Capability Deficit in Leadership of HEIs

Being a Vice-Chancellor or Head of an Institution of Higher Education is not a bed of roses as lot of people and aspirants for such jobs may be thinking. These positions are extremely difficult, and not a lot of bright people want that kind of job. It is an unfortunate situation that the system we have set up in higher education seems to recruit for such positions from a pool of candidates that have neither been trained nor have they been given any incentives to develop the skills necessary for academic leadership. With the rise of alternative education options, crises in financial outlays and devaluation of formal college degrees, HEIs face challenging times in the decades to come and there is more need than ever before to hire the right leaders with the right experiences and the right skill sets.

Repeatedly, media has been flagging the issue about leadership-crisis in HEIs, for public attention, which has always been known to people in academics and the government. News18 had done a story (https://www.news18.com/news/india/unfit-dozens-in-the-vice-chancellor-pro-vice-chancellor-race-515870.html ) in 2012, “Unfit dozens in the Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor race.” The Hindu had done a story titled – ‘Public inquiry’ by JNUTA finds V-C unfit for position – on JNU V-C Jagadesh Kumar in October 2017 (https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/public-inquiry-by-jnuta-finds-v-c-unfit-for-position/article19935324.ece ). Times of India had also reported it prominently. It cannot be a mere accident that Prof. Jagadesh Kumar now heads the UGC. Times News Network, in 2019 had published a research finding that 75% of Vice Chancellors in the country were unfit for the job they held.

In academic institutions, faculty begin their careers in the role of entry-level assistant professors usually after their Ph.D. They are appointed based on their prior peer-reviewed publications and teaching skills but rarely because of their leadership and administrative skills. Few years later, the assistant professor applies for promotion presenting a docket of more than 100 pages of documentation consisting almost entirely of research publications, teaching evaluations, letters of recommendation, and grants and awards received. Particularly in top institutions, most of the weight is placed on research publications, then teaching, then service and once again, leadership and administrative experience are rarely given strong weight in promotion decisions. Without strong research publications, faculty cannot be promoted regardless of their teaching and leadership excellence. Sure, some faculty stay where they are as purely a research and teaching faculty member, but the upward career mobility is usually possible only after one has achieved a full Professor’s rank.

Faculty positions such as Professor of Psychology require people who love analysing data, investigating phenomena, and communicating results through writing or in the classroom. On the other hand, educational administrator positions like a Dean, Provost, or a Vice Chancellor require people who love problem solving, making difficult decisions, managing teams and projects, and evaluating and taking risks. Yet, it is very rare for a college or university to hire a principal or a Vice chancellor who has not been a lifelong academic.

Academics sometimes have a bit of an unfortunate reputation of being big picture thinkers, with their heads in the clouds (or ivory tower) and disconnected from the realities of everyday life. They start a research project, and then get excited by another new idea several days later, only to end up after several months with a dozen great ideas yet none close to being completed.

Faculty do not learn how to make decisions as an Assistant Professor, where their main concern is to complete the research project and get it published in some top journal that only a handful of other academics in their field will read. Research publications take months if not years to go through the peer review and editing process. Decisions in higher education leadership, especially in the face of crises such as a pandemic, need to be made within days if not hours. The work context is completely different as well, even though both the jobs are in academia.

One reason why leadership in HEIs has been losing its credibility is that so many academic leaders are not good at making long-run decisions for the health of their institutions. The most obvious example is where they fail protect the integrity of the curriculum in the face of faculty desires to teach whatever the faculty finds interesting. Higher education is quickly losing its value proposition, becoming out-of-date, inefficient, and losing credibility in the workplace, due to mindless tactical tinkering with the curriculum and the processes. We may have been so focused on hiring high-quality researchers and teachers, that we forgot they need to also be high-quality leaders and administrators.

So what is the solution?

First and foremost, early career faculty, regardless of their core field of study, must receive training on leadership, team development, risk management and related skills required for higher education administration.

Second, there is a need to change the tenure and promotion criteria for faculty to pursue such trainings. Unless one wants to remain a research or teaching professor for rest of one’s career, tenure and promotion should be granted only that faculty, who can also lead and administer.

Third and finally, academia should consider outside leaders and businessmen who have the necessary skill sets to lead large complex organizations. There are a whole community of people who got their PhD but decided against traditional research and teaching careers. They may be qualified and exceptional in academic leadership positions.

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Business of Education

Education dates back to the very first humans ever to inhabit Earth. Why? To survive, every generation has found it necessary to pass on its accumulated knowledge, skills, values, and traditions to the next generation. How can they do this? Education! Each subsequent generation must be taught these things. Stretching the idea wider, even animals educate their off springs in matters of safety, food-gathering and survival in some ways.

Education is a Human Right and ‘Education in human rights’ is itself a fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that education is a fundamental human right for everyone and this right was further detailed in the Convention against Discrimination in Education. Right to education entails

  1. Primary education that is free, compulsory and universal
  2. Secondary education, including technical and vocational, that is generally available, accessible to all and progressively free and
  3. Higher education, accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity and progressively free.

The Right to Education Act 2009 describes modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children aged between 6-14 years in India under Article 21 (A) of the Constitution of India. Compulsory means no child can refuse to be educated.

This act has made education a fundamental right for every child. Delivery of Fundamental Rights would not be a business even if the government were to entrust it to any of its instrumentality, agency or authority.

Any business has customers who have the right to accept or reject the products or services offered to them by the business entity. By this definition, at least education for children aged between 6-14 years cannot be a business.

