A call for leadership training
A recent report on the private banking sector in Bangladesh was replete with examples of strategic thinking, leadership, being in sync with the times (digital transformation, internet banking, digital transaction tools, etc), superior service, cost reduction, sustainability and environmental considerations, and customer inclusiveness using nano-deposits. Emphasis on capacity building of employees "for a better tomorrow," welcoming international best practices, tuning services to customer needs, ensuring best-quality corporate governance (still a questionable quest), product innovation, streamlining operational efficiency, incentivising creativity, and a holistic view of banking (not just profits) are all remarkable developments in the sector promising larger societal impact (employment, economic growth, environment preservation, and so on).
Are the above innovations and management initiatives in the banking sector – many transferable to other areas – even remotely visible in the higher education sector? Sadly, the colonial imprint here is so stark, one wonders whether system lethargy, serving parochial interests (that often turn into raging turf battles), can ever be overcome and replaced by a vibrant and visionary educational edifice, powering development across the nation.
With a hierarchical and centralised system, and with decision-making concentrated in the hands of a select few, serving their own selfish interests, the "colonised" underlings and their experience-based thinking are routinely disregarded with detrimental consequences already evident in intellectual, social and moral decay permeating the various sectors. Such administrative systems also limit the flow of information and communication to maintain control, preserve the hierarchy, and ignore – even silence – imaginative voices to maintain the status quo.
In contrast, modern management systems are decentralised, empowering individuals and teams at various levels to achieve goals creatively while being more adaptive and responsive to changing circumstances and challenges. Such systems foster efficient and equitable governance, organisational development, participatory decision-making, and sustainable development, all directed at the welfare of various stakeholders.
Modern management systems also encourage transparency, open communication, and free flow of information while seeking to engage with stakeholders, including employees, customers and the public, to gather feedback and make informed decisions.
But modernisation efforts in higher education are passionately resisted. Consequently, it continues to remain indolent and unresponsive to changing times, operating in silos, lacking in transparency and accountability, and resisting innovative ideas and best practices to bring positive change. It also serves as a home for faculty and administration who, once employed, have lifetime job security despite their continuing lacklustre performance in developing the universities as knowledge centres where discovery, dissemination, and use of knowledge ought to advance knowledge frontiers in a collaborative spirit.
Because universities are embedded in society, the gifted administrator must find purpose and fuel passion within the university to ultimately serve society and its knowledge needs.
Most university teachers are not certified to teach; many universities are not accredited; teaching-learning is tethered sadly to lectures and rote learning where students engage in little analysis, synthesis or application; research contributions even by Asian standards are pathetic; people are placed in positions without requisite qualifications or credentials to lead their departments, faculties or the institutions (HoDs, deans, VC/PVC) and without being subject to performance assessment; and boards (and government functionaries for public universities) rule with impunity and little accountability. Sadly, the system continues to churn out graduates of poor quality who need to undergo serious pre-service and in-service training to be able to serve other sectors competently. Even the regulatory bodies and the implementing ministry go scot-free without any serious assessment of whether and what impact they have really made!
So, where do we go from here? It is indeed possible to start at any of several different points, sequentially or simultaneously, to fulfil a deeper educational mission. One such point is the need to train academic leaders, especially on institutional efficacy. From a systems perspective, many administrators of the higher bodies responsible for taking the larger education agenda forward (UGC, education ministry, etc) are also ill-trained, some even ill-motivated.
Training is essential to developing competent and effective administrators to manage the diverse and complex responsibilities of running educational institutions. Adopting a vision and mission to align stakeholders, they must strive to benefit not just students, but also the larger stakeholder community. Because universities are embedded in society, the gifted administrator must find purpose and fuel passion within the university to ultimately serve society and its knowledge needs.
Seven modules of administrative training are essential to introduce the much-needed and refreshing change in academia.
Understanding the academic environment: Administrative training should provide a comprehensive understanding of the intricate academic environment. They must also be skilled at identifying and interacting with various stakeholders and the unique challenges that academic institutions face.
Academic policy and governance: Administrators must be well-versed in academic policies and governance structures. Understanding accreditation requirements, curriculum development, and faculty retention and dismissal procedures is crucial for leading effectively.
Strategic planning and institutional development: Administrators must be trained to develop a university's mission, values, and strategic goals and be able to align their efforts and adapt to a rapidly changing educational landscape.
Leadership and decision-making skills: Effective administrators must possess strong leadership skills. Training should focus on leadership styles, conflict resolution, and ethical decision-making. The effective administrator must also lead by example, promoting a positive institutional culture, and serving as creative problem solvers.
Financial management and budgeting: Academic institutions are often tight on budgets that require adept financial management skills. Training should cover budgeting, resource allocation, and planning to ensure financial sustainability.
Human resources and personnel management: Administrators deal with a diverse workforce, including faculty, staff, and support personnel. They must be well-versed in recruitment practices, professional development, performance evaluation, motivating the staff, and allocating rewards and recognition. Nurturing an environment of collaboration with team building skills is also vital.
Data infrastructure and institutional research: Administrators need to be data-informed decision-makers. Training should equip them with skills in data (internal and external) analysis, and organisational assessment methods to measure and improve institutional effectiveness. Familiarity with and leading institutional research programmes is also crucial.
Other critical areas of training to be introduced in phases are: student affairs and support services (especially mental health and counselling); legal and ethical compliance issues; communication and public relations; technology integration, emergency preparedness; and continuous professional development.
Academic administration is complex as it serves multiple stakeholders. This requires a diverse range of essential skills and knowledge to run the institutions competently and efficiently. The question is whether the academic top brass understands the need to get trained as transformation leaders while helping them emerge from their entrenched and colonial-bureaucratic mindsets. By equipping them with proper tools, knowledge, attitudes, and values, Bangladesh's academic institutions can become competitive and vibrant knowledge centres, promoting institutional innovation, enhancing the overall quality of education and student experience, and propelling national development. Attention may also be devoted in due course to train a special cadre of education administrators instead of relying on other sectors, with different cultures, to provide administrative support in education.
From an ecosystem perspective, a range of training inputs is also important for the UGC and the education ministry officials simply because the quality of human assets they continue to churn out speaks volumes about the quality of stewardship of these officials in managing such a vital sector. When all levels are properly aligned, higher education can forge new frontiers in an emerging global order, as demonstrated by our neighbours in East Asia and Southeast Asia. The troubling question is: can we do it?
Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is distinguished professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, former vice-chancellor of Brac University, and vice-chair at the Foundation for Learning, Teaching and Research.