More women leaders need the hour in higher education

The future of higher education in India is at an exciting turning point. The National Education Policy is ready to break the silos in higher education. On the horizon are multidisciplinary teaching and research universities (MERUs) and holistic undergraduate education with multiple exit points. Colleges are under pressure to re-conceptualize curricula, embrace open education, create cross-curricular curricula, embrace new era technologies, and prepare to exercise greater autonomy over the decade future.

Large-scale transformative change is indeed possible. In recent years, assessment, accreditation and ranking initiatives have led to radical changes in the quality framework. Leading colleges and universities have enough experience, professional skills, and insight to immediately jump into the new paradigm. While there are huge variations in quality standards and access to resources, aspirations are high across the country. The best institutions champion change, set benchmarks and establish the roadmap to guide others to excellence. Next, institutional leadership is important.

As we celebrate the 2021 National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) awards, now is the time to point out two issues. First, the NIRF currently classifies institutions into the following categories: Global, Universities, Engineering, Management, Pharmacy, Colleges, Medicine, Law, Architecture and Dental. A new cross-cutting category of research was introduced in 2021. The NEP will require the merging of institutional categories to reflect the agenda of multidisciplinarity and holistic education. Second, as the NEP aims to prepare young people for the future in the workplace, the focus will be on strengthening excellence with equity, diversity and inclusion. In particular, gender equity must be evident, integrated and commensurate with the aspirations of half of the population.

Data from the All India State of Higher Education (AISHE) and NIRF show that although female enrollments and outcomes in higher education are on the rise, there is a lack of equitable career opportunities in higher education. universities across the disciplinary spectrum. The number of female professors in postgraduate and research departments is extremely low. Female academic talent and strategic vision are forced to flourish in the silos of the undergraduate education that is offered in colleges.

The Top Hundred Colleges in NIRF 2021 are an eclectic group that includes 28 all-female, four all-male, and 68 coeducational colleges. Parity between the sexes is close with 45 women directors, 17 of whom lead mixed colleges. Five of the top ten are headed by women. The performance of female-only colleges has always been exceptional. Miranda House has maintained its position as the top college for five consecutive years since 2017. Lady Shri Ram College, another prominent institution, is just behind. It should be noted that 28 Delhi University colleges are listed with up to 16 having female directors of which 10 are female-only colleges. These institutions are a fine example of holistic liberal education in the basic arts and sciences with an emphasis on activities beyond the classroom that take advantage of innovative mentoring opportunities. Graduating students are true talents on the move, with female students often eclipsing. The alumni list includes pioneers who influenced the narrative in all fields of endeavor.

In contrast, the best universities in the NIRF have only 10% female vice-chancellors. Jamia Millia Islamia stands out. Skillfully led by a vice-chancellor, it appears in eight categories. The engineering flow with just 7% female directors is clearly non-inclusive across the pipeline, be it students, researchers, professors or female leaders. With fewer participating institutions, other categories have a slightly better gender leadership profile with 11% in pharmacy, 15% in dental, 15% in management, 17% in law, 20% in medicine and 28% in architecture.

It is puzzling that institutions of national importance lag behind in gender equity with only nine (7%) of the 130 listed by the Department of Education having female directors. The prestigious IIT and IISER have never had a female director. The AIIMS made history with a director over 30 years ago. Two NITs and two NIPERs are now headed by women. According to the UGC, seven (13%) of the 54 central universities; 52 (12%) of 437 state universities; 10 (8%) of 125 reputable universities; and 23 (6%) of 388 private universities have female vice-chancellors.

In January 2005, the then president of Harvard University made controversial comments about the ability of women to excel in science, citing issues of intrinsic ability. Soon after, Harvard hired its first female president in 2007, who held pole position for 11 long years. Several other top universities followed. The recently released 2021 Times Higher Education Rankings claimed that 24 of the top 100 universities and 41 of the top 200 universities are led by female leaders. Top-ranked Oxford University, three of the ivy league institutions in the United States, Imperial College and the London School of Economics, among other highly sought-after institutions are going against the trend . They testify to the potential of women in leadership roles.

The NIRF Gender Leadership Index should be a wake-up call. Having a significantly high number of female college-only leaders is a concern. Their relative absence in other categories reinforces the stereotype that teaching in schools and colleges is a female-centered profession, but higher academia is different territory. The education sector, proud to be progressive, must lead by example, as its former female students increasingly storm all other fields including space, engineering, health and technology digital. NASSCOM has been successfully run by a female president and Engineers India Limited recently appointed its first female head of the executive. At least six of the Covid vaccines are from research or businesses led by women. Even where under-represented, female talent is in abundance.

As the new education policy restarts the system, it is necessary to change mentalities, improve the organizational culture, the gender climate and the lived experience of the community. Women in decision-making roles can catalyze new ways of thinking and doing. Next, SMART actions must include establishing clear pathways for the advancement of women. As the system prepares to fill the many vacancies at the top, the first step is to overcome obvious biases, to put in place gender-sensitive research committees, fair and transparent selection processes that recognize women as opinion leaders and institution builders.

(Pratibha Jolly is the former director of Miranda House and NAAC academic consultant. She is developing the framework for Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI), a DST-supported initiative to improve gender equality in STEMM disciplines. Priyanka Nupur and Roja Rawal are members of the GATI research team)

Mara R. Wilmoth