The history of formal education extends at least as far back as the first written records recovered from ancient civilizations. India had the good fortune of having institutions of Higher Education, Takshshila and Nalanda, even before the 5th century B.C. Education in India was always focussed on careers – Scriptures for Brahmins, battle-science and governance for Kshatriyas, and crafts for others. The Muslim invaders and the Christian Missionaries influenced the education system to a large extent, former using force while the latter using demonstration. Macaulay destroyed the system nearly fully though Swamy Dayanand and his contemporaries tried to preserve it.

Horace Mann, credited with creating the foundation of American modern public education system, saw that the industrializing world demanded different skills than its agricultural predecessor. He prioritizes certain aspects over others. For example, lumping students into groups rather than treating them as individuals. This made “education” much easier, even if it did nothing for the individual student who didn’t adapt well to this new system. It’s worth reminding ourselves now about the key characteristics of the industrial era, and how we can see them manifested in the education system that continues to be emulated in India to this day:

  • Schools focus on respecting authority
  • Schools focus on punctuality
  • Schools focus on measurement
  • Schools focus on basic literacy
  • Schools focus on basic arithmetic

Notice how these reinforce each other. You enter the system one way, and are crammed through an extended moulding process. The result? A “good enough” cog to jam into an industrial machine.

The higher education institutions are plagued by the erosion of academic integrity, corrosion of standards in the curriculum, the oversimplification of admission standards without understanding the importance of true preparation for higher education, and the rise of economic self-interest in both institutions and faculty, places the teaching of classes much lower on their priority.

Even the school education is equally diseased. Government schools face a social burden placed on them by poverty and hopelessness. Troubled children carry the ills of their homes and neighbourhoods into their classrooms every day. In many schools, teachers must feed the bodies and souls of their students before they can even begin to feed their minds. These schools face inflexible bureaucracies, inane regulations, and incompetent administrators and their teachers being called upon to run every chore for the government outside the school other than teaching in the school. High school drop-out rates and students whose performance on maths and science tests puts them at or near the very bottom of their cohorts elsewhere in the world.

It is this set of facts that has provided legitimacy to the private enterprise in education and has sparked business-of-education initiatives.

The business-of-education thrives on the logic: If you can compete, you will be hired for a job. If you are hired, your virtuous habits would eventually lead to your promotion. As promotions accumulate, your pay increases and eventually you reach financial comfort. Or perhaps even significant wealth!

Is this logic responsible for accelerating the acceptance of education as business?

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First published 02 Aug 2021

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Do You Trust NAAC Accreditation?

As per the University Grants Commission, https://www.ugc.ac.in/oldpdf/consolidated%20list%20of%20all%20universities.pdf , there are 988 universities comprising of 54 central universities, 429 state universities, 380 private universities and 125 deemed to be universities in India as on 18 June 2021.

Of the 318 Universities shown as having valid accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), 9 universities are graded as A++ (the highest possible grade), 36 are graded as A+ and 147 are graded as A. This means 192 universities are ‘A’ Grade and only 126 universities are ‘B’ or ‘C’ Grade universities. Clearly, 68% of the universities are either unworthy of accreditation or they do not give a damn about NAAC.

This information is gleamed from the Microsoft Excel file named ‘Institutions-accredited-by-NAAC-whose-accreditation-period-is-valid.xls, downloaded from the link titled ‘Institutions with valid accreditation’ from the site http://www.naac.gov.in/2-uncategorised/32-accreditation-status accessed on 29 June 2021.

The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), established in 1994 for addressing concern on the quality and relevance of the higher education, is an autonomous institution of the University Grants Commission (UGC).

QS World University Rankings 2022 seems to have failed in capturing such excellence of Indian Universities since they do not rank even one University from India in the top-500 in the World. Institutions ranked lower than 500 are those, which do not score even 30% marks on cumulative ratings. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/see-behind-curtain-qs-world-university-rankings-2022-mukul-gupta

What is the likelihood that QS World University Rankings are anti-India? Is there any possibility that we have designed NAAC as a system of self-adulation for concealing the fault line within? Or is it merely coincidental that NAAC is happy to accredit and certify mediocrity as excellence? Is NAAC happy crowning a meagre figure among cyphers as enormous? Is NAAC failing in its purpose?

Most scholars in higher education system and administrators in the Education Ministry know the truth about NAAC. Keeping their mouths shut and feigning ignorance of such academic malpractices is not anything surprising amongst Indian academia. Remaining miser in allowing excellence and becoming benevolent in tolerating ordinariness is the hallmark of academics in higher education, may be because of their personal inadequacies and self-doubts.

‘You scratch my back and I scratch yours’ seems to define the peer-relationships amongst Indian academics where they work for selfish mutual benefits rather than the glory of education. Being a defiant juvenile in the Indian Education system, I am unable to forget a Sanskrit subhashit taught to me by my teacher Shri Chandra Shekhar Dwivedi;

उष्ट्राणां च गृहे लग्नं गीतं गायन्ति गर्दभा: परस्परं प्रशंसन्ति अहो रूपं अहो ध्वनि:

The government needs to wake up to the deep divide between the goals and virtues that NAAC is advocating (कथनी) and what NAAC is doing (करनी).  One who cares for the Indian Education would expose rather than cover such hypocrisy (मिथ्‍याचार) of NAAC.

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First Published 30 June 2021

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Management Education Requires Radical Reconstruction

Having successfully impressed upon the entire business community the need for ‘vision statements’ and ‘defining their purpose and mission’, it is the business schools themselves who have failed to internalise these ideas and their own management leaves much to be desired.

If one were to use a simple input-process-output model to examine what they do, business schools are unsure about what the input (incoming students) they seek is, what the process they subject this input to is, and what is the output they churn out.

Business schools are unable to articulate, say and implement if they educate, train or facilitate learning among – future managers who would also have leadership and entrepreneurial capabilities; or future leaders who would also have managerial and entrepreneurial capabilities; or future entrepreneurs who would also have leadership and management capabilities; or something else. 

Business schools fail to comprehend that their process for teaching and learning is completely different from the processes adopted in other streams of knowledge. Most other streams of education use methods of description and recreation of phenomenon through attempting to describe the how/why of occurrences and then letting the learner recreate the occurrence in the laboratory – thereby generating one’s own data to see if one can arrive at the same descriptions of occurrences leading to acceptable and replicable generalisations about the how/why of such phenomenon. In contrast, business-schools enable learning through ‘mimicry’ of some singular phenomenon. Learners receive descriptions of some episodes with some speculation about how/why of that occurrence. A learner is unable to generate own data to arrive at similar how/why of such phenomenon. No acceptable or replicable generalisations about the how/why of similarly repeating episodes is possible.

Unsure of what output they intend to produce using methods of mimicking, business schools are even unsure of the kind of student they wish to recruit. Business schools are unable to define the prior-learning (both through formal education and through experience) with which their students would come on board for a graduate degree in Business.

Simple Description of Graduate Management Education In India

Many economic and competitive forces have directly impacted management education institutions during the last two decades or so over which, business schools had little control. Most institutions were far too risk-averse to adequately respond. There should be no doubt that the economic and competitive market in which we all operate has been permanently altered by Covid-19. 

The demands of today’s marketplace call for a new set of skills and abilities. In this sense then, business schools must align themselves with an evolving context for leadership, which should be embedded in the curricular and co-curricular experiences of business students. These new models of leadership would be defined by instability, non-repeating and unlikelihood of events.

While ‘change is a constant’ and ‘all management is change-management’ are the clichés, the realisation that in spite of nearly everything changing continuously or discontinuously, human beings are not changing, and hence human needs are not changing, has to sink-in. The needs for survival, safety, affiliation, self-realisation (esteem, cognitive, aesthetic), self-actualization (achievement, accomplishment) and self-transcendence (visionary intuition, altruism, unity consciousness) are the same as they were in the last century. How people connect as informal organisations or formal organisations changes, but why they connect is not changed.  Greed and selfishness for power and wealth has not changed, nor has altruism vanished. Right was never the might in human history and there is no change in this facet of civilisation. Might is right as it always was. What constitutes might may change. Means are constantly changing not the ends.

Business schools need to create reciprocal, mutually beneficial collaborations with all kinds of business and non-business organisations in order to prepare today’s students for an economic marketplace that, in many instances, doesn’t yet exist. This reflects an uneasy, but an essential sea-change.  Curricula and related activities have historically been the sole domain of the faculty and an extension of the academic enterprise but business schools have to recognise that the curricula and related activities required for succeeding tomorrow is neither their monopoly nor does it probably exist with them.

Business schools have to equally appreciate that access and delivery methods – blended, synchronous, asynchronous, full-time, part-time, virtual or physical are all methods of delivery of knowledge and education. Learning is independent of these methods. Learning has always been blended and facilitated or mediated by multiple actors including peers. Business schools can only design and control the delivery systems but learning is a personal and internal process for an individual learner. Yet, business schools have to bear the responsibility of learning over which they have little control besides being enablers and facilitators. The need for business schools to adapt their approaches, as well as their requisite business and revenue models, to evolving learners’ convenience is imperative.

Near commoditization of the management education industry makes it difficult for all but the most sophisticated consumer to discern the difference between many of the programs offered and the new platforms for delivery. Undifferentiated products and undifferentiated marketing is recipe for failure. The opportunity lies in designing differentiated products for different learners segmented on the basis of differences in their prior learning. Allowing customer-self-selection would provide the benefit of customer preference rather than institutional prescription.

Business schools have to define the input-process-output of their enterprise and these three are the themes for defining the management education sector.

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First Published 29 June 2021

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See Behind the Curtain of QS World University Rankings 2022

I will begin on a lighter note because what follows is serious and may be tough, harsh and unsavoury for quite a few learned people.

There is a joke about a man asking his son about his result in the school, which is narrated nearly in all parts of the country. Rendered in local dilect with local nuances and cultural flavour, the outcome is always hilarious.  This joke goes something like this –

Man (to his son Ramu) – tell me, whether you passed this time or have failed the exams once again

Ramu (replying to his father) – I have stood fourth in the class

Man – very good Ramu, but did you pass

Ramu – Gopal (Head master’s son) has stood sixth in the class, I have done better than Gopal

Man – Poor Gopal, he remained behind you, but did he pass or not

Ramu – only Dheeru and Golu passed, they stood first and second. Don’t get angry with me, I am better than 36 in my class. Only 3 are better than me.

Man (in angry and abusive tone) – Idiot, you failed again

Clearly, the result was only 5% (2 out of 40) pass rate.

Let us now look at the QS World University Rankings 2022. India has celebrated that three of our institutions – IIT Bombay (shared rank 177), IIT Delhi (rank 185) and IISc Bangalore (shared rank 186) continue to remain in the top 200 ranked Universities of the World even in 2022. The Prime Minister (https://twitter.com/narendramodi/status/1402628065474203650) and the Education Minister (https://twitter.com/DrRPNishank/status/1402559433259962371) also congratulated these institutions, and rightly so, rankings do give us a sense of achievement. We need to be careful however, if our euphoria (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-emerging-a-vishvaguru-says-ramesh-pokhriyal-after-3-indian-institutes-figure-in-top-200-qs-world-university-rankings/articleshow/83373333.cms ) is like that of a Ramu or a Golu?

QS World University Rankings 2022 feature 1,300 universities from around the world. There are 35 Indian Universities in this list of 1300. (https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2022 )

Universities were evaluated according to a weighted average of the six metrics – Academic Reputation (40%), Employer Reputation (10%), Faculty/Student Ratio (20%), Citations per faculty (20%), International Faculty Ratio (5%), and International Student Ratio (5%).

