During a recent trip to India, we met with Professor Anil Sahasrabudhe, a dynamic, positive man who will likely remind you of a favorite uncle. In 2004, he was in the less satisfactory position of being director at the College of Engineering in Pune (COEP), located 150 km southeast of Mumbai. At that time, the institution had no financial or academic autonomy, no governance structure, and no administrative freedom. Ten years later, in 2014, the institution had turned around, garnering national awards and recognition. What helped spark the change? While several factors made an impact, Professor Sahasrabudhe mentions good governance first.

The term “good governance” often evokes the mental image of a well-functioning political system or the lack of corruption. In the case of engineering education in India, it most closely refers to the governing body that oversees a college or university. These individuals play a more important role than one might think, particularly in regard to institutional effectiveness, quality of education, and student employability.

India has nearly 4,000 engineering schools and a unique history of affiliated colleges. Affiliates are essentially child organizations of larger universities. These affiliates pay fees to the larger universities in exchange for the use of their curriculum and exams. It is not uncommon for a parent school to have more than a hundred affiliates, in fact, there is one university which has over 600! Quality control is a major challenge and students are often literally taught by textbook with a visiting lecturer reading from it.

Professor Sahasrabudhe’s COEP is one of the institutions in the World Bank-financed Technical Education Quality Improvement Project (TEQIP II)  which has two major components: (i) to improve the quality of education in 190 selected institutions, some which are affiliated and some which are not; and (ii) improving system management through capacity building. Much of the money goes to updating laboratory equipment, paying student grants, providing professional development opportunities, and sponsoring cross-institutional learning workshops. But one of the “biggest bang for the buck” initiatives is that of good governance. Good governance addresses both components by ensuring that dedicated academic and non-academic leaders provide strategic vision and financial oversight, in addition to ensuring that their institutions nurture a cadre of competent faculty and employable students. In fact, the new Board of Governors at COEP was wise enough to hire Professor Sahasrabudhe, knowing how important it is to have a strong head of the institution.

Good intentions aside, it is not always easy to implement good governance practices. Many, if not all, colleges struggle with severe faculty shortages. Recent studies have shown that the number of engineering students outweigh the number of available jobs. Some colleges have governing boards that have been unable to meet for months due to scheduling conflicts and/or political instability. However, there are also several institutions like COEP that have truly embraced the fundamental principles of good governance and reaped the benefits.

Another example is the BVB College of Engineering in Hubli. Located in Karnataka, Hubli is a commercial and business center in the northern part of the state. The BVB governing board sought to actively implement good governance practices, including transparency in decision-making and developing a shared understanding of the key attributes, primary accountabilities, and performance norms of the Board of Governors. They embarked on a governance self-review (with guidelines laid out by TEQIP II) and involved all the institution’s stakeholders in the process. They identified several areas for improvement and have a plan that not only lists actionable items but also identifies which resources and actors need to play a role in order for reforms to be sustainable. Through its focus on good governance, the college has become one of the top five institutions in the state, incubated 24 companies on its campus, and created more than 400 long-term jobs in the region.

Good governance can seem somewhat of an esoteric concept – in some cases, institutions can just post a document online and make it appear that their board is very active. However, based on several case studies and firsthand experience from the TEQIP II team, some best practices for governing boards include:

  1. A committed and engaged Board of Governors. The College of Engineering in Pune requires its members to contribute at least 100 hours to activities related to institutional development.
  2. The right composition of individuals. Many members are appointed, and often hold more than one post. It is important to balance out the membership with motivated and diverse individuals. Conflict of interest is important to consider, especially if there are industry professionals on the board who might be looking for free student labor or additional contracts from the institution or members who sit on multiple Boards.
  3. Transparency and accountability in decision-making. Minutes from the meetings should be publicly posted so that administrators, faculty, students can see what decisions were made and why.
  4. Performance metrics. The Board of Governors should hold themselves to a high standard of performance and create benchmarks that demonstrate progress, so that institutional improvements are known and measured. The governors should evaluate their own performance.
  5. Review of the Head of Institution. Just as it is important to undertake self-review, it is also important to provide honest feedback to the leader of the institution, so that he or she is held accountable for the day-to-day running of the school.

This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s Education for Global Development Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jessica Lee is an Operations Officer in the World Bank Group’s Education Global Practice, where she provides support to education projects and related activities. Toby Linden is a Lead Education Specialist in the World Bank Group’s Education Global Practice, where he leads the Bank’s education team in India.

Image: A Master of Business Administration (MBA) student works on a computer in a library at Management Development Institute (MDI) in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi.