More women leadership needed in higher education

More women leadership need of the hour in higher education

The number of female faculty in postgraduate and research departments is abysmally low

While female enrollments and out-turn in higher education is on the ascendant, there is a lack of equitable career opportunities in higher academia across the disciplinary spectrum. Credit: iStock Photo

The future of higher education in India is at an exciting turning point. The National Education Policy is all set to disrupt silos in higher education. On the horizon are Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities (MERUs) and holistic undergraduate education with multiple exit points. Colleges are being nudged to reconceptualise degree programmes, embrace open-ended education, create cross-cutting curriculum, adopt new-age technologies and get ready to exercise greater autonomy in the decade to come. 

Transformative change on a massive scale is indeed possible. In recent years, assessment, accreditation and ranking initiatives have led to radical changes in the quality framework. The top-ranking colleges and universities have enough experience, professional competence and acumen to immediately move on to the new paradigm. While there are huge variations in quality standards and access to resources, aspirations run high across the country. The best institutions are champions of change, set the benchmarks and lay the road map to guide others towards excellence. Then institutional leadership matters.

As we celebrate the 2021 NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Framework) awards, the time is ripe for flagging two issues. First, NIRF currently ranks institutions under categories labelled as Overall, Universities, Engineering, Management, Pharmacy, Colleges, Medical, Law, Architecture and Dental. A new cross-cutting category of Research has been introduced in 2021. NEP will necessitate the merging of institutional categories to reflect the agenda of multi-disciplinarity and holistic education. Second, as NEP aims to future-ready the young population for the workplace, the focus will be on strengthening excellence with equity, diversity and inclusion. In particular, gender equity has to be manifest, mainstream and commensurate with the aspirations of half the population.

The AISHE (All India State of Higher Education) and NIRF data show that while female enrollments and out-turn in higher education is on the ascendant, there is a lack of equitable career opportunities in higher academia across the disciplinary spectrum. The number of female faculty in postgraduate and research departments is abysmally low. Female academic talent and strategic vision is constrained to flourish in the silos of undergraduate education that is offered in colleges.

The NIRF 2021 top hundred colleges are an eclectic group that includes 28 all-women, four all-male and 68 co-educational colleges. There is near gender parity with 45 female principals, 17 of them leading co-educational colleges. Five in the top ten are female-led. The performance of all-women colleges has consistently been stellar. Miranda House has retained its position as the top college for five consecutive years since 2017. Lady Shri Ram College, another premiere institution, is a close second. It is noticeable that 28 colleges of the University of Delhi figure in the list with as many as 16 having female principals of which 10 are women-only colleges. These institutions are a fine example of holistic liberal education in arts and basic sciences with focus on beyond the classroom activities that leverage innovative mentoring opportunities. The graduating students are veritable talent in motion, with female students often outshining. The alumni list spans pioneers who have influenced the narrative in all fields of endeavour.

By contrast, NIRF top universities have just 10% female vice-chancellors. Jamia Millia Islamia stands out. Ably led by a female vice-chancellor, it figures in eight categories. The engineering stream with merely 7% women directors is starkly non-inclusive across the pipeline, be it students, researchers, faculty or women leaders. With fewer institutions participating, other categories have a slightly better gender leadership profile with 11% in pharmacy, 15% in dental, 15% in management, 17% in law, 20% in medical, and 28% in architecture.

It is disconcerting that Institutions of National Importance lag on gender equity with only nine (7%) of the 130 listed by the Ministry of Education having female directors. The prestigious IITs and IISERs have never had a woman director. AIIMS did make history with one female director more than 30 years ago. Two NITs and two NIPERs now have female directors. According to UGC, seven (13%) of the 54 central universities; 52 (12%) of the 437 state universities; 10 (8%) of the 125 deemed universities; and 23 (6%) of the 388 private universities have female vice-chancellors.

In January 2005, the then Harvard University president made controversial comments about women’s capacity to excel in science evoking issues of intrinsic aptitude. Soon afterwards, Harvard hired its first woman president in 2007 who upheld the pole position for 11 long years. Several other top-ranking universities followed. The recently released 2021 Times Higher Education Rankings affirmed that 24 of the top 100, and 41 of the top 200 universities are led by female leaders. Bucking the trend are the top-ranked Oxford University, three of the ivy league institutions in the US, Imperial College and London School of Economics, amongst other highly sought institutions. They stand testimony to the potential of women in leadership roles.

The NIRF gender leadership index should be a wake-up call. Having a significantly large number of women leaders only in the colleges is a matter of concern. Their relative absence in other categories reinforces the stereotype that teaching in schools and colleges is a woman-centric profession but higher academia is a different territory. The education sector that takes pride in being progressive has to lead by example as its women alumnae are increasingly storming all other domains, including space, engineering, healthcare and digital technologies. NASSCOM has been successfully led by a female president and Engineers India Limited recently appointed its first female executive head. At least six of the Covid vaccines have emerged from research or companies led by women. Even where underrepresented, female talent is in abundance.

As the new education policy reboots the system, there is a need to change mindsets, improve the organisational culture, gender climate and lived experience of the community. Women in decision-making roles can catalyse new ways of thinking and doing. Then SMART actions must include establishing clear pathways for women’s advancement. As the system gears up to fill the many vacant positions at the top, the first step is to overcome the obvious bias, set up gender-responsive search committees, fair and transparent selection processes that recognise women as thought leaders and institution builders. 

(Pratibha Jolly is former Principal of Miranda House and Academic Consultant NAAC. She is developing the framework for GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions), a DST supported initiative for enhancing gender equity in STEMM disciplines. Priyanka Nupur and Roja Rawal are members of the GATI research team)