The matrices are reported as measurements on an analogue interval scale (0-100) which are then aggregated into an overall score (weighted average). The overall score is therefore on an analogue interval scale (0-100).

The overall score was then ordered from high to low and discreet ranks awarded as 1, 2, 3, and 4 and so on. Universities tied at same overall score share the same rank and the next rank is then skipped to account for double cases at same rank. In such ranking, among the top 200 ranks, three institutions from India figured.

Let us try to see beneath the veil of these ranks.

  • MIT, which ranks first has an overall score of 100 (rounded up) composed of Academic Reputation (40% of 100), Employer Reputation (10% of 100), Faculty/Student Ratio (20% of 100), Citations per faculty (20% of 100), International Faculty Ratio (5% of 100), and International Student Ratio (5% of 91.4).
  • The overall scores are thus some kind of ratings for the Universities. Interestingly, as we go down the ranking list, the overall score drops very fast – Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh United States scores less than 75% but ranks at 53; Hanyang University, Seoul South Korea scores less than 50% but ranks at 156; Maastricht University, Maastricht Netherlands scores less than 50% but ranks at 156; and University of Missouri, Columbia United States scores less than 25% but ranks at 476.
  • Overall Scores for Universities ranked at 501 or lower are nor reported (they scored 24 or less out of 100)

Let us revert to performance by the institutions from India. There are 35 institutions from India in the list of 1300 ranked institutions, of which 3 are in top-200, 5 more are in the 201-500 group, another 14 are in the next 500 ranks while the remaining 13 are in the last 300 ranks. The top-3 institutions from India are rated and ranked as under:

  • IIT Bombay (Academic Reputation -51.3, Employer Reputation -79.6, Faculty/Student Ratio- 32.5, Citations per faculty -55.5, International Faculty Ratio – 1.5, International Student Ratio – 1.6; Overall score – 46.4; rank-177),
  • IIT Delhi (Academic Reputation -45.8, Employer Reputation -70.8, Faculty/Student Ratio- 30.9, Citations per faculty -70.0, International Faculty Ratio – 1.2, International Student Ratio – 1.7; Overall score – 45.9; rank 185)

and

  • IISc Bangalore (Academic Reputation -34.2, Employer Reputation -19.2, Faculty/Student Ratio- 48.8, Citations per faculty -100.0, International Faculty Ratio – 1.2, International Student Ratio – 1.8; Overall score – 45.7; rank 186)

The next 5 ranked institutions are:

  • IIT Madras (Overall score – 38.1, rank 255),
  • IIT Kanpur (Overall score – 36.4, rank 277),
  • IIT Kharagpur (Overall score – 36.3, rank 280),
  • IIT Guwahati (Overall score – 28.3, rank 395) and
  • IIT Roorkee (Overall score – 28.0, rank 400).

Here is what the rating data displays:

  • Only the public institutions of technology and science are able to find a place in the top-500 club. These are deemed to be universities but not a university in the real sense of the term. A university is multi-disciplinary, spanning across humanities, science, commerce and social sciences rather than being confined to a very narrow focus on technology.
  • There is no real Indian University in the top-500 ranks. South Africa has 4 real universities in the top-500 club.
  • As against 8 institutions from India in the top-500 club, Europe has 212 institutions, United States has 87 institutions while Rest of Asia has 117 institutions (includes 26 from mainland China, 16 from Japan).
  • These 8 institutions do not account for even 1% of the total university enrolment in India.
  • The best of best in India scores only 46% marks as compared to the best in the world score of 100%.
  • There are large variances in the scores for Academic Reputation, Employer Reputation, Faculty/Student Ratio and Citations per faculty within the top 3 whose ranks are spread over only 9 ranks.
  • Employer reputation seems to exceed Academic Reputation for the high ranked institutions in India. IISc turns out to be an exception in reputation as well as in its Citation score.

Makeup is used as a beauty aid to help build up the self-esteem and confidence of an individual. Like NIRF Rankings (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350354434_NIRF%27s_India_Rankings_Are_Ludicrous) QS World University Rankings 2022 are a makeup for educational institutions. This makeup conceals the ugly pockmarks on the face of Universities in India. It is unfortunate that the Education Minister has utilized this makeup to beat the harsh lights and the glare of camera flashes which would expose the rot in education system.

By calling these rankings as a testimony for India’s “leap in the field of Education & Research and is emerging as a VISHVAGURU” Education Minister is only proving his lack of understanding and literateness. Surely, he remembers well – “Parde Mein Rehne Do Parda Na Uthao, Parda Jo Uth Gaya To Bhedh Khul Jayega, Allah Meri Tauba – Allah Meri Tauba” (परदे में रहने दो पर्दा न उठाओ, पर्दा जो उठ गया तो भेद खुल जायेगा, अल्लाह मेरी तौबा – अल्लाह मेरी तौबा) keep the curtain on, don’t lift the curtain, If the curtain is lifted, then the secret will be revealed, Allah is my repentance – Allah is my repentance.

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First published 12 June 2021

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We Are Not Letting the Pandemic Weaken

The actual number of people getting sick with the coronavirus is increasing. We know this because in addition to positive COVID-19 tests, the number of symptomatic people, hospitalizations and later, deaths, are following the same pattern. Thankfully, Doctors, clinics and hospitals have learnt to reduce the fatality rate amongst the COVID-19 patients but this is no reason for people to throw caution to the winds.

Human behaviour is the major factor. State and local administrations, as well as individual people, differ in their response to the pandemic. Some follow COVID-19 precautions, such as physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. Others are not as prescriptive in requiring these measures or in restricting certain high-risk activities.

