Indian Universities and Organisational Culture: Brig.(Dr.) R S Grewal, VSM(Retd.)

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Indian universities, as they exist today, trace their origin to the British era. The British established three universities – one each at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta – in 1857. These universities were basically affiliating universities, with the general mandate to conduct examinations for affiliated colleges and very minimal effort was devoted to teaching. The number of universities in India had grown to 20 by 1950. Earlier, in 1938, it was felt that the standards of Indian universities were not as good as those of universities in Europe. Sargent Committee gave its recommendations in 1944 for their improvement, and stated that it would take 40 years to implement those. There was merit in the assessment of the Committee but Indian leaders were not prepared to wait until 1984. Interestingly, even today, after more than 75 years of independence the quality of education being provided by Indian universities is not up to the mark. The Government is aware of this fact and has been exhorting the academia to institute measures so that some Indian universities appear in the Top-200 bracket in global rankings. That effort is directed toward the elite institutions and not much attention is being paid to the role of a university as such and to improve the overall standards of teaching-learning and research in Indian universities. Transforming the organisational culture in the universities is a major pre-requisite to enable these institutions of higher learning to fulfil their role in service of society.

A university is an institution of higher learning created to educate students from diverse backgrounds, with varied interests and to prepare them for life. It is a place where students come for every kind of knowledge, to interact with their peers and teachers to satisfy their quest for understanding and awareness. Further, a university is an institution where ideas germinate and inquiry is encouraged and promoted. It facilitates free, frank and mutual discussions whereby clear ideas of thought create an atmosphere of intellectual creativity that ultimately benefit the society. Each university needs its own organisational culture that helps it to serve the society.

Organisational Culture

A noble and relevant organisational culture is very crucial that helps in developing desired traits among team-members that are necessary for achieving the vision and mission of an organisation. Institutions with healthy cultures are more likely to experience success and earn
respect of the society. Ironically, not many senior leaders in academia make a serious endeavour to ensure that their respective organisations have the culture that can drive their strategies. It is a challenging task and almost 85% of institutions fail to conceptualise their organisation culture and institute measures to mould these.

Organisational culture can be defined as the collection of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all members of the team. In fact, these are the collection of traits that exemplify the character of an institution. An eminent culture values traits that lead to improved performance, while a dysfunctional institutional-culture breeds qualities that can have an adverse effect on its functioning. Organisational culture must not be confused with organisational goals or its vision or mission. In fact, it provides direction to achieve these. It is created through consistent and genuine behaviours, and not slogans, rhetoric, press releases or policy documents. An institution with good organisation culture trusts members of its team. It lays emphasis on developing employee-culture and works diligently to inculcate suitable traits in its team-members. Instead of encouraging competition among its employees (that could occasionally degenerate into rivalries) the emphasis is on mutual cooperation. Most importantly, it hires employees who have the inclination and potential to develop traits that contribute to a good organisational culture.

A university or a higher education institution basically needs to focus on three major domains to identify values, beliefs and practices that have a major impact on its operational strategies. These are: responsibility towards society; quality of teaching-learning; and direction and stature of research. There could be some more areas but the above form the core of the purpose and way of functioning of a university.

Responsibility Towards Society

A university is a place that cultivates and nurtures creative minds, where ideas germinate and flourish. It performs two normative functions; first, of institutionalising value-laden ideas, and second, of housing and hosting these ideas and benefitting from these. Traditionally, a university was premised in search for episteme, implying promoting understanding, and acquisition and sharing of knowledge. It promoted the principles or methods that facilitated in creating something or attaining an objective. In other words, it encouraged development of potential and  skills for application of knowledge. Typically, it emphasised ‘practical wisdom’ derived from learning and evidence of practical things, thereby, leading to innovative thinking and creativity. These traits enable an individual to discern and make good judgements about what is the right thing to do in a situation. In addition, thepurpose of a university is to impart civic education to its students.

Thus, apart from preparing a student for life the university is expected to  groom them to become responsible and productive citizens capable of participating in governance, wellbeing and development of society. It inculcates amongst its students respect for diversity, appreciation of varied points of view, regard for other’s rights and dignity. Accordingly, based on its vision and mission, a university should prepare a list of core and desirable values that it should inculcate among its students to help them contribute in building a vibrant society. It goes without saying that the faculty, academic leaders and senior management of the university also have to imbibe these values and follow the related practices before they could expect the students to assimilate those. These values and associated practices, thereafter, exemplify the organisational culture of the university.

Teaching-Learning

As stated earlier, the purpose of all education is to prepare a student for life. That is different from getting the students ready for a job and organising job-placement-offers for them. Unfortunately, majority of the universities in the country have adopted an organisational culture that is geared toward award of degrees, ensuring job-placements rather than laying emphasis on acquisition of knowledge. Even the pedagogy adopted by the teachers is outdated and examination-centric instead of being learning-centric. A paradigm shift is required in the approach toward teaching-learning. Apart from change in pedagogy it requires a sociological transformation in changing the mind-set of the faculty, students and even the parents. The university will need to develop values to stand up to the social pressures and ensure that genuine teaching-learning takes place.

A culture of genuine teaching-learning demands breaking away from the present practice of monologues by teachers and instead nurturing learning by curiosity, through discussions, encouraging peer to peer learning, self-learning with emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking. Moreover, the pedagogy adopted has to be dynamic and should take in to account the advancements in technology and the changing learning styles and preferences of students. It places tremendous demands on the faculty who have to keep abreast with the latest in the field and ensure that they reach out to the students in a meaningful way.  They say that concepts like ‘liberal education’ can only be practiced by a Guru. Liberal education ensures that the student gets a broad-based knowledge with specialisation in a chosen domain. It helps the student to confront life after graduation and continue to acquire new skills. Senior leadership of the university and the management must endeavour to usher in a culture of genuine learning among its students and a desire among the faculty to be worthy of the status of a Guru.

Research

Research is a key element that is driving the revolution in higher education today. Unfortunately, Indian academia is caught up in the race for rankings of universities. Consequently, research has been confined to publishing papers in journals and applying for patents for mundane things. In actual fact, research is a process of systematic inquiry that involves gathering of data, documentation of critical information, and analysis and discernment or understanding of that data or information, in accordance with relevant procedures based on scientific principles. When viewed from the prism of the role of the university it implies engaging in research that helps in development of society and improving standard of living of the citizens. Thus, a higher education institution to be worthy of attaining the status of a university should develop a research culture that is exemplified by manifestation of a spirit of inquiry with proclivity to ask questions, to interrogate and to explore new ideas in an environment that is free from fear or favour. It is governed by a sound and ethical value system where the ultimate goal is germination of ideas that create and disseminate knowledge. The knowledge so generated could be of value to mankind in general, but in particular, to the community in which the university is located.

Conclusion

Indian higher education sector has seen an exponential, but unplanned, growth since the advent of this century. However, the quality of education being provided by the universities is not of the desired standards. A culture of mediocrity, that can be associated with that of  ‘degree-awarding-mills’ prevails. Senior leaders in academia, the management of universities, the regulators and the governments would do well to pay attention to development of organisational culture in universities that is congruent with their vision and mission.

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