An Encore from Dr Manmohan Singh

Business Standard, Mumbai - April 17, 2010


If that was Act-I, now it's time for Act-II, i.e. to do the same in the sphere of education and develop a vibrant education ecosystem in India. As in the case of business, this has to evolve organically and democratically, and cannot be something the government dictates or even lays down the paradigms for. It will, no doubt, take another 20 years of tapasya of a whole lot of people, in quite the same manner that it took for the model for business to evolve; but in the end, it will be well worth it, and it will be sustainable.

There are no short cuts to this and we have to spend time discussing the problem, rather than jumping to implement quick-fix solutions. The most important thing, however, is to recognise that the genesis of our new and modern business ecosystem was liberalisation. Liberalisation actually meant two things - allowing the best businesses of the world to easily enter the country and also liberating many of the local businesses so that they could unleash their own energy and do their own thing. It also meant the slowing down, from a flood to a trickle, of directives from the government on all things, big and small - how to price, what your brand name should be, how much your capacity should expand and so on.

The government today continues to do a variation of the license raj behaviour with the IITs and the IIMs, and is losing out on a big opportunity to take them to the next level. People often ask why anybody should really care about what happens to the IIMs and the IITs - aren't they a blip in the vast ocean of education? Yes, they are pretty insignificant in terms of size, but not in terms of what they symbolise - they remind us that in higher education in India we did build institutions that never compromised on meritocracy and intellectual integrity; institutions that achieved world recognition and respect through the students they educated, who became faculty and directors in other educational institutions; that contributed to issues on the national agenda through the participation of their faculty - on PSU boards or government expert committees. The IITs and the IIMs are the Infosys and Wipros of the education world. They send out an aspirational message of "yes we can" to several other institutions and are very visible role models. If we want the newer IITs and IIMs to flourish, we must let the older ones flourish and evolve, maybe morph, into institutions different from what they have been all these years. This will inspire the new institutions more than any handholding and mentoring can do.

The objective that the government should be working towards is: How to enable the development of a vibrant and modern knowledge-creation and dissemination ecosystem, that is driven by people within it, and that creates its own models and builds itself better and better. Instead, the government seems to be working towards the objective of building a more command-and-control, standardised, Ikea-style model. Moreover, the IIMs and the IITs are important because they represent a model of education entrepreneurship. Education entrepreneurs are not the new-age business entrepreneurs who believe that educational institutions are money spinners that should be run along the same lines as business. Educational entrepreneurs are professors with a passion for what they do and an understanding of peer-based governance processes ,and they know how to build institutions and strategise institutions. All is not well with these institutions today. But the way the government can help get them fixed and evolved to the next level is not by saying, "nothing else changes but let's talk about how you can modernise your pedagogy and curriculum and let's clear your business plans and strategy." The government can help them by giving up "management supervision", removing operational controls, letting salaries and evaluation be internally-determined, and thus enabling these institutions to hire a critical mass of young professors who will create a passion-driven revolution from within. Liberate them and give them wise and mature boards, and discuss performance contracts - what is the ultimate value we want you to deliver, and how do we plan to judge it. Standardisation is not the way to go.

My friends in the corporate world say that if one wants something badly enough, one must not be open in the criticism of the government. But if we are the democracy that we are so proud of, what's wrong with public debate? The solution is to do with education what we did with business. Dr Manmohan Singh, we need your wisdom and sagacity and courage for our (and your) Act-II.