Higher education institutions as high-performance organizations – Dr. N Dayasindhu

The NIRF rankings announced recently invited its usual share of discussion among school WhatsApp groups that have a motley crew of members who have studied across different higher education institutions in India. In my case, the wisdom of middle-age has caught up with many of us and the discussions are usually humorous. The general consensus from such groups is that in the long run nothing matters other than “fundas (fundamentals) from life’s university of hard knocks”. While NIRF the rankings are of a passing interest for alumni, they can serve as a useful tool for higher education institutions to assess their strengths and plan for the future.

First, let us do a back of the envelope analysis and understand a bit more about the top 10 in the overall ranking. A standout aspect of the NIRF overall ranking – like it is in most university rankings across the world – is that in the past five years, two (IIT Madras and IISc) universities have obtained ranks 1 or 2, while five universities (JNU, BHU, IITR, IITG, Anna) have obtained ranks 9 or 10. It appears that that there is more consistency right at the top. The coefficient of variation of the NIRF scores of the top ten overall ranked institutions over the past five years barring one year is about 3 to 5 times that of the top three ranked institutions. One simple way of interpreting this is that there is more “inequality” among the top ten ranked institutions compared to the “inequality” among the top three.

How is it that the highest ranked higher education institutions seem to achieve this level of performance compared to rest? The institution specific answers to this question may be the subject of books written by the leaders who have transformed these institutions. Let us step back and take a look at some of the key factors that lead to higher performance in a higher education setting. It is useful to use rubrics from strategic management and organization development to analyze transformations in higher education institutions. Three important factors seem to influence these transformations. They are (1) identity and image, (2) balance between substance and image, and (3) strategy and information processing.

Identify is simply what the leadership in the higher education institution thinks it is. These include elements of the institution that the leaders consider as enduring, central and those that are distinctive. For example, the identity of IISc is possibly that of a research focused institution. Image is how the leaders wants external stakeholders to perceive the institution. And IIT Madras may want external stakeholders to perceive it as one offering innovative and the widest choice of majors and minors in its undergraduate and graduate programs.

One of the most powerful levers of transformation is the projection of an aspirational image in making its identity more fluid. This needs to be balanced with the existing enduring identity of an institution. While the enduring view of IIT Madras is that of an institute strong in the practical technology training, it is now supplemented with the fluid view of one that is innovative and widest choice of majors and minors. Minor specializations like nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, computational engineering, data science, energy system, robotics, quantum science etc. are often emerging technology domains that can find cross-functional applications in established technology specializations like computer science, electronics, mechanical engineering, etc. Transformation happens both when a change in identity results in a change in external image and when an aspirational external image pulls the identity to change. For example, IIT Delhi’s identity and image are undergoing a change to that of a more full-fledged university with an increased focus on allied areas like technology policy and business management.  

Is the transformation of higher education institutions all identity and image? Obvious not. The subject matter expertise or substance is a bed-rock to the transformation.  For example, IIT Bombay is among the best Indian institutions in the field of computer science and in particular AI/ML. This is getting reinforced with its technology policy focus on different aspects of AI/ML. Substance is also getting influenced by the fluid identity and future image. IISc’s existing fundamental and multidisciplinary research focus is facilitating its foray into research in emerging disciplines like brain science that will continue to strengthen and future-proof its image of a research focused institution.    

The strategy of the higher education institutions is an important aspect in their transformation. The leadership at the IITs put in all-round participative effort into strategic plans that defines their fluid identity and their aspirational image. These strategic plans sets-up the what, why and how of aspirations and initiatives that can help attain the aspirations. IIT Madras’ strategic plan, for example, focus on specific objectives and targets. The information processing ability of the higher education institution is important to achieve the objectives and targets set forth in its strategy. At the core of the information processing ability is the people who constitute the institution, organizational structure and processes. There is a structure of organizations under eight deans in IIT Madras focusing on academic courses, academic research, industrial consultancy and sponsored research, planning, administration, alumni and corporate relations, global engagement, and students. It is interesting to note that the aspiration to become a global leader is backed-up with an organization and processes for global engagement that is led by a full-time faculty member who is also an adjunct faculty in a couple of universities in the USA. Thus, each of these dean’s organizations focus on specific processes that help IIT Madras realize its strategy.      

