In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna (also known as Murli Manohar) gives “upadesh” (advice) to Arjuna. Their present-day namesakes are being true to tradition. Following the path of professor Murli Manohar Joshi, his follower, the current minister for human resource development and apt pupil, Shri Arjun Singh, has completed one of the teacher’s unfinished tasks, viz. the emasculation of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Their muted reaction, even after Monday’s Supreme Court order, is unfortunate confirmation of this.
In their letter of 12 April, the IIMs did indeed “meet the requirements of all—the SC order, the concerns of the government of India, the IIMs and above all, the students”. Since the government’s reservation policy explicitly safeguarded existing seats for non-reserved students, IIMs proposed to admit all students whose entry was independent of the seat expansion required by the new reservation policy. Indeed, there was no basis for the government’s advice, issued to the six IIMs, the University Grants Commission (UGC), our technical education regulator, AICTE, the vice-chancellors of all central universities and 32 other institutions, to delay admissions, except the unkind thought that it wanted to unduly pressurize the Supreme Court.
After the IIMs’ letter, one instrumental problem was swiftly addressed. Last week, AICTE instructed institutions, under pain of “punitive action including withdrawal of approval and recognition”, to refund fees to students who withdraw after taking admission, thereby enabling students admitted to institutions outside the purview of the reservation policy to switch to institutions like IIMs without financial loss.
Concomitantly, the government wrote to the IIMs on 19 April stating that any “unilateral decision…would be a violation of the said communication”; portending unstated penalties. Sadly, and unnecessarily, the IIMs fell, and remain, in line. Ahmedabad and Bangalore are waiting “until the underlying issue is resolved”, Lucknow is withholding the list for “reasons beyond its control”, while Kolkata and Kozhikode will issue their list “on receiving clearance” from the ministry.
What are the ramifications of this episode?
First, neither educational institutions nor their regulators seem to want to protect their own autonomy. Even the process and timing of AICTE’s otherwise laudable decision on fee refunds raises questions about its regulatory independence.
Second, as the IIM directors now no doubt appreciate, it is sometimes better to stand firm on principle, directly questioning the government’s right to dictate to them, as in their earlier face-off with Joshi on the issue of fee-cuts, rather than hide behind convenient instrumental arguments, as used in this instance. Are IIMs just “institutions of state”, as the minister said? Ultimately, who are they responsible to?
Third, the government’s caprice makes one better appreciate the Indian School of Business’ decision to operate solely on its reputation, without any government recognition. Other institutions should consider that option. If so, they also need to think about preserving any reputation they have acquired so far.
Fourth, the rejection of the IIMs’ sensible and reasoned offer is symptomatic of the growing tendency in government to prefer extreme solutions. This disappearing middle ground bodes ill for the future of a nation as diverse as ours.
Finally, as media, corporates and as a people, our reaction has been so shamefully muted to this assault on autonomy, as compared to the loud protestations during the earlier IIM fee-cut crisis set off by Joshi. Are we more inured or are our institutions more complicit? Why are we cutting more slack to the student as compared to the teacher? A look in the mirror is indicated.
What should the IIMs do now that SC has taken a firm stand? email@example.com