The judicial intervention in staying reservations must have brought temporary relief to the directors of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). For, contrary to their claims in public, none of them is fully prepared in terms of academic infrastructure to accommodate more students. All of them need at least a year to get their act together.
The faculty strength in IIM Kozhikode, for example, is about 20. The faculty-student ratio works out to be less than the internationally accepted standard of 1:10. They need to at least double their faculty strength.
The human resource development (HRD) ministry would have done a great service to the cause of management education if, for instance, it had given these institutes autonomy to fix the salary of their faculty before asking them to expand capacity.
Unfortunately, the HRD ministry’s intervention in the past few years has been mostly to assert its power over these institutes.
It all began in the last BJP regime. In 2002, in order to play a bigger role in the selection of IIM directors, the ministry changed the search committee’s composition in favour of government nominees.
The next move was to route the donations that these institutes get, through the government’s Bharat Shiksha Kosh, which was empowered to decide on the utilization of funds. There was an outcry among donors and the donations stopped. It even led to the withdrawal of a proposed donation of $10 million (Rs41 crore) to the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, by an alumnus, Gururaj Deshpande, who then redirected the amount to his other alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US.
Then came the fiat to restrict the corpus size of each IIM to Rs25 crore. The government was obviously interested in the Rs200 crore corpus that the top three IIMs had between them.
The last salvo by the previous regime in 2004, before its exit, made clear its real intentions. A letter was issued to all the directors of IIMs asking them to reduce their fees to Rs30,000 per annum. The gratuitous communication, which was supposed to be in the interest of the poorer sections, couldn’t camouflage the real fear of the babus and politicians; the fear of loosing control over IIMs. There was a reason for that. With the economy booming, the earnings of the top three IIMs from management development programmes and consultancy got a boost. They no longer needed government aid for their sustenance. Reduction in fees meant all the IIMs would come to them for money and in return they could be forced to surrender their autonomy. Rumours doing the rounds then were that the minister wanted to have his favourites as faculty and also to push his party’s Hindutva agenda in these institutes.
No wonder there was celebration in IIM campuses when the last government tumbled.
Coming to the present regime, it is not clear why Arjun Singh, the HRD minister, is so enthusiastic about reservations. It could be simply his desire to be remembered as a benefactor of backward communities. It could also be an astute political move to save—or enhance—his position.
Whatever may have been the cause, in the end, it’s the stakeholders of IIMs and other institutes who got a very raw deal.
It serves the national interest best if the government, instead of engaging in fracas with IIMs, takes initiatives in setting up more such institutes and then leaves them to manage themselves. Institutes do much better if given autonomy. Too much control will destroy them like it happened to most of our university departments.
Ruling parties will have to be careful while allocating the crucial portfolio of the HRD ministry. It should not be forgotten that IITs and IIMs were established in Nehruvian era when state control was the order of the day. Even then, leaders such as Nehru had the foresight to give these institutes autonomy. Now politicians and bureaucrats find it tempting to subjugate and control such institutions. It takes strength of character, which sadly is rare to find in our times, to overcome this desire of a bygone feudal era.
Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting & Research (C-fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.