Rajan Saxena, Vice Chancellor, NMIMS shares his views on what Indian institutions can do to strive for excellence.
The discussion on what makes world class institutions is not new. The more we discuss this topic, the more we seem to be getting confused, as everyone has their own understanding of what is needed to become world class. What I think about this issue is completely based on my own experience of leading IIM and NMIMS. World-class institutions according to me focus on creating lifelong learning experiences and do not restrict access to institution to any particular group. They are open for executives, entrepreneurs, professionals and PhD scholars. The objective of the faculty in such institutions is to create individuals who become lifelong learners. Four components are needed to create an ecosystem that enables lifelong learning.
1. A physical environment that encourages interactions
The first is the physical environment which needs to be such that it encourages interactions among students and faculty and helps them learn from each other. It is not just the classroom design that is important but the common space as well. Deliberately designing common spaces with this purpose will encourage an interaction between students and faculty. For instance, when I was at IIM Indore, we deliberately created an open area right in the centre of the campus which had classrooms on one side and the faculty area on the other side. We also planned to create other facilities to encourage such interaction.
2. Empowering individuals to deliver results
The second key component of that ecosystem is the human environment. Physical environment itself doesnt make any institute world class. You can create a sevenstar infrastructure but it may still not become a worldclass institution if you do not create a positive and enabling human environment. In such an environment the faculty and the non-teaching staff feel empowered and willingly take on more responsibilities as they take pride in being associated with the institution. Institutes have to focus on the development of their people.Faculty development in the Indian context is critical today. Ultimately its competent faculty who can really develop excellence in the system. Building the human environment is one of the most significant elements in making the institution a brand to reckon with. There are three aspects to building an institutional brand.
a) First is its intellectual quotient. Until the brand is respected for intellectual power, it wont really be a very strong institution.
b) Second is the ability to evoke the emotions of respect admiration and appreciation among its stakeholders. If the institution commands respect for the values it stands for, a lot of people would admire and appreciate it.
c) Thus bringing to the third aspect which makes the brand aspirational, thanks to the emotions mentioned above.
If an institution focusses on making the human environment such that the faculty and non-faculty connect deeply with it, then even If some other institute offers more money they would still want to be associated with this brand. At a strategic angle, you realise that in these institutions the vision of the institute is shared by all. Everybody talks in the same language. New people who join do not even need to be told about the vision or the mission. They can feel the mission and vision in the air.When Havard came out with its vision several decades ago, a lot of discussion went into it and the stakeholder communitys commitment became crucial.
The focus of the leadership in such institutions is on building consensus, commitment and ownership.
These institutions pursue multiple goals at the same time in the area of teaching, research, global linkages and
developmental initiatives. They are categorised by their culture of openness and transparency and invest heavily in
talent acquisition and management.
3. Building linkages with various components of society
The third component of this ecosystem is the linkages that it builds with the key components of society. Take for
instance industry. Yes, the industry linkages are important, but equally important are the other components like the
civil society, opinion leaders or the political system.
4. Encouraging research and innovation
The last component of the ecosystem is technology. All leading universities have a fairly strong technological environment. India has a long way to go in innovation and research. If we have to play a role at the global level then thought leadership is critical. The faculty has to start thinking about what kind of work they should be doing, what they are doing and how that work is contributing to the body of knowledge. If that doesnt happen, we will remain a country of teaching institutes. Banaras Hindu University was once a great institution, but why did it go downhill? Why do not central universities like the University of Delhi (DU), feature anywhere in the global rankings? This is because the teachers do not focus on research and theres no culture of research. There is also a high degree of politicisation of decision-making and the nexus between the political class and bureaucracy is impacting these institutions negatively.
Institutions must focus on developing a research culture. The faculty needs to be given time to be able to compete
for research funding and the highest rewards in the system. You need to recognise research done by your faculty, and as a leader, encourage an open system where faculty do not feel threatened by achievements of others within the same institution. The culture of encouraging diverse opinions is also important. Learning flourishes in institutions where diversity of opinion is encouraged. There was a time where institutions in India had several stalwart intellectuals who differed with each other and yet the institution and the individuals connected to it prospered. I remember studying at DU, which at a time had people like VKRV Rao, CD Deshmukh, KN Raj and Manmohan Singh, who had differing opinions but grew and prospered together all the same. Unfortunately, today if you disagree with the leader or the system, you are immediately branded as a destroyer of the system. Creativity comes from open transparent system where diversity of opinion is encouraged and this leads to innovations.
5. Guarding autonomy
Universities should also guard their autonomy. We have all seen how a few years ago the autonomy of the IIMs was threatened by government interventions. However, the IIMs stood their ground and protected their autonomy. But one must remember that autonomy should be accompanied by accountability. You must be able to perform and deliver results and achieve the goals you set for yourself. Institutions have to be accountable for every paise spent on it. They have to focus on the critical processes like admissions, faculty recruitment and selection, and assessments and evaluation of the teaching learning process. Even minor aspects like how much time they spend on various issues are critical. For instance, if you look at student admissions, you have to be strategic about how much time you spend on targeting various groups of students from within the country and overseas. Harvard, for example, would spend a lot of time discussing how to get the Prince of Jordan because through him they will be able to influence the policy and thought process in his country. Deciding target groups among students and faculty, going after them and bringing them into your fold, is important. I dont think any of our institutions in India today can be considered world class though there are many doing an outstanding job in teaching, as they do not follow the principles of a world-class institution asdiscussed above.