In some states and communities, public places are closed or practicing limitations (such as how many people are allowed inside at one time); others are operating normally. Some government and community leaders have encouraged or even mandated mask wearing and physical distancing in public areas. Others have left it as a matter of personal choice. In areas where fewer people are wearing masks and more are gathering indoors to eat, drink, observe religious practices, celebrate and socialize, even with family, cases are on the rise.

As state governments began to reopen cinemas, bars, restaurants and stores during the last few months, people were understandably eager to be able to go out and resume some of their normal activities. Nevertheless, the number of people infected with the coronavirus was still high in many areas, and transmission of the virus was easily rekindled once people increased their activities and contact with each other. Unfortunately, the combination of reopening and lapses in the infection prevention efforts – social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing – has caused the number of coronavirus infections to rise again.

There is a lag between a change in policy, and the effects of this change showing up in the COVID-19 data. An increase in the number of COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations is seen as many as six to eight weeks after change in policy. When a person is exposed to the coronavirus, it can take up to two weeks before they become sick enough to go to the doctor, get tested and have their case counted in the data. It takes even more time for additional people to become ill after being exposed to that person, and so on.

Several cycles of infection must occur before a noticeable increase shows in the data that public health officials use to track the pandemic. Due to such delays, people become careless with their behaviour, and they start moving around more. If everyone continues to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing, reopening will have a much lower impact on transmission of the virus than in communities where people do not continue these safety precautions on a widespread basis. Also, after many months of cancelled activities, economic challenges and stress, people are frustrated and tired of taking coronavirus precautions. All these are factors that are driving surges and spikes in COVID-19 cases.

About 70% of the population needs to be immune to this coronavirus before herd immunity can work. People might be immune from the coronavirus, at least for a while, if they have already had it, but we do not know for how long such immunity lasts. A widely available, safe and effective vaccine is still going to take months for everyone to get it.

There is an alarming spike in the number of cases and more COVID-19 surges are likely to occur. Letting the coronavirus circulate freely among the public would result in hundreds of thousands of cases and millions more people left with lasting lung, heart, and brain or kidney damage. We must all continue to practice COVID-19 precautions, such as physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. We must work with our government to ensure that everyone in our household is up to date on vaccines as soon as they are made available.

Let no one harbour the false attitude of denial that COVID-19 does not happen to them or that they are not the spreaders of the infection once they have survived COVID-19 or have been vaccinated for it. 

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has caused the COVID-19 disease but people are the cause of the pandemic.

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First published 12 April 21

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NIRF Rankings Are Ludicrous

On November 30, 2020, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) invited applications for India Rankings 2021, the Sixth edition of this annual exercise. NIRF was launched in 2015 to rank higher educational institutions in the country. NIRF makes a loud claim of its purpose as “promoting competitive excellence in the higher educational institutions” and its process as “being based on objective criteria” is approved, endorsed and supported by the Ministry of Education of the Government of India.

Rankings for Educational Institutions are accorded great significance by institutional staff and leadership teams and when awarded by the Government itself, the outcomes of the ranking have significant material consequences. Year after year, NIRF has been publishing its Annual Rankings inciting excitement across academic social media. Nothing wrong in celebratory and congratulatory banter that follows; but what is unsettling is the fact that the academic scholars take things like a ranking as a confirmation, or evidence, of how good, or bad for that matter, they are having it as compared to everyone else.

Let me make it clear from the start that my intention here is not to criticise rankings. This is not a story about flawed methodologies or their adverse effects, about how some rankings, other than the NIRF, are produced for making profit, or about how opaque or poorly governed they are.  The intent here is to draw attention to a highly problematic assumption that there is, or that there could be, a meaningful relationship between a ranking, on the one hand, and, what an Educational Institution is and does in comparison to others, on the other.  

To avoid any embarrassment to the Indian Ranking Systems, let us take an example from three of the most popular rankings – Academic Ranking of World Universities 2020 (Shanghai Ranking), The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 and QS World University Rankings 2021. Furthermore, to avoid any embarrassment to the Indian educational institutions, cases of educational institutions from our neighbouring country is taken.

Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad does not have a mechanical engineering department; in fact, it does not offer engineering of any kind. Yet the department of mechanical engineering at Quaid-e-Azam University was rated 76-100 in 2017. (http://www.shanghairanking.com/Shanghairanking-Subject-Rankings-2017/mechanical-engineering.html).

This placed it just below Tokyo University and just above Manchester University. Wow! Thereafter every year QAU improved its score and in 2020 it jumped into the 51-75 range putting it under McGill University but higher than Oxford University. (http://www.shanghairanking.com/Shanghairanking-Subject-Rankings/mechanical-engineering.html).

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 declared the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan as Pakistan’s top university (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2021/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/locations/PK/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats).

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 did not even list The Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2020/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/locations/PK/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats).

The QS World University Rankings 2021, which were released soon after the release of The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, put National University of Sciences And Technology (NUST) Islamabad at Pakistan’s number one and The Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan was not even on the list. (https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2021).    

There is nothing exceptional about these examples beyond them being striking examples of how arbitrary rankings are.

Most ranking organisations, including the NIRF, never send assessors to the thousands of educational institutions they rank. Instead, they simply design forms for the officials of the institutions to fill and submit. The ranking criteria are periodically adjusted (for whose benefit?). Everyone (except the student) has something in the rankings for them.

Across the world, ranking organisations have been exposed as inconsistent, changing metrics from year to year, and omitting critical pieces of information. Smart academics and administrators have also learned to game the system. This speeds up their promotions and brings in recognitions and rewards.

