IIM bill: Degree of unfreedom

The Indian Express - 25 June, 2015

Slogans of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Minimum Government’ won’t ring true if IIMs are being strangled.

The bill says that there will be a ‘coordination forum’, whose role is to ‘facilitate the sharing of experiences, ideas and concerns with a view to enhancing performance of all institutions’ and ‘deliberate on matters of common interest’ and, more frighteningly, to ‘perform such other functions as may be referred to it by the Central government.’

 

The prime minister needs to explain to the ministry of human resource development (HRD) the meaning of his “moola mantra” and election promise “minimum government, maximum governance”. The proposed new IIM bill from the HRD ministry does the opposite. It claws back a lot of existing autonomy of these institutions and reduces IIM boards to the rubber-stamping handmaidens of the ministry.

This new move to take greater government control comes despite the lack of evidence of the need to do so, given the consistently high level of academic, social and financial contributions of at least the larger ones. The older, more established IIMs are poster children for the prime minister’s “Make in India” vision — that India can turn out world-class products that are valued everywhere. Their alumni have made a mark globally and in India, in all aspects of society — business, government, social enterprise, new-age entrepreneurship, Parliament.

The IIMs (and I speak from my knowledge of IIM-Ahmedabad) have implemented OBC reservations speedily, pushing faculty and facilities to deal with an almost overnight doubling of student intake, and are need-blind in admissions. The faculty serve on several government committees to provide groundwork for policymaking, run special programmes for nationally important segments like the armed forces, are engaged in incubating and encouraging grassroots innovation, entrepreneurship and more.

Also, a little-known fact is that the larger IIMs are financially self-sufficient and committed to raising their own funds to take them to the next level of excellence. They have been oases of admissions integrity. Till now, no MP’s son or business baron’s daughter has ousted a more deserving candidate from a humble background. Surely that stands for something, in our prime minister’s vision of a meritocratic India where humble origins are not a deal-stopper in life.

To highlight some aspects of the bill, it has baffling phrases like, “regulations made by the board with the approval of the Central government”. So what is the role of the board? There is also the use of the catch-all “any other matters”, which is a blanket statement of open and future power given to the Centre. On a chairperson’s appointment, it says (s)he will be appointed by the Central government “in such manner as may be prescribed”, leaving this critical appointment wide open to misuse or whimsy. This does away with the current procedure of the board recommending three names for the HRD ministry to choose from.

The bill says that there will be a “coordination forum”, whose role is to “facilitate the sharing of experiences, ideas and concerns with a view to enhancing performance of all institutions” and “deliberate on matters of common interest” and, more frighteningly, to “perform such other functions as may be referred to it by the Central government.” What’s more, this forum will be chaired by the minister and have as members the minister of state in the Central government, four ministers of state governments, the Union secretary for the ministry, chairpersons and directors, and three persons of eminence, of whom one shall be a woman academic and the first nomination will not need institutes to suggest names. The bill also proposes to dictate the size of the academic council at each institute.

These interventions are like Nero fiddling when Rome was burning. The HRD minister is charged with educating the world’s largest youth population, on which rests the future of our demographic dividend. In a country that wants to be a knowledge superpower, with pathetic quality of education and no job readiness, we are still waiting to see an education policy from the HRD ministry containing a statement of its priorities, vision, strategy and implementation roadmap. The focus should be on game-changers, not sideshows; on fixing what is broke in our education system rather than what isn’t.

Government-prescribed standardised approaches de-emphasise innovation and thinking on strategy and differentiation. We want IIM-Udaipur to compete to plug the market and performance gaps of IIM-Ahmedabad, so that together they are a basket of unbeatable broadbased excellence.

Successful academic institutions around the world will vouch for academic autonomy, which is the lifeblood of excellent universities and colleges. New ground-breaking activities from the IIMs (and there have been many) did not stem from government diktats, but from self-motivated faculty. Does this result in institution-harming behaviour? A study of the existing system will show that this is not the case. Autonomy, peer censure and the desire to live up to a tradition of excellence work far more wonders than ministerial frowns or fatwas. Do away with autonomy, and you will have a self-selecting sample of people comfortable with mediocrity. We have seen that in zillions of government colleges. This bill is the equivalent of calling for the nationalisation of all well-run factories today, setting the clock back to the mediocre place we used to be, and then going forth to conquer the world. And while we’re at it, let’s also open the doors to foreign universities. This is the best way to score a self-goal.

The idea of a mature system is to have strong accountability that goes hand in hand with autonomy. The HRD ministry must have the self-confidence to appoint strong boards and then hold them accountable for making institutions deliver.

Here are some recommendations the ministry could consider. One, please do away with the act and have a strong set of guidelines for boards that will make them accountable to the HRD ministry and leave them to do their work. Two, if an act must exist, redraft it to align it with our PM’s vision of “minimum government, maximum governance” and “Make in India”. Three, a category of navaratna institutes that fulfil a set of criteria could be created and they could be given even more autonomy than today, which would help them flourish and make them India’s flag-bearers in the world. Four, the current minister could stop working social media and work the ministry instead.

The writer is an alumna and former governing board member of IIM-Ahmedabad.