Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How should IITs and IIMs be governed?

That's the title of the Perspectives section of today's Economic Times, with contributions from V. Ranganathan (IIM-B), T.V. Mohandas Pai (Infosys) and Pankaj Jalote (IIT-D).

Of the three perspectives, Jalote's is by far the only balanced take on the issue; after discussing a particular model of autonomy that's worth working towards, he concludes on a realistic note:

It is, however, not clear whether the government is willing to give this form of autonomy and, perhaps more importantly, whether these institutes are willing to accept the responsibility that must go with autonomy.

The perspectives from the other two gentlemen, on the other hand, are absolute trash. Take, Ranganathan's for example. After offering a whole bunch of excuses for why the IIMs have not had a stellar research record, he has the audacity to propose the following as a 'solution':

The government can solve this problem by pouring money on the IIMs but keeping their hands off after that! Reputation building takes statesmanship, long-term vision and a Warren Buffetian aloofness.

Perhaps someone should remind him that this is pretty much what the government has done so far.

For his part, Mohandas Pai inserts this boilerplate:

...[P]rivate educational institutions are discouraged from being established because of our perverse belief that education belongs in the public sector.

This is inane, unthinking bullshit. When you look around, you find tons of private colleges, deemed universities, and management institutions. [Even at primary and secondary levels, there are tons of private schools, and their number and the number of children studying in them are increasing.] We are at a stage where most of our engineers and MBAs are from private institutions. Our problem is the poor quality of education in these institutions (and in some of our public ones too). Our problem is our regulatory authorities' poor record of regulating them. Our problem is the shady ethics and corruption in the private colleges -- taking bribes from students, paying a pittance to their teachers, and doing nothing about the poor infrastructure. And our problem is also an inability to dissuade ex-politicians, their ex-thugs and other such shady elements from starting educational institutions.

But our problem is certainly not "our perverse belief that education belongs in the public sector."

As can be expected, the rest of Pai's 'perspective' is filled with more such inanities about financial autonomy in IITs, faculty salaries, etc.

Sigh. Yet another wasted opportunity.


  1. Anonymous said...

    '.... Warren Buffetian aloofness ...' - the excerpt from Ranganathan's article really exposes his ignorance about Warren Buffet's style of managing his investments. Any number of articles and books about Warren Buffet will tell you that Buffet was actively involved in the management of the companies in which he had substantial stake. In fact the extraordinary returns on his investments were the result of such active involvment in his investments. All one should do is read the his speeches to the shareholders of Hathaway Berkshire - all available as PDFs in the net ... Though I am an IIM Alumni - such egregious statements made by faculty confirms my belief about Management being all about Manipulation.... I agree with Abi's assessment ...

  2. Rahul said...

    I increasingly think that the problem is the way we think about education, especially in the sciences. It continues to be useless rote-learning.

    I was talking to a student who has purportedly studied computer languages like C, Perl, Java; apparently they have "theory" and "practical" classes (what on earth is "theory of perl"? I can understand "theory of programming" but that's clearly not what they teach.) And the exams consist of written questions like "what is a for-loop?" As a result they are quite incapable of writing a working program in the languages they have "learned".

    The same thing applies everywhere, and these are government-run institutions/universities I am talking about. Why are private universities/colleges no better? (I won't say they are worse -- only a handful of public institutions are better than the private ones.) I think it's a lack of supply on the teaching and syllabus-forming side. We simply lack enough qualified and talented people to recruit as teachers -- even places like IISc have trouble recruiting faculty. IISc, TIFR et al get first choice, other public institutions/universities get second choice, the private guys -- who have no existing reputation -- get the dregs. And because they get the dregs, they can't build up a reputation either.

    It need not be like that, I'm sure a committed private institution can find a way to build itself up. For example, I know at least 3-4 very talented young people who have joined BITS-Goa as faculty recently. So it is quite possible that they will have a very strong programme in a few years.

  3. juno_nyc said...

    "When you look around, you find tons of private colleges, deemed universities, and management institutions."

    I think you are missing the primary thrust of Mohandas Pai's remarks - there are two broad categories within higher education:
    a) One that is largely focused on fulfilling vocational needs - most undergrad engineering education (as opposed to engg R&D), most undergrad-level medical education, architecture, ITI training, etc. are variants of this since the personal returns to investment exceed the societal positive externalities

    b) the second is research-oriented - the kind of stuff that is done at the Max Planck Institutes or CERN in Europe or at Rockefeller Univ in New York, where it is hard/impossible for an individual or even an organization to "make a return-on-investment" but which has tremendous positive externalities for society at large, thus making it a desirable candidate for government funding

    There are many US universities that excel in both (MIT, Caltech, etc.), but the point is that there is no need to expect institutes set up with the objective of efficiently and optimally delivering a) to also deliver b) or to proscribe private parties from delivering a) under a "for-profit" governance model/entity. There are positive rub-offs to also delivering b) along with a), especially in areas like management education and medicine, etc. where real-world input and a practitioner's viewpoint further theory more so than in astrophysics or in pure mathematics.

    As things stand in India today, since government rules do not allow a) to be provided in a transparent, legal manner by corporate entities (e.g., NIIT is not allowed to set up a university), shady politicians and thugs are the only ones providing it outside the "government sector". No wonder they view it a license to extort bribes, launder money and evade taxes. If I wanted to set up a private universtiy to exclusively deliver a) with the objective of making an honet living ad a return on my investment, I would have to satisfy the mind-numbing bureaucratic requirements of AICTE and UGC, be subject to limits on who I can admit, what I can charge and what I can teach!

    So, our problem is indeed that type a) education needs to be only delivered by "not-for-profit" organizations! If these restrictions were replaced by a set of basic minimum requirements and extensive transparency focused on inputs and outcomes (e.g., placement track record, financials, permanent faculty credentials and research output, independent rating of facilities available), we would have a system that efficiently delivered a). The government and industry could then focus their attention on how to incent a small subset of these institutes to also deliver b) using research grants

    [I have deliberately ignored the liberal arts above (everything from anthropology to archaeology, economics to literature), since most of your discussion centers around private medical, engg and MBA colleges]