Is India’s academic leadership withering away?
Rajaram Sukumar, 31 Mar 2016

As debates rage on India’s higher education system, a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” becomes quite relevant. Transpose ‘gods’ with ‘media houses’ and ‘sport’ with ‘TRP’ and a sinister picture emerges; one that throws up daunting questions on India’s academic leadership. Can it stand up to the challenges? Will it be doomed or will the challenges become an opportunity for the birth of a new leadership with a lofty vision?

What is academic leadership?

In the first place, what does leadership mean? It is the action of leading a group or organization or the ability to do so. It is all about enhancing human potential and creating a space for others to develop as leaders. Academic leadership also subsumes the essentials of general leadership but the space it applies to is an academic setting or an academic institution. And this space is quite different from the space for leadership in a corporate body or a public sector company. In the corporate world the leadership is tuned to the needs of the shareholders while in a PSU it is accountable to the government and by extension, to the country at large.


In academic leadership the stakeholders are the students, teachers, funding agencies, administrative staff and society sans frontiers. So in the Indian context, academic leadership is accountable to the country’s constitution and to the democratic set-up, in which it functions. No wonder we consider academic leadership as one of the pillars of a strong democracy. “Committed academic leadership is dwindling across the length and breadth of our country. The quality of leadership is reflected on the well being of any higher learning educational institution. The future generation is in very much need of inspiring leadership,” bemoans Dr N. Sundararajan, Vice Chancellor, Jain University, Bangalore.


Let us not forget that institutions of higher learning have a big role to play in shaping the thought process of a democracy. “The role of higher education in creating an institutional space for dialogue and liberal inquiry is well recognized, but it is seldom appreciated in the context of establishing norms of democratic behaviour and exchange. In India, where social hierarchy and divisions are sharp, institutions of learning serve as sites where powerful social forces vie for dominance,” says the Report of ‘The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education’ commonly called the Yashpal Committee Report.

Prof. SudhirProf. Sudhir U. Meshram,
Vice Chancellor,
North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon


Academic Leadership, Governance and Perspectives

In the wake of global transformation where boundaries are not constraints and where there is free flow of knowledge, the academic leadership must take initiatives to encourage human rights approach to education, uplift human development index through enhancement of academic performance of socially and marginalized students, good governance and accountability in higher education.


The academic leader must tune academic and administrative planning, execution and monitoring through effective resource mobilization, prudent financial management, optimum human resource deployment, exemplary exam reforms and rigorous maintenance of academic calendar.


University Standing Advisory Committee must be constituted to make suggestions for the development of universities for reaching high altitudes in teaching, research, extension, students’ welfare and administration. Use of ICT must be promoted as a tool to bring in efficiency, transparency and credibility. Universities must prepare short-term and long-term perspective plans for the affiliated colleges and campus in accordance with the State and National Educational Policy. The perspective plan must be formulated through wider consultations with all stakeholders.

Missing ‘3 Cs’

Academic leaders understand their critical role in a society’s transformation. And for change to happen, effective leaders are the key. Dr A.K. Srivastava, Director NDRI Karnal says, academic leadership rests on three pillars: Credentials, Capability and Credibility. “When these 3 Cs are replaced by Caste nexus, Cash considerations and Corrupt practices, then the quality education for which the students are paying and the taxpayer is subsidizing is the first casualty,” says Dr Srivastava.


In a country like India where diversity is its defining character, academic leadership should have the inherent strength to absorb it in a holistic manner. According to Amol Dighe, Dean of Graduate Studies, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, academic leadership should be encouraged to emerge internally, from amongst the academic community. “It should also be distributed and not too centralized, since education or research are not monoliths: every level, every region, every subject area has its own character, requirements and problems, and even these keep on changing with time,” he said.


Question of autonomy

It’s well known that academic leadership will not flourish in a situation where there is no autonomy. “Autonomy is arguably the lifeline of any institution that deals with education, creation of knowledge and learning of all kinds. Of equal importance however is the need for governance structures, which ensure the preservation of such autonomy under all circumstances,” says the Yashpal Committee Report.  It’s doubtful if such autonomy that will nurture a strong academic leadership exists now. “Lack of autonomy provided to the leadership itself is a base of many of the current limitations of the academic leadership. After giving full freedom to the university, complete accountability must rest with the leadership,” opines Brig. S.K. Sharma (Retd.), Pro Vice Chancellor, The Northcap University.

J. PhilipJ. Philip,
President XIME, Bangalore


If there is any field of organized activity in India, which is up against a true leadership crisis, it is education. We are not just talking about leadership deficit at the top end, but all across the board. In sum, we have been on a free-fall in quality of education for the last so many years.

