INDIA: Back to the classroom for institution heads

In an ambitious attempt to improve the quality of universities and bring them up to world-class standards, the men and women heading India's newest higher education institutions will be returning to the classroom - to take lessons in leadership.

In a first for India, the Education Ministry is planning leadership training for all top administrators at central institutions that started over the past two years, including the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, Indian Institutes of Management, IIMs, central universities and National Institutes of Technology, NITs.

IIT and NIT directors, vice-chancellors of central universities and administrators across all institutions will attend classes beginning in the current 2010-11 financial year when the first leadership programmes will be conducted at select IIMs identified by the ministry.

The management institutes already conduct programmes in leadership, usually for mid-career corporate executives and occasionally for bureaucrats. But now they could be training their own academics.

"India is undergoing a huge expansion in higher education. The new IITs, IIMs and central universities represent the future and building these new institutions will require vision and strong leadership," a senior official said.

The idea has received mixed reactions from the academic community. Govardhan Mehta (pictured), a distinguished research professor at the University of Hyderabad, said there was a need to develop leadership skills among Indian administrators in the higher education sector.

"We do not have enough leaders to take care of the expansion that is needed in higher education. We need leadership, which is internationally competitive," said Mehta. "While I do not know if a classroom programme will help, I certainly feel that exposure to international perspectives and management skills is required."

But cynics argued such programmes rarely served any purpose. "Talking about leadership will not help. You cannot train a dean or a finance officer or a vice chancellor. They should have the vision to expand, grow and compete internationally," said an IIT director on conditions of anonymity.

Other academics believe in the concept of training: Professor Ved Prakash, Vice-chair of the University Grants Commission that oversees universities in India, said training helped hone the skills of administrators and academics.

"Certain things like management of universities, best practices, management skills, use of technology and managing human resource are skills that can be imparted through training. A lot of academicians who are given administrative jobs could do with some help," Prakash said.

The UGC in collaboration with UK-India Education and Research Initiative has an annual leadership development programme aimed at senior leaders from UK and Indian higher education institutions.

"Most academics leading institutions today need to think ahead of themselves. They need to imagine a university of 2050 and prepare students, faculty and academic programmes to tackle the challenges of the future," said PC Jain, Principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi.

Jain said a one-off leadership training programme could not achieve this. It could only be done through constant sharing of knowledge between institutions - both Indian and foreign.

Why do academics who are in the business of education (and training) have so little faith in education (and training) when it comes to their own learning and development?

Alex Radloff

If persons of high calibre and leadership qualities are appointed to these posts in the proper way, things can improve. Academic leadership requires people of high character and merit, not with political sponsorship or corrupt practices. There is no point in classroom training as these people (mostly above 55 years) are beyond any improvement on basic skills.