Academia Consigned To Intellectual Poverty: The Missing Link In India’s Institutionalization Process

K Sankaran , Director , Justice KS Hegde Institute of Managment writes on Higher Education Governance and explores the missing link in India's institutional process

Those in the academia in India are now used to many flip-flops in rules and decisions that govern Higher Education (HE) for decades now. For instance, not long ago HE institutions were asked to introduce biometric attendance monitoring for disciplining academics. Recently there is an “order” that such monitoring reduces academic autonomy. The same body keeps changing the prescribed student-faculty ratio requirements from time to time in various types of HE institutions. More recently it was announced that Engineering colleges that have been able to fill less than 30 percent of the prescribed intake size would be asked to close down. This decision is now revoked if one goes by the press reports. A couple of weeks back there was an announcement from an important regulator that that induction program for a professional program would be fifteen days. I imagine all would agree that this is micromanagement. We have heard of the vagaries of weather, but vagaries of the regulators? Come to the portals of Higher Education.

Elsewhere there is a serious discussion raging about Medical Council of India being replaced by the National Medical Commission. In the meanwhile, there is a huge crisis of confidence in India’s Supreme Court with the four senior judges whistle blowing the inner working of this august institution. 

The vagaries of the regulator alluded to earlier and the crisis of confidence in the regulatory bodies including as august a body as the highest court of the land are symptoms of the collective failure of the Indian intelligentsia that should ideally be represented by its academia. At present Indian academia is designed so that it is toothless and rendered impotent. It would be difficult to find a country where the regulation of a profession and professional education lie both with the same body. Take the case of Medical Council of India (MCI). It was designed to be a registering body for medical professionals practicing allopathy and ensure ethical conduct by those registered. In addition, the organization is tasked with regulation of professional education in medicine. 

The same is true for accounting, law, architecture and many others.

Academic work is serious work by itself. If we combine in the same body the task of regulation of a profession and also that of the regulation of professional education, there is, in a very fundamental sense, a conflict of interest. As practitioners, however respectable and upright they may be, they will have a tendency to maintain the status quo. A successful accountant would definitely find that is it convenient to have a few bright clerks under his or her command doing articles for a pittance of a payment. The professional body overseeing the profession and professional education has little reason to change the status quo because this is a static convenient arrangement. The work of any advanced contemporary academic community is to be critical of existing practices and suggest means of enhancing the profession (if a profession is what the specific academic concern is) as demanded by the society arising from new societal aspirations, technology etc. When the same organization does the dual role of regulation of the profession and professional education there is little role for the academic community except teaching students to maintain the status quo. This is a sure recipe for intellectual poverty in the country at least as far as the professions go. 

We have to now redefine the role of academia in the country. We have achieved the distinction of having one of the largest networks of academic institutions in the world. It is time for a qualitative shift now. The role of academia is not to just teach from the textbooks. but more importantly, teach the right stuff in the right manner and create more learnings for itself so that it can do a better job in future. The right stuff alluded to above is about being critical of existing practices in an optimistic way so that the HE sector rightfully questions the existing paradigms and helps the rest of the society to come to terms with major intellectual challenges, and co-opts young minds into that process. The reason why the debates on Indian TV are so poor is on account of the poverty of the academia. Shouting replaces logic. Debates are settled by the brute force of the majority and by the decibels of cacophony exemplified by Indian TV talk shows. 

Recovering the popular intellectual terrain will not be easy for the Indian academia. Perhaps it will take more time to shed its legacy that comes from the mid-1800s. The University of London Model introduced by Thomas Macauley is not a happy inheritance. Please note that the University of London in the 1800s was not a research university but an equivalent to a teaching shop. Even after seventy years of Indian freedom, the university system meant originally to create compliant subjects holds a strong sway. Even if some individual academics are ready, the scores of regulatory bodies that interfere with the way universities function have a heavy hand on the intellectual freedoms available to the academia. 

So what we see is the ultimate toothlessness of the academic-intellectual class in the country. In the west and in Japan (and even in resurgent China), many ideas generated in the higher education sector are ahead of those that are in practice. The academia is encouraged to be critical of existing practices. Everyone understands that it is the destruction of existing paradigms that give rise to new ones. Through research, co-generation of ideas through research students, and consulting with industry and sectoral practitioners, ideas get debated, tested, and practiced as pilot projects which eventually seep into the mainstream real world. What is the extent to which such a process is happening in India? Indeed negligible. 