Rankings are artificial zero-sum games. Artificial because they force a strict hierarchy upon educational institutions; artificial also because it is not realistic that an educational institution can only improve its reputation for performance exclusively at the expense of the reputations of other institutions. The most ludicrous aspect of it all is the belief, which may seem like a rational explanation that when an institution goes “up,” this must be because it has actually improved. If it goes “down,” it is being punished for underperforming. Such linear-causal kind of reasoning is absurd.

One of the hallmarks of any rankings are the numbers of research publications and citations.

Hundreds (the precise number is 1494) of Indian scientists and academics have been chosen from nearly 160 thousand (1,59,683 to be precise) scientists in universities across the world, ranked by their number of research publications and how often they were cited. (https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/science-and-tech/1494-indians-among-top-2-scientists-in-world-stanford). Stanford University reportedly declared these Hundreds of Indian luminaries in the world’s top two per cent of scientists.

THAT IS A TOTAL LIE! Stanford University has not sanctioned any such report. This doctored news wrongly draws upon the enormous prestige of Stanford. Only one of the four authors, John P.A. Loannidis, has a Stanford affiliation. He is a professor of medical statistics while the other three authors are from the private sector. Their published work inputs numbers from an existing database into a computer that crunches them into a list. That list is meaningless for India. It does not represent scientific acumen or achievement.

Generating scientific research papers without knowing any science or doing actual research has been honed into a fine art by academic smarties at home and abroad. The stuff produced has to be published for which smart professors have developed many tricks including a membership to the cartel of international referees. The next and most difficult stage is to generate citations after the paper is published.

At this point, the smart professor relies upon smart friends to cite him and boost his ratings. Those friends have their friends in India, China, or elsewhere. This international web of connections is known as a citation cartel. Cartel members generate reams of scientific gibberish that the world of mainstream science refuses to even notice. Some of the individuals who made it to the exalted ‘Stanford scientist list’ would surprise people if they could pass a tough high-school-level exam for entering undergraduate studies in a decent university like Stanford. Others could certainly be genuine. No one would be able to tell.

Yet in India, the rewards are handsome, and the smart professor soon becomes chairperson, dean, vice-chancellor, or an influence peddler. One can expect nothing from the present gatekeepers of academia because fraud is a way of life for most. These gatekeepers shunt out all genuine academics lest they be challenged from below. This is creating a spiralling down vortex of mediocrity and upward spiral of favouritism. So many ‘category A’ NAAC accreditations of educational institutions are merely Self-congratulations and reflect the official policies that encourage academic dishonesty, all of whom have inflicted massive damage upon Indian higher education system.

Rankings are release and presented with much fanfare. Numbers, calculations, tables and other visual devices, “carefully calibrated” methodologies, and all that, are there to convince us that rankings are rooted in logic and  quasi-scientific reasoning. Rankings are made to appear as if they were works of science, they most definitely are not. However, maintaining the appearance of being factual is crucial for rankings.

The policy regime in India places a lot of importance on the rankings. That creates a problem, as more than a few educational institutions have started hiring consultants to help them raise their rankings. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is the generalized Goodhart’s law which comes from Strathern’s paper, not from any of Goodhart’s writings [Strathern, Marilyn (1997). “‘Improving ratings’: audit in the British University system”. European Review. John Wiley & Sons. 5 (3): 305–321].

To assume that a rank, in any ranking, could possibly say anything meaningful about the quality of an educational institution relative to other institutions, is downright irrational. It is, however, precisely this assumption that makes rankings highly consequential, especially when it goes not only unchallenged, but also openly and publicly embraced, by the scholars themselves.

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First published 24 Mar 2021

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BABU-isation of India

My learning and experience makes me believe that the officers from the Indian Administrative Services do not have the wisdom it takes to make India succeed. IAS personnel are good at rationalising and articulating any and every point-of-view or governmental action, but they do not know how things work which would make India great.

I have nothing against bureaucratic administrative machinery. However, induction into the IAS itself does not automatically give the wisdom to be an effective leader. Their training and experience makes IAS very familiar with “how things work and have worked in the government.” They however have no idea about “how things ought to work instead of how they have worked in the government” to unshackle Indian potential.  IAS often parachute into formulating a policy and implementing it without knowing “how to change the work ethics and work-culture.” By training and grooming, most IAS lack innovation skills and risk-appetite. People in the top echelons of Indian government are predominantly IAS, who do not spend enough time on process-improvement and fail to give citizens what they really want and deserve. They spend more time on attending and chairing meetings or protecting the steel frame of bureaucratic processes; but much less time in connecting with the citizens, whom they govern.

Right from the selection and training to job-rotation, IAS are well trained into all sorts of things necessary to preserve and protect the structure and the system. In 16-years since their induction into the IAS, when they are empanelled for being Joint-secretaries in the Government, most of them have been through eight different experiences of about 2-years each. Such experiences do not provide any domain experience except training them in ways to protect and preserve the systemic and structural frameworks of varying designs. Their superb training is no substitute for knowledge, acumen and wisdom, which is so essential for paving and leading on strategic paths for change.

The IAS has long had its critics. Most politicians have criticised IAS in the past but when in government, they have found IAS to be their biggest support systems. Governing for nation building requires competencies in envisioning, planning, executing and controlling. IAS are competent in executing and controlling within the boundaries of the existing frameworks and thus make up the essential half of governance. When it comes to envisioning and planning, the competencies are about disrupting the status-quo and the IAS are uncomfortable there. While accelerating the growth is not possible without envisioning and planning that is different from the past, IAS can provide the necessary counterweight to the politicians forcing dangerously radical policies upon us. If the counterweight were to exceed the extent of departure from the benign paths followed in the past, there will be no new growth trajectories. Those would be circumstances of growth in spite of governance and despite of governance, as if there were no governance.

PM Modi, recently, while speaking in the Parliament, had remarked, “Sab kuch BABU hi karenege. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertilizer ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega. Yeh kaun si badi takat bana kar rakh di humne? BABUon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain?”

