Expanding mediocrity

Expanding mediocrity
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First Published: Tue, Apr 01 2008. 12 12 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Apr 01 2008. 12 12 AM IST
Union human resource development minister Arjun Singh has kicked off the process of creating six new Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and four Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in 10 states of the country. There are great expectations from the step.
There may be right sounding, supply-side, arguments in favour of creating more IIMs and IITs. After all, there is a countrywide shortage of skilled manpower. More than any other macroeconomic variable, it’s the availability of such talent that is the final frontier for economic growth. The location of such institutes in the country’s backward regions has the potential to create quality human capital in places that need it most. Plus, of course, the step boosts “inclusive growth”.
None of these stands scrutiny. Even ignoring the issue of finding adequate resources for such ventures (which is serious: the cost of building an IIT is Rs760 crore, while the human resource development ministry has allocated Rs2,000 crore for seven new IITs in the 11th Plan), there are basic issues that will doom it.
One reason why graduates of these institutes command sky-high salaries and top jobs is the use of IIM and IIT tags as a quality statistic by employers. These graduates are unlikely to be “lemons” and, in fact, are force multipliers for any company. This quality has been developed by nurturing scholarly faculties over decades. A number of their teachers have earned their spurs at top universities in the world and are now distributing the fruits of their labour in terms of research and teaching excellence locally.
This experience cannot be replicated in a military march fashion. The process that takes decades, if not more, cannot be short-circuited at the whim of an ambitious minister. Once these new IIMs and IITs are established, where will the faculty be sourced from?
If shoddy PhDs from Indian universities are appointed, it will kill the project at start. Teaching and imparting of skills to budding managers will be the first casualty. There is a strong link between research excellence and good teaching; the latter is built on the foundations laid by the former. In most institutes where research output (in terms of papers published in leading journals) is good, teaching often does not lag behind.
The obverse obtains in most Indian universities where output is low and pollutes subject literatures, be they the sciences or humanities. For example, in the sciences there are few papers from India that ever find a place in the science citation index, a measure of how many times a paper has been cited in scholarly work after its publication. It’s a measure, albeit a crude one, of a paper’s “influence”.
The students produced by these universities are a costly proposition for companies as they don’t have the requisite skills and have to be retrained. The inevitable result of such an expansion will be that employers will have to devote resources to sift “lemons” from the good stuff. These resources otherwise would have been used in chasing profits.
These arguments are unpalatable to the academic Left. One part of their labour in the last 60 years has been to somehow conjoin scholarly achievement with notions of egalitarianism. There is no such link. Academic excellence may benefit from a larger talent pool. The massive expansion of higher education after independence, however, shows otherwise: India has the largest pool of academic mediocrity. Why does India have no Harvard or a Princeton? It may be early days for such a quest, but one cannot even see a faint beginning.
The way ahead is to build new institutes carefully, slowly. Indian experience shows it’s easy to make academic ghettos and very difficult to create excellence.
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First Published: Tue, Apr 01 2008. 12 12 AM IST