ToI has an editorial about India's higher education system, demanding that it be unshackled. While I am in agreement with most of the things it says (allowing many different kinds of universities -- public, private and foreign, letting them function in an autonomous fashion), I found it irritating that it chose to highlight the government's recent decision shooting down IIM-B's wish for a satellite centre in Singapore. I will try to argue against IIM-B's original choice without extending any support to the government's meddling in the affairs of a supposedly autonomous institution.
Well, in the last sentence, 'supposedly' is the keyword. The experience of IIMs over the last five years or so has clearly shown that their autonomy is a mirage, an illusion. This will always be so, for the simple reason that the government 'owns' them! Not just the IIMs: the government owns pretty much every university in the country. There is a strong government representation on their governing councils, and the government cannot sit idly by when they do something that is perceived to be inimical to the public interest. [It's an entirely different matter that what was 'inimical' to M.M. Joshi is not so to Arjun Singh!]
When you (or, an institution) are 'owned' by an individual, you do his or her bidding -- or, you walk. But you do have some (but only some!) leverage when you are owned by the government, as the IIMs are. You can get the public opinion (at least, that of prominent people such as Narayana Murthy) behind you, and you can use other tricks in the book of persuasion. If things work your way, you will have raised a stink powerful enough to make the government back off. But you also realize that all your efforts will be of no use when your owner is represented by a cussed fellow with Joshi as his last name and two M's as his initials.
Under these circumstances, all public institutions that have a sheet of paper with 'autonomy' written on it keep testing the limits of this autonomy. In fact, they have an obligation to test the limits. While doing it, however, their case must be seen as being aligned with a larger public interest (which the government of the day may not agree with, nor, even see). It is this compelling public interest that I fail to see in IIM-Bangalore's proposal for a satellite in Singapore.
By any yardstick, it is impossible to make an argument that our country is so full of high quality management institutions that the only way a place like IIM-B can grow is by going abroad. In fact, the reverse argument is far easier to make: since we still have such a huge task of training so many people in management and allied areas, public institutions such as IIMs could expand their operations in India, and they will still be doing great business 25 years from now!
While at it, I might as well propose something as impractical as demanding 'complete autonomy' for institutions like the IITs and IIMs: let the government allow IIMs (and other such institutions that are confident of surviving by themselves) to go completely private. They have the brand equity and clout to pull it off. [During the dotcom boom, there was indeed a proposal from some IIT alumni to take the IITs private]. They will then be truly unshackled!
The benefit for IIMs (and other such institutions) is that they can then pursue their interests without having to worry about those of the others (and those of the government in particular). In other words, they can become free to do what S.P.Jain's of the world can -- set up a satellite centre not just in Singapore, but also in Dubai; and perhaps in Durban and Dublin as well!
The benefit for the government is that with the money thus saved (about 100 to 250 million rupees per IIM per year), it can set up more IIMs. In other words, the government can recapture its 'rightful role' (!) as a venture capitalist in the area of starting great institutions of higher learning!