Was PM Modi insulting the IAS? I do not think so.  I think he was sharing his impression and experience. Modi is very balanced in his outpourings even when he is angry. PM Modi has worked with the IAS for 20-years now and surely he has seen and worked with not just a few but many of them.  It was no outburst in the Parliament and his use of the expression ‘BABU’ for the IAS was not to belittle the IAS but to present them on a more real plank rather than ‘on-a-pedestal’ projection, which the IAS have been making of themselves. Some in the IAS will surely be feeling hurt thinking that ‘BABU’ is a derogatory expression.

Let us keep the emotions aside and examine the statement is terms of reality. Bureaucratic structures are like a nest in which the future progeny is protected and nurtured. IAS are only the twigs. The twigs that make up the nest have to hold together so that the nest holds and protects the eggs and the young ones from vagaries of nature. The twigs themselves cannot decide the design of the nest or the place of perching the nest or fight the predators. IAS are like twigs of nest to home and nurture progeny of nation called India.  BABU has been a historical nomenclature for jobs of custodians of organisational memory and customs.

Wisdom is not restricted to IAS. In fact, politicians, especially those in power, are wiser and more experienced than the IAS, in guiding the course of national growth while keeping a finger on the pulse of the citizens. PM Modi has been selective in his use of IAS for “doing the job” necessary for implementing his strategy for India. He has had unsupportive experts who were in “positions of doing” due to political patronage and such experts were unable to overcome their sense of subservience to their political benefactors. When he found that the expert with international credibility and from across the Atlantic as RBI governor was unable to deliver, he replaced him with a homeland expert. Seeing this expert also faltering, he brought in an IAS BABU as RBI Governor, not so much for strategic direction but for protecting the steel frame. Similar things happened when he had to replace an expert, experienced in the insurance sector by an IAS BABU as Chairman, Insurance Regulatory Development Authority (IRDA). Former IAS succeed in such roles because others from their fraternity in the government would not let them fail.

IAS are better than most non-IAS in “doing the job” but exceptions apart, most IAS are not competent at “designing the job.” Reciprocal exceptions exist among non-IAS. Like any generalisation, exceptions exist to this one too.

When PM Modi says, “Country has been handed over to BABUs” he is saying that the BABUs are in jobs where they need not be and that people should fit the boots rather than “any IAS would do in any boot” approach.

IAS (rather ICS) used to be something that really helped the British crown stand out. The British had no illusions of building India. Now that elite clique is more like a small crowd utterly for self-preservation by maintaining the legacy systems and structures. When it comes to success in any vision for nation building, an IAS is optional.

We do not see a lot of IAS as Governmental Leaders. The IAS tend to be hired for the Governmental Leaders and by the Governmental Leaders.

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First published 16 March 2021

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When, Where and How Will We Get the Vaccine?

Indian society has a tendency to understand risk in all-or-nothing terms as has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a realm where individual liberty takes primacy over collective responsibility.

The experience of the last 10-months shows the focus of the government on the risk of spread of the infection from an infected to others, rather than the risk that the infected person faces through the infection.  Public health messaging through ‘Aarogya Setu’ app refers to “high-risk” “moderate-risk” or “healthy or low-risk” individuals. Public-service announcements on radio are framing ‘using sanitisers’ ‘wearing of masks’ and ‘social-distancing’ as “virtuous” thereby semantically differentiating the refusal to do so as admirably masculine and nonconformist.

India on Saturday 16 January 2021 kicked off the world’s largest immunisation exercise against Covid-19. If all goes to plan, 30 crore people may be vaccinated against the contagion by July end. This mass-vaccination project, unfortunately, for the moment targets barely 2% of the population, 30 million persons out of a population of 1400 million. In first 4-days, less than 1% of these 30 million targeted-persons have actually received the first of the two-shot-regimen. Nearly one-thirds of the targeted-persons did not turn-up to get the vaccination done. At this pace, even this project will take next 100 weeks for completion. 100 weeks is 2-years, which means well into 2023. What would become of the rest 98% of the population is not clear at this moment. The Government of India’s moral, international and legal obligations make it imperative that COVID-19 vaccines are free and universal. There is no doubting the sincerity of the intentions of the government, but the implementation of the intentions leaves people in a limbo.

Social shaming and punitive enforcement of public health measures are both ineffective and unethical. Shaming and policing tactics shift undue responsibility for contagion management from institutions to individuals, and places further burdens on communities that, in the case of COVID, already suffer disproportionate rates of infection.

The risks are never unidirectional and that risk management always involves weighing multiple factors. COVID-19 is not the only risk people have to consider when they make decisions about most aspects of their daily lives. An inability to work from home means very real, material risks like losing income, losing housing, losing the ability to provide and care for families. Shaming people for their risk behaviours is not just unethical and ineffective. Such behaviours are not a binary matter of “risky” or “not risky,” but one of choosing which risks to take.

It is critical for the Government to correctly diagnose, manage, mitigate, and treat COVID-19 as it occurs. , and to do their best to keep it from having major. It is an even more critical thing for the government to consider communal consequences, with regard to COVID, which is far more easily transmissible and whose uncontrolled spread has massive costs for nearly every aspect of public life.

It is important to find ways to help people live their lives during the pandemic. Nevertheless, doing so must not come at the expense of other people’s ability to stay alive, let alone be in public at all. The more inconsiderate those nondisabled people are about containment measures, the longer many disabled and chronically ill people will have to maintain the strictest possible measures simply to stay alive.

It is true that all social activities bear some level of risk. It is equally true that, to a certain extent, we must each decide how to balance the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus against the psychological, social, economic, and often competing medical risks of limiting various kinds of activity. The evil complexity of risk management during this pandemic requires all of us to be better, more considerate social actors. When we as individuals make decisions about what risks to take, we should look at the details soberly and seriously consider how our choices affect what choices are available to others in our communities.