Since the British established the university system in India in the mid-1800s, we have seen a shifting genre of "institutions of preeminence”. First it was the Presidency universities which were established in the mid-1800s. Their preeminence was questioned in the fervor of the independence movement. What arose were nationalistic startups. Thus arose Banaras Hindu University, Santiniketan and a few other universities established often under the patronage of the Maharajas of the times (for instance, Mysore University). Soon after independence came Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's temples of learning, all set up by the government such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management. Some of the observers of Indian higher education are of the view that these government institutions are also getting frayed and are now showing the beginning of the end of their "preeminence life cycle". They are of the view that some of the progressive private universities of India that are nimble, alive to the current changing realities and with no legacy burdens are taking a march over government-owned institutions; all this while elsewhere Harvard or UPenn in the US or Oxford and Cambridge in the UK retaining preeminence for centuries and showing a way for others to follow! After all, Education is about learning. It is about institutional learning (not tinkering with faculty ratios and floor area ratios as done by Indian Regulators!). No doubt commercial organizations world over have found to be having limited life cycle compared to their university counterparts. Not just in the US and western Europe, but also in the East European countries. But this does not seem to apply to India. We tried to resurrect Nalanda University. But one does not hear any more about it!  

Creation of enduring institutions that are at the vanguard of inquisitiveness, questioning mindset and creativity require enormous efforts by the academic community. In this enterprise, it needs an enormous amount of support from the society. Academics have to reflect, write, cogitate and engage students intellectually. So many great Indian scriptures (eg., Bhagavad Gita, Kathopanishad, Vishnu Sahasanamam, Devi Mahatmyam) start by the perplexed student asking a question to which the Guru gives an answer. The current system does not promote the questioning mind in students. Bureaucratic fiats can only lead the faculty towards the creation of compliant students. This goes against creativity, autonomy, and innovation. Where open minds are created there will be much greater understanding of the Indian ethos which ultimately may be the solution to many global problems. The current government-dominated control systems militate against the spirit of open dialogue enshrined in the scriptural wisdom of India. Right now intellectual capital is too precious and needs sensitivity to be nurtured.

The collective attitude towards knowledge as a one-time sure-shot commodity exemplified by bureaucratic tinkering with education is completely at odds with what India stood for in the distant past. The institutions created by seers and sages for retaining knowledge and wisdom and rethinking and reinterpreting them were robust and stood the test of time for centuries. It is surprising that such a rich legacy from the distant past has been laid to waste by shifting “genres of preeminence” in India. Government largess and protection through non-level playing field created by bureaucratic fiats do not stand the test of time!  

Some may argue that if the pre-eminence of the institutions like IIT and IIM were to be lost, that would happen despite the autonomy granted to them in keeping them outside the university system. Yes, autonomy is necessary, but not sufficient. Certainly, some measure of quality was ironically ensured until now through the limited freedoms granted that are not available to their university counterparts. The institutional elitism that accompanied this, in the long run, may also have its own demise built into it. Certainly, time alone can tell. 

The litmus test for such a shift in the “pre-eminence life cycle” and the ascendancy of the new innovative private universities would be an ability to create Masters and PhD programs that are as well-regarded as the best MS or PhD programs in Ivy league US universities. Some new universities that are being planned now are talking of creating excellence at the higher end (PG, research) which they believe would automatically create a conducive environment for creating top-end undergrad programs at a later day. 

In the years to come to the return on investments by government institutions and private institutions would be a thing to be compared. There may be orders-of-magnitude differences. Which way you can guess! Today the publicly funded institutions’ survival depends upon finances from the government and regulatory asymmetries. The result is brand power differentials thus achieved. Naturally, this enhances the ability of publicly funded institutions to attract students of top talent which by itself is a good thing but inadequate to create top-end knowledge generating activity. It seems that we as a society are used to inter-institutional weaknesses being exploited, not strengths worked upon.

What is the solution? As a society, we need to understand that there are no easy solutions. We need to have a lot of serious soul-searching dialogue wherein we are appreciative of sectors that we do not belong to. I would like to suggest the following. Those in positions of power who formulate regulations and set up regulatory systems need to: 

1. Think through organizational design more carefully and act not with mere power as the point of reference is decision making. 

2. Encourage self-regulation with stakeholder pressure. 

These are difficult demands to be asked of a country that is used to mighty bureaucratic vise-like grip on higher education. However, if the aspirations of the new generation are to see a new resurgent India it cannot be business as usual. 

