New Delhi: One day before faculty at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) turn out to teach on an empty stomach to push for a pay raise, the head of another elite institution turned emotional on Wednesday about the way the salary debate has eclipsed what he considers is a bigger issue.

Hunger strike: A file photo of the IIT Delhi campus. The stir at the Indian Institutes of Technology revolves around the freedom to recruit, a discretion they say has been diluted by the 16 Sep notification. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

To Pankaj Chandra, director of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, (IIM-B), the more important issue is the government’s inability to make the IITs and IIMs truly world-class institutions and to let go of control over these elite schools. “If the government of Singapore can make NUS (National University of Singapore) fantastic, if the Chinese government can make its institutions the best, should Indian government not do the same for its institutions?" asked Chandra.

“There are some tremendous barriers (to being world-class) such as faculty compensation and autonomy," added Chandra, a PhD from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who taught for 10 years at IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A) before moving to IIM-B. “These institutions need autonomy to make independent decisions. Who should decide pay? What is the role of the board? Where can they set up an institution?"

IIM faculty have reason to empathize with their counterparts at the IITs, where 3,000 teachers across the country are to observe a hunger strike on Thursday.

Both the IIMs and IITs have struggled with almost every government and human resource development (HRD) minister, who oversees education, over turf. The saga began in 2004 when then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi ordered the IIMs to slash their Rs3 lakh fee for the two-year course by 80%, a move that was successfully challenged in court by students.

In 2007, then HRD minister Arjun Singh asked the IIMs to delay admission notices as the government fought a Supreme Court order on reservations; eventually admissions were allowed 16 days, several press conferences and cabinet meetings later.

Through Singh’s tenure in office, there was speculation that a Bill that will govern the IIMs more tightly might be put to Parliament. The IIMs snubbed Singh over any interference in their fee hikes in subsequent years.

With the present HRD minister Kapil Sibal committed to education reform, “we are very hopeful of what can happen," said Chandra.

The IIMs, especially the older ones in Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Kolkata, have achieved absolute financial autonomy for their operational expenses. IIM-A, for instance, has not sought any grant from the government starting in 2003-04, according to people familiar with the situation.

“We created our new campus all on our own. For the last seven years, we have not sought any money from the government,’’ said a faculty member from IIM Ahmedabad, who did not want to be identified.

Similar to the IIMs, the IITs have also struggled for greater autonomy with the government in recent years over the issue of caste-based reservations in admissions and faculty positions.

“This comes at a time all the IITs are trying aggressively to attract quality faculty from all over the world. With the kind of salaries given and barriers on faculty hiring, how is excellence in education possible?" said an IIT director who didn’t want to be named.

The All India IIT Faculty Federation that’s leading the agitation for higher pay is seeking a 45% raise in the entry-level salary and performance-linked pay to the extent of 20-40% of the basic salary.

The main debate between these elite schools and the Union government boils down to one of finances and governance. The government wants to continue to ratify fees and hires and decide their pay and promotions. The schools maintain that they can manage their money and their people.

Across IIMs, the revenues generated from various sources, including the sale of application forms and management programmes for working executives, have been increasing over the years. IIM-A earned around Rs45 crore from its executive education programmes last year. The IIMs in 2007 earned around Rs24.2 crore from the sale of application forms alone.

The continuing stir at IITs, too, centres around their freedom to recruit faculty, a discretion diluted by the government notification of 16 September, which stipulates minimum teaching experience at the IITs or IIMs for professors.

The IITs argue that the order interferes with the institutes’ autonomy in hiring and promoting their own teachers based on merit. The IIT Faculty Federation is also against any restriction on the number of teachers in the categories of assistant professors, associate professors and professors, as envisaged by the government.

Moreover, the hiring policy at these institutes allowed for lateral entry, so Indian professors at international institutes could join. Ananth Krishnan, chairman, Board of Governors (IIT-Kanpur), however, doesn’t see the government order as “problematic".

“The government salaries can never match those in the corporate sector. Whatever can be done is, I believe, being worked out by the ministry already. So there is no need to panic," he said.

The IIMs say government control has come in the way of their growth. For instance, the government has dragged its feet over IIM-Bangalore’s plan to open a campus in Singapore, taken way back in 2006.

Sibal defends his ministry, saying the government is open to dialogue if these institutes agree to go beyond the debate on salaries.“If they get beyond pay scales and talk about vision for the excellence in education and research, I will give them autonomy incrementally. Instead of talking about Pay Band 4, let us talk about vision 2024," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

The minister, however, stressed that the institutes could not expect to be regulation-free since they were funded by the government. Sibal, who took over as the HRD minister in June, has so far followed his predecessors in not backing down from a skirmish with faculty. Sibal said his ministry is planning a meeting with the IIMs and the IITs to resolve the issue, but did not specify a date.

Experts from other countries who work in education agree with critics such as Chandra that the government might be exercising tighter controls than necessary.

Jason Howard, an Australian and chief executive of, which provides an online link between universities and students, said colleges will find it difficult to be globally recognized and attract international students if controls are tight. He said other countries are marketing their strengths as education destinations, such as Malaysia for Muslim students or Singapore as an Asia hub.

“They (IITs/IIMs) will have a difficult time doing that if they restrict the compensation and conditions in which people are working," he says.