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What does “Good Governance” really mean in higher education?

Jessica Lee's picture
Photo: WorldSkills (under Creative Commons)

Visiting a technical institution (one that is focused on science and engineering) in India can be a mixed experience. I have been to campuses that have state-of-the-art lab equipment with dedicated staff, and I have also been to others that barely have enough textbooks in their libraries and lab equipment from the 1960s.

Regardless of the type of institution, one thing is certain – even if the buildings are brand new and WiFi abundant, without good governance practices technical institutions in India would be less able to provide good higher education services to students.

To provide some more practical advice on how to embody good governance in the higher education sector, I visited seven institutions in two different states (Maharashtra and Karnataka) to explore best practices, which are summarized below:  

Trust and delegate
A Board of Governors (BoG) member at PES University indicated that he did not involve himself in the day-to-day running of the institution, but rather, trusted the Head of Institution to make decisions and report back. Though the BoG approves all faculty appointments, the BoG member stated that he knew a rigorous process was in place and thus trusted the system, making the approval process very streamlined and quick.

This lack of micro-management also rang true for several other institutions, where trust was a key factor in the ability for each level to delegate to the next. At the National Institute of Technology Karnataka – Surathkal, the director’s mentality was that his job was not to “make” decisions, but rather to “endorse” them.

Document, document, document
While documenting rules, processes and procedures can seem like an overly bureaucratic exercise, the consistency that this codification brings is much more advantageous than relying on the subjective interpretation of various individuals.

For institutions like the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology and the Institute of Chemical Technology – Mumbai, their practices are already documented and they are moving to e-Governance models, where they are in the process of mapping out decision-making processes and models for other functions such as HR, hostels (dorms), e-payments, etc.

While many of these things may already be implicitly understood amongst faculty and students, keeping documentation for routine procedures can limit confusion and disagreement, especially during periods of change.

Always step up your game
Even if an institution has developed a governance plan,  that does not mean the work is done. High –performing institutions are always refining their goals and adjusting policies to help them improve and get to the next level.

Many institutions set targets for what they want to achieve in five, ten, even fifteen years. Not only do they set these objectives, but they also outline plans that will get them there. In other words, it’s not enough to strategize, but to take action.

Knowing vs. doing
Understanding good governance and living good governance are two different things.

A student might have a clear plan for how she is going to pursue a degree, but chances are, reality will get in the way. Similarly, an institution might have a blueprint of how it is going to move forward with its governance model, but that blueprint will sit in a file cabinet for years while the status quo persists.

Taking small steps by modeling from the top, or just promoting good documentation – all of that can lead to behavioral changes that slowly become embedded, transforming the institution over time.