In February this year, I was invited to join a panel discussion at the Conference of Vice-Chancellors held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. To give credit where due, it was a well-organized and well-intentioned event. Nearly a hundred VCs of top central universities across India attended the conference.
Attendees, divided into several sub-groups, discussed the burning issues facing the education sector. Although the format of the meet was a tad too formal and colonial in protocol, the ideas were all current and relevant. The need to integrate industry-research-academia, using technology, driving innovation, stress on entrepreneurship, tapping alumni base, inter-university collaboration, network connectivity — all these wonderful thoughts were discussed. Hence, the theory that our education institutional heads are outdated or don’t know what’s going on in the world isn’t correct.
And yet, few would disagree that there is plenty that needs to be done in the education sector.
If everyone in the country agrees on the wonderful ideas discussed in the conference, why doesn’t it happen? Why isn’t there more industry-university interaction for instance? Why do we lack in cutting-edge research? Why don’t we have more A-grade institutions? Why are the education brands created in the ’60s and ’70s — the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, some Delhi University colleges and a couple of other places — the only well-reputed institutions we have until date? Why haven’t we created a new brand in education, at par with IITs and IIMs, in the ’80s, ’90s or the new millennium?
For the IITs and IIMs, the control-autonomy balance seems to have worked better than others. As a result, they could adapt better, attract top talent and maintain a higher standard of excellence over time. Little wonder their brand value exceeds other institutes.
Of course, even IIMs are not immune. The new IIM bill of 2015, purportedly designed to make them statutory institutions, so they can issue degrees instead of diplomas (a technicality for all practical purposes), is actually going to dramatically reduce the delicate autonomy balance that has helped the IIMs thrive.
To its credit, the government did place the draft bill for public consultation (on mygov.in). However, the proposed version is worded in a way that government approval will be required for almost all operational things that matter — recruitment, enrolment, compensation and research. Needless to say, it will dramatically reduce the autonomy of the IIMs and tilt the balance in favour of government control. IIMs, as we know them, will be changed forever.
Note the important distinction between full autonomy and the autonomy balance. A government-funded institution cannot be without any government control. Monitoring its performance or deciding funding through an annual review should be well within the government’s purview. The problem occurs when it keeps the right to meddle at the operational level, interfering in day-to-day running of the institution. Air India and ITDC hotels are visible examples of what happens when the government does that.
When you are competing to be world-class, government interference on a daily basis can be devastating. It’s important to understand that great educational institutions become great because of the people there — the faculty and the students. Otherwise, a college is just buildings and furniture. To be the best, you need a vital ingredient whose value is often ignored in India — top talent. Top talent, rare by definition, has the power to innovate, execute and change a field. Top talent, which could come from anywhere, can transform a nation. The sad part is we neither recognize it nor know how to manage it.
If you want world-class faculty to run an IIM, but have babus behind their back, who in turn have netas behind theirs, why would top talent want to join that place? The salaries are already low (government institution levels). Now, we also want them to listen to whimsical orders from netas who care more about pleasing their constituencies than the world rankings of an institute. By definition, politics is inclusive. Excellence demands some exclusivity. If politicians run an institution of excellence on a daily basis, there would be constant clashes that will only harm the institute. Why do it? Why mess up something good? Why not, in fact, liberate the other universities? Release those VCs with great ideas but tied hands. Give them enough autonomy to create their own university brands. Monitor them, have checks and balances, but don’t run the place.
The IIMs are not without flaws. They should be monitored and improved. However, killing the autonomy balance that has worked well for them would be counter-productive. Instead, we should replicate the model across other universities and make many more brands like the IIMs.
It would be a shame if we didn’t know how to manage an institution that teaches, well, management.