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Mainstream, VOL LX No 28, New Delhi, July 2, 2022

Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Board of Governors | Nabanipa Bhattacharjee & Manish Thakur

Friday 1 July 2022


by Nabanipa Bhattacharjee and Manish Thakur *

Under the section “Effective Governance and Leadership for Higher Education Institutions”, the National Education Policy 2020 (hereafter NEP 2020) makes eight references to the Board(s) of Governors (hereafter BoG) of Indian higher educational institutions within a space of two paragraphs. A careful reading of this section reveals the front-staging of the BoGs as effective antidotes to the hitherto ‘heavy-handed’ and bureaucratic regulation of higher education in the country (note: all citations are from the NEP 2020 document). BoGs have been projected as vital motors for re-energising the higher education sector against ‘the mechanistic and disempowering nature of the regulatory system’ that has been prevalent so far. Interestingly, while ‘castigating heavy concentrations of power within a few bodies’ in the earlier regulatory educational regime, the NEP 2020 discounts any such possibility in its newest panacea for governance of Indian Higher Education Institutions (hereafter HEI). Indeed, it has the right intent of having a Board of Governors (BoG) ‘consisting of a group of highly qualified, competent, and dedicated individuals having proven capabilities and a strong sense of commitment to the institution’. However, such initiatives are not free from problems; for instance, there remains, inter alia, the difficulty of judging an individual’s (a Governor’s) ‘commitment’ to a given institution even if we can objectively measure other attributes such as competence, dedication and proven academic/professional calibre. And, this is already pretty clearly visible in the context of some of the Indian Institute(s) of Management (hereafter IIM) which have already been bestowed upon with such BoGs under the IIM Act of 2017. If one goes by the rhetoric surrounding the Act, one would think that this is the best thing that could have happened to the IIMs. After all, by the virtue of conscious (and conscientious) withdrawal of ministerial-bureaucratic interference from higher education and consequently the vesting of enormous authority in the BoGs, the IIMs now, it is widely believed, are free to run their affairs the way they want under the benignant oversight of their BoGs. In fact, the NEP 2020 unequivocally states that ‘the BoG of an institution will be empowered to govern the institution free of any external interference, make all appointments including that of head of the institution, and take all decisions regarding governance’.

But alas, the reality is more muddied. The real-life and real-time BoGs seldom act as paragons of all the unprecedented virtues of effective (and shall we say, ethical) governance. Sadly, in popular mind, external interference has come to stand for political/bureaucratic interference — the everyday meddling in educational affairs by the Ministry of Education (hereafter MoE). This in itself is a telling commentary on the dent that has taken place in the image of the state and its routine functioning. Be that as it may, any initiative that appears to reduce the presence and curtail the powers of a joint secretary or a director in the MoE gets construed as a move towards institutional autonomy and academic freedom. And, this is precisely what has happened in the case of the IIMs where the MoE joint secretaries have now been substituted by the chairpersons of the BoGs to help them navigate an independent institutional trajectory without being shackled by fetters of the past. On the surface, such a move appears extraordinarily promising and the ultimate guarantor of institutional autonomy. But then, as it so happens in the domain of public policy, many an elegant policy design descends into unanticipated outcomes threatening the original purpose of a policy. IIMs’ recent trysts with BoGs is revealing of this unforeseen malaise. In some of the IIMs, the chairpersons of BoGs have assumed supra-executive roles and have decided to intervene (and interfere) in each and every minute details of institutional affairs in the name of accountability and transparency — from appointment of an executive assistant to the overall number of teaching assistants, from fixing of the daily allowance of a faculty going for an international conference to deciding the upper ceiling of local transport reimbursable to an employee on official visit. Not only does this incessant meddling in routine affairs undermine the well-established administrative processes and protocols but also leads to complete paralysis of the executive chain of control and command almost stifling, as a consequence, an institution and leading to its academic decimation and eventual decline. In fact, opposing an invasive BoG is a much more arduous task compared to opposing a joint secretary or any other ministerial bureaucrat who is part of a conventional ministerial set-up.

Theoretically speaking, a democratic government is accountable to the people. Viewed thus, those at the receiving end of bureaucratic interference can make public hue and cry on an issue of collective concern like say, for example, submit petitions, speak to the media and resort to other forms of legitimate protest. They can very well get the support (at least issue-based if not blanket) of opposing parties including sometimes members of the ruling regime. It is quite likely that, under public pressure, their grievances might get addressed. By contrast, these newly empowered BoGs tend to asphyxiate all such forms of larger protests in the name of institutional autonomy. It can make and implement codes of conduct by which recourses to well-established modes of protest may get rendered as violation of faculty members’ service rules/conditions. For example, even articles like the current one, so to speak, can be made the bases for disciplinary action on the ground of these being in violation of the codes of conduct — which, among others, do not encourage any criticism of institutional policies in public domain — laid down by the “picked out” or allegedly “targeted” and concerned BoGs.

