The current government has successfully created a chasm between the vision statement and the direction of growth of Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs, and Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs.
Consider the vision statement of one IIM.
The institute seeks to achieve excellence and a leadership position in management education and to become a major learning resource centre in the Asia–Pacific region.
If the vision is to make the IIMs world-class institutions that stand for excellence, then they should be given an environment to excel. If they have constraints on selecting students or paying their faculty, and are located away from industry, then they cannot hope to evolve into world-class institutes.
The reservation debate is on again after the Supreme Court’s verdict on quotas for other backward classes in higher education. I have already explained my stand on this issue in the column “Quota’s will only hurt IIMs and IITs”. Though I am not against the idea of reservation as a tool for affirmative action, I am against its indiscriminate use. Especially when politicians use it for narrow political ends and pretend to be messiahs of the downtrodden.
I believe that in at least some institutions, there should be no compromise with excellence. If mankind has seen unprecedented growth in technology and its productive use in last few decades, one important contributing factor has been excellence in academic institutions. For example, some of the technologies that revolutionized the way the world communicates originated from Silicon Valley, which is, in many ways, an offspring of Stanford University. Similiarly, top business schools, such as the Harvard Business School at Harvard University in Cambridge, US, have constantly given new directions to the industry.
How students are selected is an important measure of excellence of an institute. Though the selection criteria can be debated, caste can’t be one of them.
Ideally the selection process should be so designed that students selected should show promise in the area they are supposed to be groomed. It’s the basic intelligence combined with the kind of education that a student gets at primary and secondary levels that should be measured. This also has a positive impact on the intellectual capital of the institutes . Many good faculty of top B-schools have told me that if they are holding on to their jobs inspite of low pay, the prime motivator is the quality of students they get to work with and the rewards that presents.
In Tamil Nadu’s case, where backward castes enjoy relatively better socio-economic status, is often quoted to justify reservations. As if reservations alone led to their socio-economic uplift. Indeed, the truth could be the other way round. Historical reasons, such as success of pre-independence social reform movements, significantly empowered, both politically and economically, the backward castes of Tamil Nadu when compared to other states in India. More than reservations, to me, it was the increase in supply of seats in engineering and other courses that contributed to the high rate of access to higher education for backward castes.
Tamil Nadu has some 350 engineering colleges. Some colleges, inspite of high reservations, couldn’t get enough students in the past and had to be closed. The key factor to note here is that for 350 engineering colleges, there is just one IIT Madras, whose research output is much more than that of all the engineering colleges in the state combined. The real test of the sincerity of political leadership would be if Dalits and backward castes are represented in their actual proportion, about 60%, in the IITs and IIMs but, without reservation and on their own merit. There are no short cuts for this to come about. The state has to drastically reform primary- and secondary-level education. To me, the palliative of reservation is more of an illusion than real empowerment of the downtrodden.
The benefits that reservation, especially in IIMs, are going to bring to backward castes is overestimated, especially after the recent fee hike. Getting into IIMs is not like clearing government civil services exam where job and promotions are guaranteed. Already, placement data in IIMs indicate that Dalit students are paid significantly less salary than general category students, when it comes to jobs. Some of them spend an extra year to finish the course. In case there is a economic downturn, it is quite possible some of the reserved category students won’t be placed at all. Since there is no fee concession for them, they are the ones who are going to suffer the most in such a scenario.
The Indian government’s education policies, rather than benefiting the backward castes in true measure, have become a major impediment in the transition of IIMs and IITs from good to great. The government has to choose what they want these institutes to be. If the government has made that decision, then the vision statements of these institutes should be changed.
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 email@example.com