiencies in education but much less is said about the deficits in the second critical aspect of governance.
The recent controversy about Nalanda University exposes just the tip of the iceberg of this issue and its impact on India’s higher education system. In only 10 years since it was conceived and five years since it opened, Nalanda has found itself in an unnecessary quagmire.
The early signs do not bode well when set against Nalanda’s centuries-old gloried past, which the new-founded university wants to replicate.
It was a large Buddhist monastery founded in the fifth century and attained widespread regional recognition from the sixth to the ninth centuries as a learning centre in diverse areas such as the fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and even the art of war – going beyond its core of Buddhist studies. Its eventual decline lasted until the 13th century when it closed.
The present controversy started when the university’s famous chancellor, Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, said he would not seek a second term in spite of a prior willingness and board approval.
The reason, as Sen stated in various TV interviews and reported in news articles, was the delay in the Nalanda University Visitor’s (President of India) approval of a unanimous board recommendation to offer a second term to Sen. According to Sen, the President should have respected the board’s decision in a timely manner or have indicated otherwise.
Apparently there was no response for more than a month. Nalanda, unlike most other Indian universities, was created by a unique Nalanda University Act of 2010. In India, a delay or unresponsive communication of one month from the government, which Sen was referring to, is seldom considered to be a delay by other Indian institutes which regularly face similar timescales.
Even the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, which were created by an IIT Act of 1961, routinely face longer delays dealing with more critical decisions and have remained without a permanent head for months or even years as a result.
Given this context, one might wonder why Sen jumped to his conclusion prematurely. As Sen stated, had there been prior shortcomings in the formation or functioning of the board (as some reports suggested), these should have been dealt with then and there in an appropriate and transparent manner.
Sen has worked extensively in the field of higher education in India, the UK and in the US with public and private institutes of repute. In the absence of clear communications from the promoter of Nalanda University – the government – he deserves understanding rather than criticism.
Regular day-to-day decisions need to be made, more so for a new university like Nalanda which is launching new academic programmes; and the decision-making process should be nurtured over the years.
India has rarely witnessed any head of an institute publicly speaking out against such business-as-usual delays. As there are, and should be, performance matrices for heads and faculty members of an institute, there should also be performance matrices on the promoters’ side.
Unfortunately, promoters of institutes in India, whether public or private, mostly believe that providing financial support alone gives them carte blanche to act with impunity and no accountability.
Private entities in education still operate in a disorganised manner, in spite of the sector’s huge growth, because there are so many of them. Most of these private players lack expertise in governance interface.
The controversy at Nalanda University should be a learning point and be acted upon. Building world-class universities takes time, resources and a supportive ecosystem and accountability should not be a difficult problem.
Controversies of this nature also exacerbate other ongoing challenges – ranging from attracting back the diaspora of Indian-origin academics from overseas and luring foreign academics to take up assignments in India, to making India an attractive destination for international students, which lies at the foundation of Nalanda University.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often talked about the need for speed, transparency and accountability, and a ‘more governance, less government’ spirit.
Acknowledging that the government does not have the capacity to micro-manage and that a delayed response does not serve the needs of speed or transparency and is no substitute for making hard decisions when necessary, Nalanda’s struggle could act as a catalyst to transform academic governance in India – if only we actually want to learn from it.
Professor Ranjit Goswami is dean (academics) at the Institute of Management Technology, or IMT, Nagpur, in India.
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