Going by this vein of thought, the objective of changes in the governance structure should be to give them more autonomy. And, autonomy here has to be broad-based. Teachers should have more say in framing syllabus and assessment of students; and students should have access to courses of their choice, not limited by number of seats and geography or affordability. However, all such lofty thoughts will remain in the realm of imagination unless they are backed by strong funding.


Academics too agree. Prof. B.S. Satyanarayana, Pro Vice Chancellor, BML Munjal University says, “The government has allocated about $ 4 billion annually for education in India. Whereas the average annual spending by any single university among the top 50 universities in the world vary on an average between 3 to 5 billion dollars!”

Prof. SS ManthaProf. SS Mantha
Former Chairman, AICTE

There is certainly a huge deficit in leadership


Universities were set up to impart knowledge and award Degrees and Diplomas. The spirit of learning, debate and seeking answers to ‘what if‘were the cardinal points. The learning ambience needed was to be assiduously created and preserved. Hence it goes without saying that great Universities were not built in a day and took several years to make a mark in the society in which they were created and outside it.


Learning happens in free enterprise and through interactions amongst the learned from various disciplines. No wonder then some of the great Universities nurture almost all disciplines and departments from Liberal Arts to Social Sciences to Basic Sciences to Applied Sciences and many more. A leader then is the fulcrum about which this interaction and growth of the University hinges. State’s role in providing adequate land and funds is equally important.


Boundary conditions changed in India for the establishment of Universities to accommodate the massive needs of expansion and a society that thrived on knowledge and knowledge-based economy. Disaggregation of quality, standards and lack of adequate funds forced an affiliation system to be set up that thrived over the years. As the affiliation system grew to unmanageable proportions the focus of the University shifted from that of learning and knowledge dissemination to one that was predominantly administrative. Conduct of examinations and declaration of results took centre stage. University Departments stopped interacting for lack of an academic ambience and resources in men and material. Internal structures of running a University like the Management Council/Syndicate, the Academic Council, the various Boards have all fallen to the vagaries of various political groups. Managing the political affiliations hardly left any time or energy for academics that fundamentally a University was known for.


Whereas an academic leader was expected to provide the free spirit of learning on the campus and reach out to the intelligentsia and elders of a community for academic inputs and restore the values that a University proposed, today he is left to manage various ‘academic groups’ and political affiliations lest he be branded uncooperative and eased out. Is it then a euphemism that a Vice Chancellor is elated if the results are declared in time in his tenure?


We need leaders who command respect and not demand it. They need to restore the academic ambience and trust on a University campus. These leaders need to isolate academic pursuits from the administrative by letting technology to be used effectively. In that sense there certainly is a huge deficit in leadership. The best in the business would watch from the periphery and the mediocre would occupy positions of leadership, thereby ushering in an environment of mediocrity all around that brings down the University a notch every time it happens. The statutory provisions to run a University would also need to undergo a sea change.


A true leader should have a strong belief, be courageous, knowledgeable, independent, ambitious, intelligent, have an ability to see around corners, be a team man, be loyal and have high integrity, have a balanced ego and also be passionate. He needs to make things happen that the system espouses. Can we find all these in a single individual are also questions to ponder? How many leaders today can keep looking below surface appearances? Most of them shrink from doing so, just because they might not like what they find.


“Endeavours succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only attracting the best people will accomplish great deeds.”

Need to change mindset

Academic leadership in India has been following conventional practices. We need to evolve teaching models harnessing new technologies, e.g. in large universities in the USA, Singapore, there have been classrooms, lecture theaters of the size 700 to 2000 capacity. This necessarily requires creation of excellent infrastructure, deployment of new technologies etc. “Academic leadership needs a change of mindset and impress the regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE about national need. We should have more flexible approach, exposure and acceptance to what is happening at the international level in the best universities,” says Dr Narendra S. Chaudhari, Director Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur. 


Way ahead

It is important to note that institutions of higher learning provide a space where opposite views can be debated in a peaceful atmosphere, for which they need a strong and visionary leadership. Eroding this space lowers institutional sanctity and also destroys their role in creation of knowledge by free and open inquiry through research and dialogue. It is in this context that issues of autonomy and freedom take centre stage. 


“Education, it is said, is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Without high-quality leadership, we will merely be filling the pail, and not lighting the fire within the students who want to reach for something more in life. It is time to re-kindle the spirit that built the great Nalanda University 2,600 years ago, which in its time was among the very best ‘universities’ of the world and served as a source of inspiration and as a magnet for top students pursuing many different fields of study,” Dr Srivastava sums up.


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