While designing regulatory systems we have to be aware of the power of organizational design. Earlier, taking the case of the accounting profession, this article argued why the design of regulatory bodies that simultaneously regulate professions and the corresponding academic training should not be in the same hands. Weberian ideas of the design of bureaucracy (or organization or institution), even in its original form, counterbalances negative instrumentalist behavior of individuals in any system through the deliberate creation of organizational tension. Such tensions will be absent if the design is not done properly. In more contemporary academic language there will be individual moral hazards that need to be addressed through appropriate organizational design. This is the purpose, for instance, of having external board members in public limited companies; prevention of morally hazardous behavior by the Chief Executive and his or her team. The issue is not about the morality of an individual but about what drives human behavior and how morality can be handled, even if imperfectly. Viewed from this angle we can see the rationale for the need for bicameral legislative systems and the triad of legislative-executive - judiciary etc. 

It would seem that the educational planners do not understand the idea of structure in many other ways. Take accreditation for instance. The idea of “process orientation” is germane to accreditation. World over, accreditation requires a mentor to be assigned to aspiring institutions who advises the educational institutions he or she is mentoring to come up to certain processes (process standards) to achieve the stated mission of the institution before a green signal is given for a visiting team to be sent for “inspection”. The structural tension here would be between the mentor (according to whom the mentee institution is ready for accreditation) and the visiting team. This ensures that there are no excesses. The Indian agencies neither understand mission-driven approaches nor the idea of structural tension. They simply send a so-called peer which is as good as an inspection-raj licensing team. There is absolutely no mentoring.   

Earlier I alluded to the profession and professional education is in the same hands and how this leads to moral hazards. Just as in accounting, in India, in the case of medical profession too, regulation of the profession and professional education rest with the same agency; a sure recipe for moral hazard. It should be noted that in the case of MCI no one can blame the government. MCI mishandled the extent of freedom that was legislatively provided to it. MCI could have internally separated the two functions with proper “firewall” between the functions. I can see the very same issues haunting other professions where the two functions are cozily mixed up at present.  


This brings us to the second point; self-regulation. Several reports in the press and elsewhere have suggested that self-regulation did not work in the case of MCI. This is not true. Press reports said there were moral failures and issues of corruption in MCI. But the problem was more fundamentally “organizational”. Moral hazards were built into the system. One only wished that the respected doctors at MCI had understood the basics of organizational design and its impact on the organizational survival. Any system requires that it be egged on by some external forces to “behave” properly. While self-regulation ensured that the organization was insulated from vertical hierarchical pressures from above, there were no structural systems in place to “listen” to and be nudged by external voices from different stakeholders. Those at the helm of affairs at MCI should have had a way of listening and act on stakeholders’ voices without which it was bound to implode. This is what exactly is happening to MCI today. The government should have prevailed upon MCI to a) separate regulation of the medical profession and regulation of professional education in medicine with proper organizational firewalls and b) listen to its stakeholders through means it could have specified. 

All these points to the need for exalted leadership in higher education. Educational leadership requires skills different from those in other sectors or the industry. There is a whole branch of leadership theory that applies to the knowledge field. While it is one thing to say that the hierarchical style is dead, leaders in this sector have to have new skills to listen to voices from all 360-degree angles and also exert influence along the same 360 degrees. Leadership in the knowledge sector requires the capacity to be entrepreneurial, be mission-driven, be role rather than task oriented, couple individual autonomy with high skills in team building, and indeed effectively lead from behind noiselessly. 

Indian education planners thought that teaching and research are different affairs which it comes to social sciences. Hence they created various Councils for Higher Education. As someone cheekily said, “If ‘Make in India’ has to succeed, we need to have ‘Think in India’ first succeed“. It seems we have not learned from past mistakes. The idea that the university is a site for merely imparting education is a Macauleyian perspective which now needs to be dropped. Not all outputs of research have to result in an external artifact. Research often could be an end in itself in generating critical, inquisitive minds. It is a well-documented fact that during the 1950s India and Korea were more or less at the same point in terms of per capita economic well being and industrial production. The only difference was how the national decision makers (read bureaucracy) trusted the country’s common citizens and worked towards the common well being without fear of losing control and power. 

More recently there is so much talk of entrepreneurship. If we recognize that entrepreneurship as an Indian virtue there is no reason we cannot recognize social entrepreneurship too as a virtue in its people. There is an enormous amount of social entrepreneurial energy that can be channeled to Higher Education. This can be marshaled not only for starting enterprises but also make existing enterprises generate excellence in higher education. Right now the government-owned institutions are provided enormous internet bandwidths, access to expensive databases and supported through various means. There are no social impact audits for these expenditures. It is generally assumed that the social entrepreneurs in this sector are all there to make abnormal returns on investment. There is a sea change that the Higher Education sector is crying for! 

This article was published in BW Education issue dated 'Feb. 1, 2018' with cover story titled 'BW Education Issue Feb- Mar 2018 '

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