How do these three factors of identity and image, balance between substance and image, and strategy and information processing work in practice in a higher education institution? Like in other contexts, these three factors are in positive and negative feedback loops with each other. The trick for a successful transformation is to ensure an optimal interplay in feedback loops. While identify and image sets the context and reinforces the objectives to transform and drives the strategy. The information processing ensures that the institution has the right people, structure and processes to implement the strategy. The key internal leaders, especially the faculty members, need to buy into the vison for transformation. And from these leaders will emerge the champions of transformation. The champions need support of the entire institution typically via. appropriate collegial and formal structures, and processes.

The foundation for IIM Bangalore’s transformation

One of the successful transformations of an Indian higher education institution was IIM Bangalore’s in the 1990s. Till 1980s IIM Bangalore was a public sector (agriculture, health, education, energy and utilities, transportation, etc.) focused institution and not the management institution it is today. In fact, all the current focus areas like marketing, production, finance, information systems etc. were clubbed together as one unit that was supporting the flagship public sector areas till the 1980s. The transformation of IIM Bangalore to a business school as it exists today started as soon as K. R. S. Murthy took over as its Director in 1991.

The transformation had a future image focus of IIM Bangalore as a business management focused institute rather than a public sector focused institute. In fact, one of the most symbolic image changes was a change of IIM Bangalore’s logo. With this aspirational image, the core identity became more fluid – the new management focus areas were formed and these areas were listed ahead of the public sectors in IIM Bangalore’s annual report. In fact, the strategy was created as a new area in IIM Bangalore only in 1991 and K. R. S. Murthy was among the first faculty members of this area.

IIMB’s strategy was to strengthen these management areas. This started with attracting experienced and junior faculty members to staff the management areas. The PGP (MBA) and FPM (PhD) programs were reviewed with this focus in mind. The review committee chaired by faculty member Vatsala Nagarajan was a key information processing ability that reoriented the PGP in 1991 to align with the management area focus of IIM Bangalore. This was also the dawn of liberalization in India. IIM Bangalore simultaneously adjusted the PGP curriculum to include a project called the contemporary concern studies that analyzed real world problems and concerns of Indian industry in the wake of liberalization and globalization. Another review of the PGP in 1995 was focused on conceptual and analytical understanding of Indian and international business and tries to give students an insight into today’s fast changing business environment.

This was the foundation for IIM Bangalore’s journey to a top ranked management institution in India. A bit of historical context is useful here. The peers of IIM Bangalore, IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta have a two and half decade’s lead over IIM Bangalore as traditional management area focused institutions.  

Many Indian higher education institutions have begun this transformation. We keep reading about the aspirations and transformation of the better ranked institutions. There are many other institutions that are transforming outside the limelight. Take the case of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham established in 1994. They are ranked 12 overall, 5 among universities, 16 in engineering, and 6 in medical in NIRF 2021. To provide a context, they are ranked above BITS Pilani in engineering and JIPMER in medicine. This is impressive for a relatively young university. And even more so if they can sustain and improve on these rankings. We also hope that the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 will act as a powerful a catalyst for the transformation of many Indian higher education institutions.     

A last word on a lingering thought we have when it comes to rankings of higher education institutions – how do Indian institutions fare when compared to the global best. While the NIRF is an India focused ranking, it provides useful inputs on improvement areas. When initiatives to improve are benchmarked with the best higher education institutions in the world, they are likely to have a positive impact on international rankings as well. Chinese higher education institutions have made good strides, especially in the past decade, to improve their international rankings. There are many studies that have analyzed the rise of Chinese higher education institutions in global rankings. One of these studies have connected this rise in rankings to the social and cultural factors and how the modern Chinese higher education institutions are similar and different from those in the west. Is India developing its own model of transforming its higher education institutions into a world-class institution or is it likely to be a copy of the western model? Is there one Indian model or are there many Indian models? Only time will tell us the answer.  

Views are personal.