Running universities with bureaucrats, a bad idea

Indian Students Studying Together On CampusEducation and Youth

“Bureaucracy is the death of any achievement and all sound work”, said Albert Einstein.

The thought bears recall with reference to the recent ill-conceived thought of appointing IAS or senior grade KAS officers as registrars of universities in Karnataka. This comes in the wake of mismanagement, nepotism and corruption charges against academics serving as registrars. Ludicrous as it is, instead of punishing the offenders, the government may well be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Higher education plays a crucial role in nation-building and sustainable development. For the past several years now, debates and discussion have been rife about refurbishing, reinventing and redesigning higher education in India to align it with today’s needs. The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019, too, reiterates the same. Unfortunately, our policymakers seem impervious to the development of higher education and flippant in its management.

Replacing academics in university posts with bureaucrats raises a few pertinent questions. For one, should wrongdoing by a few unscrupulous individuals be generalized across the entire academic fraternity? Haven’t there been several academics in the past who have donned administrative roles with great competence and élan, besides bringing dignity, scholarship and vision to the post in equal measure?

Secondly, will appointing bureaucrats serve as a panacea for all ills and insulate universities from all vices? If anything, it may only complicate matters and hamper the academic atmosphere. After all, the common citizen’s experience of widespread corruption, bribery and red tape that government offices are notorious for can hardly be attributed to university professors.

Most importantly, are bureaucrats suited for this job? Administrative ability, training and experience is one thing, but understanding campus behaviour and the gamut of higher education processes, including pedagogy, curriculum, research and evaluation, is quite another. Their lack of requisite knowledge, relevant experience and inflexible adherence to rules and regulations coupled with their excessive keenness on paperwork, protocol and subservience could actually be a hindrance in maintaining the very essence of university ethos that encourages autonomy, creativity and academic fervour. Academics are already concerned at the rising bureaucracy in higher education, which they feel leads to over-regulation and less governance. 

There certainly have been, and there still are, some excellent bureaucrats administering higher education. Their understanding of the university system and their sensitivity towards issues on campuses are exemplary and laudable. But such administrators are few and far between. A large number of bureaucrats, for want of an academic background, do not understand academic freedom and least appreciate the right to speak freely. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucratic setup is familiar with the drudgery of innumerable meetings and veritable absence of discussions there. Any questioning in an academic way is regarded as an affront to their position, which is antithetical to academic freedom and the tenets of the university system.

Academics need to be trusted and respected and their insight and experience is to be relied on, for they are the very people who have spent their lives working in education which helps them understand universities and higher education better than anybody else.

Universities are not merely certification bodies, they are meant to provide opportunities to develop wider knowledge, liberal attitude and innovative thinking. As stated in the draft NEP 2019, universities “must encourage active learners to develop the abilities of independent, logical and scientific thinking, creativity and problem-solving, and decision-making.” These goals can be achieved only in an atmosphere of academic rigour that is flexible and dynamic and not mired in rules and regulations.

Bureaucratisation, a sure way of exercising government control, is certainly not new to higher education. Every government, from time to time, some more some less, has tried to exercise control over its functioning, not only due to the sheer ease of gaining such control but also because this is one sphere where driving its policies and plans can be more impactful and lasting.

Government control has also come in the wake of the rapid expansion of higher education in the country. Huge student enrolment, large financial implications, growing business interests and entry of several dubious operators running fake universities and institutions have necessitated greater vigilance and regulation.

India is home to 800 universities and more than 40,000 colleges with a student strength of almost 35 million. Karnataka ranks third in the country, with 64 universities and 3,670 affiliated colleges. The projected 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) by 2035, as per the draft NEP 2019, may be a tad ambitious, but the likelihood of an enormous growth both in student enrolments and the number of institutions is a certainty. In such a milieu, ensuring good governance and achieving academic excellence will remain the two most daunting tasks.

While appointing non-academic administrators may not be the answer to manage an ever-growing and fast-changing higher education scenario, it cannot be denied that academics, too, are not quite equipped to be at the helm of its management. Being untrained, they lack effective understanding of the administrative process and fiscal realities and are also found wanting in the requisite managerial skills, making them wary of administrative roles.

Former Bangalore University professor HS Ashok says, “The mission and vision statements of every university primarily emphasize the human relation component, such as excellence, access, service, etc. Academics, by virtue of their proximity to the stakeholders and the very nature of their job, become naturally suited for administering both their departments and universities. But they require administrative knowledge and skills before they take up the posts”.

Appointing academics with sufficient administrative training can ensure overall health and quality in higher education. Alternatively, the government could consider creating a separate civil services cadre for education, wherein officials could be trained to develop academic knowledge and the specific mindset, sensitivity, acumen and understanding for the field.


(The author is Director, Eudaimonic Centre for Change and Wellbeing, Bengaluru)

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