Besides, as some other observers have noted, the BoG as a supra-executive body leads to the shrinkage of available institutional spaces for faculty participation at different levels of the existing decentralised structure of academic governance. Once the token faculty representation (and that too by nomination by the Chair) on the BoG has been ensured, other representative bodies, where there are scopes of faculty participation, are pushed to the margins and gradually made to lose legitimacy. Usually, they are “generously” given the sweet taste of freedom and autonomy in a body called the academic council where they are expected to endlessly debate “academic” matters alone. Remember, it is not only the scope and potential of the academic that gets pre-determined by the BoG. An implausible idea of “academic” being separated from other institutional matters also gets purveyed in the process. The much-vaunted holism of higher education gets undermined where one is led to think that the decision on tuition fee has nothing to do with the quality of the classroom (and the teaching therein). Or, delineation of the work norms of the faculty by the BoG is insulated from the performance of the faculty in terms of teaching and research.

In fact, the NEP 2020 is so convinced of the stellar role of the BoG that it enjoins all HEIs ‘to become autonomous and have such an empowered BoG by 2035’. Towards this end, it recommends an ‘overarching legislation that will supersede any contravening provisions of other earlier legislation and would provide for constitution, appointment, modalities of functioning, rules and regulations, and the roles and responsibilities of the BoG’. Moreover, new members of the BoG are to be identified and selected by an expert committee appointed by the BoG itself. It adds without any elaboration that, ‘equity considerations will also be taken care of while selecting the members’. Further, the ‘BoG shall be responsible and accountable to the stakeholders through transparent self-disclosures of all relevant records’. Evidently, the BoG turns out to an impregnable and an almighty supra-institutional entity that ‘will be responsible for meeting all regulatory guidelines mandated by HECI through the National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC)’.

Without doubting the motives of those who conceived and wrote the NEP 2020, it may not be unfair to ask what if the BoG turns out to be a group of self-seekers interested more in the exercise of their power of control and oversight than facilitating institutional well-being through support and hand-holding. What if the BoG acts like a clique determined to impose her/his “vision” and “worldview” on an institution? Second, it appears to have been assumed that the BoG is a homogenous body without any internal conflict of interests; not only that, it seems the very existence of the BoG is mandated, unanimously, by all members to take an institution to its glorious heights through its benevolent care. Third, the NEP 2020 overlooks the probability of internecine power struggles fuelled by personal ambitions within the BoG itself. For instance, it is not unlikely that members may forge equations with other members within the board for their personal glory including becoming the next chairperson of the BoG or the chairperson of the finance committee or personnel committee, and they may not always act in the best interests of the institution. Lastly, given the human propensity to often act as patrons and create an obliging clientele, there is no guarantee that the BoG may not push for its cronies in key institutional positions in a HEI.

Indeed, as Mahatma Gandhi remarked somewhere, so far there has been no institution which obviates the need for human beings to be good. Any BoG will require men and women of highest degree of probity and integrity to perform its responsibilities. But should it be left to chance to ensure that the BoG will have, for sure, members with vision and missionary zeal. Or, should we not think of inbuilt structural checks and balances in the very design of the functioning of the office of the BoG. For example, should not faculty as one of the key stakeholders of an institution have maximum say in the constitution of its BoG? Regrettably, the current conceptualisation of the BoG betrays a serious lack of even an elementary conceptualisation of sociologies of interests, power and institutions. It invests too much hope in chance conglomeration of able men and women under the auspices of the BoG of a HEI. Designed to bear an insulated or self-containing character an empowered BoG, as visualized by the NEP 2020, has every possibility of turning into one of the many self-perpetuating (sui generis) institutions dotting the contemporary Indian higher education landscape. This is not only undesirable but must be fought tooth and nail to demand for the inclusion of larger number of teaching faculty not only in the constitution of BoGs but also in the overall academic decision making processes. Perhaps, only then we shall be able to claim that we have the empowered-for-real BoGs in Indian institutions of higher education and research.

(*Nabanipa Bhattacharjee and Manish Thakur teach, respectively, at University of Delhi and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. )

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