We should direct our frustration at institutional failures instead of individual ones. The amount of COVID-related talk that is exclusively about individual risk management is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is a consequence of the massive disregard of duty on the part of the governments to give clear information and distribute the resources necessary for everyone. It is equally a consequence of the ways our political and healthcare systems already make it gratuitously difficult to access vital care and resources by way of inadequate health coverage.

Putting it bluntly, the almost exclusive focus on individual risk that has characterised governmental speech on COVID persists because institutions tasked with reducing the risk burdens of individual cannot or will not do their jobs.

This emphasis on individual attention to risk-mitigation is especially poignant and unsettling when one realises that this governmental discourse is occurring in tandem with their awareness that the infrastructure necessary to manage that status lies in ruins.

Our public institutions have the obligation to manage and mitigate the infection risk in ways that allow everyone to flourish. We must not lose sight of where the burden of risk management ought to fall. We must not fall prey to the temptation to punish individuals for institutional failures.

We are unable to figure out how to proceed amid caring for one another and watching more and more of our number suffer or even die. Even if we have the ability to pay for the vaccine, willingness to pay for it, ability to reject taking the vaccine and the ability to raise our voice against the system, we do not seem to have the ability to get the vaccine in reality.

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First published 19 Jan 2021.

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The LANCET’s Pessimism on India’s optimism

Both, human nature and human custom, has constraints and boundaries which keep reminding us of human imperfection and of the fragility of real communities. Pessimism is the recognition that these constraints and boundaries make impossible any planned, rational transformation of society. However, history is replete with examples where societies have been transformed through the belief that we can advance collectively to our goals by adopting a common plan, and by working towards it. Optimism is therefore the key to change and transformation while pessimism guards the hierarchy and status quo. As they say, excess of everything is bad, so is true for optimism and pessimism, which is why there is a concept of realism.

On 26 September, the Free Press Journal published a news article saying that “The renowned medical journal, Lancet, has cautioned India on the danger of presenting the current pandemic situation with too positive a spin. It not only clouds reality but also hampers vital public health initiatives.” The link can be found at https://www.freepressjournal.in/india/india-is-creating-a-false-optimism-reputed-medical-journal-lancet-on-indias-handling-of-the-pandemic.  Having carried out some forecasting for COVID-19 cases in April and May 2020, purely for academic joy, this news report intrigued me and motivated me to look up at the “THE LANCET” caution.

 “The LANCET” which began as an independent, international weekly general medical journal in 1823, claims to make science widely available so that medicine can serve, and transform society, and positively impact the lives of people.

People in general and decision makers around the world have a great regard for “The Lancet” which has over time evolved as a family of journals across various medical and health specialities.

“The LANCET” has captioned its editorial to Vol. 396, September 26, 2020, on p. 867 as “COVID-19 in India: the dangers of false optimism.”

First things first – this is an editorial opinion and not a piece of research. An editorial opinion is expressed with the purpose of influencing public opinion and public-policy and may not be taken as non-purposive or unbiased. While this editorial makes some palpable hits, it is hard to separate the wheat of philosophical wisdom from the chaff of prejudice.

Next – it is a well accepted cardinal principle that false optimism is fraught with peril. False pessimism is equally fraught with peril. If the fallacies of optimism are human universals, what is more corrupting is not the attempt to do the impossible, but the failure even to attempt it. Progressive changes, however, rarely happen by chance. History is a narrative of humans rationally and consciously transforming the world. To give up on “goal-directed policies and politics” is to give up possibilities of betterment.

The example of DG of ICMR envisaging launching a coronavirus vaccine on Aug 15, quoted by The LANCET, is surely an optimism of “unscrupulous” form, but questioning the lower case-fatality-rate in India because it is lower than the reported rate in other (western) countries is unscientific. In order to support such unscientific opinion, The LANCET goes on to suspect the entire COVID-19 data from India and suggests that this number is a political spin.

Case-fatality-rate is the ratio of deaths to cases; and its lower value would mean lower deaths for same number of cases. It could also be lower if the reported number of cases is higher for same number of deaths. What is The LANCET alleging – is India under-reporting deaths or over-reporting cases?

A scientific mind should question previous results in face of new data rather than the reliability of the new data unless one is sure that the previous data was more reliable than the new data. Data is the message and data-reports are brought by messengers; new data should lead to questioning of results, not the message.

Is this pessimism of some “unscrupulous” kind clouding the mindset of LANCET which is unwilling to accept that India might be making headway in war against COVID-19 leaving behind the expected leaders of any such success?

How would The LANCET react if one were to say that this editorial is a political spin against India’s success to protect the world’s perception of traditional western supremacy?

Is The LANCET advocating that, rather than seeking utopian solutions, radical alternatives or bold initiatives, India should muddle through with “compromise and half measures” mindful that no ultimate solutions are up for grabs?

Is The LANCET proposing for India to be “a community without convictions” marked by irony and subservience?

The LANCET is posturing as if it is exposing the blindness and the hypocrisies of the Indian politics, but its editors seem to be notorious for never acknowledging that there might be some too in the developed west. The LANCET’s editorial calling India’s COVID-19 numbers as ‘false optimism’ lacks logical or scientific reasoning and suffers from survivorship bias of quantitative back-testing using past indices.

I am neither a leftist nor a rightist. I hold no brief for India or its political class, but I do wish to raise my voice as a citizen of India, which has held on to traditions of conservative political philosophy but, which is unwilling to shut her eyes to continued propagation of western supremacy, who have tried to make heaven on earth, and ended up making it hell.

(First published 28 Sep 2020)

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