An IIM versus a global MBA

An IIM versus a global MBA

New Delhi: How many HRD Ministry appointed panel members does it take to review the functioning of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)? The most efficient answer is zero. Anything more than that will create a report that is blinkered off the principles of education and only focus on some of the mechanics of admission and administration.

Two weeks ago, the R C Bhargava committee report ostensibly shocked everyone by declaring that the IIMs have not been “fair" to every meritorious candidate. Most newspapers published quotes from the report and focused on the high fee that deterred means-handicapped applicants.

Media reports highlighted the committee’s unhappiness with the present schemes of financial assistance given to students. And that lies at the crux of the committee’s famous acknowledgement of the unfairness of the admission policy of the IIMs. But in discussing this dimension of fairness, I think we are ignoring several other critical matters.

Over the past decade, I have been a volunteer with the admissions department at my Alma Mater, the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin – one of the top 20 (sic) US business schools. I interview candidates and work closely with admissions officers and career services professionals at the university. The difference in the admission criteria between top US business schools and the IIMs is so stark that, despite contextual variance, I fear that one of these two has got it wrong. What makes this curiouser is the fact that despite the impressive global ranking that the IIMs brandish, I meet dozens of candidates possessing an MBA degree from the IIMs seeking a second MBA from a top US business school.

Without splitting hair, here are two of the major differences: First, top US business schools admit candidates with far more years of work experience than the IIMs do. Once upon a time, few candidates applying for CAT (the admission exam to the IIMs) had many years of work experience, and the IIMs probably did not have a choice, but today that is not the case. Another major difference is that the emphasis on multiple-choice entrance exam is exceptionally high in the case of the IIMs, while top US business schools do not use the GMAT (the admission exam for US and other global business schools) as an impenetrable hurdle.

The IIMs require a candidate to clear the CAT and only then move on to the stage of personality tests; group discussions and personal interviews. The much-famed, and feared, CAT, tests students in quantitative and verbal areas. It uses a healthy analytical undertone in its questions. But non-engineers are largely eliminated before the personality-testing stage as they do not clear the quantitative area. IIMs as well as the CAT coaching institute industry (of which I am a part) will cry themselves hoarse with examples that prove my conclusion inaccurate. But the fact is that the proportion of their examples should lead them to be classified as exceptions.

The quantitative area of the CAT asks a large number of questions on topics such as Sequences and Series, Functions, Permutation and Combinations, Probability, Number Systems, among others. Depending on the board, most of these topics are not covered up to class 10, after which several non-science stream students do not study Maths. Unless one accepts that advanced Math is a prerequisite to effective management performance, the extreme focus on this criterion is discriminatory. The HRD ministry committee ignored the plight of the meritorious candidates who may not crunch algebraic expressions well.

In a similar vein, the committee has also ignored the fact that the verbal section of the CAT tends to be so tough that students who have studied in the vernacular medium have close to no chance to clear hurdle number one: the CAT – another case of meritorious students not getting a chance at proving their management potential. CAT of Nov 2007 asked students the meaning of “flotsam and jetsam"! Despite there being a context to that, it is incorrigible to figure out the validity of that question.

Of course, it can be argued that panels and committees should not be allowed to comment on admission exams. I agree with that. In fact, I strongly believe that there is no recourse to improving the quality of IIM education, short of introspection by the IIMs. But when a committee focuses on unfairness to meritorious candidates, it cannot be so blinkered in its understanding of merit.

The committee in question also made recommendations for a salary hike of IIM faculty, which is curious when viewed in the context of its other recommendation of the IIMs running as businesses. Surely businesses can independently decide the remuneration structure of employees. This gets a little more worrying when one looks at specific numeric limits that the committee has recommended for the fee-split between faculty member and institute for consulting assignments and executive training programmes.

This committee report will add to the general belief that committee reports mean zilch. The committee probably knows this, as one of their observations is that recommendations suggested by previous panels remained only on paper (H P Nanda IIM review committee of 1979 and V Kurien’s second IIM review of 1991). It is time that the IIMs realize that the general admiration showered on them is primarily driven by the acute 1 : 100 filter they create at the entrance exam stage, which allows them to access the crème de la crème among applicants.

In the meanwhile not just will economically backward candidates lose out, but also several other candidates who do not satisfy an extremely narrow manager stereotype, as defined by the ivory towers at the IIMs.

Ajeet Khurana is director, Peak Seekers, a test-prep institute in Mumbai. An ex-lecturer of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, he interviews MBA applicants for admission