Cautious optimism over `freedom' to IIMs

The recent press conference by the HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar about the IIM Bill, 2017 that the cabinet has just approved was truly astonishing. Not only was it a volte face from what his predecessors had said, cutting across party lines, but also because of the never-heard-before language he used. “We want to free the institutes of excellence from government’s control and micro management. This is a tribute to faculty and students who have built these institutions”. He also used the words “full autonomy” which we have never ever heard from any quarter of MHRD ever before.

 
This minister asked openly why directors of institutes should spend their time cooling their heels in front of a joint secretary in the ministry. More shell shocking was the statement “Government also needs to learn ‘fund and don’t control’. It is not the correct policy”. He said excellence should deserve autonomy and other than CAG audits and annual reports in parliament there will be no more supervision from the governments and boards of IIMs would manage the institutions which are now to be recognised as “institutions of national excellence”.
 
The mood in the larger IIM community is to welcome this with cautious optimism and a “let’s wait till we see the actual bill”. Why such scepticism to this landmark bill which will hopefully result in a landslide of autonomy for all educational institutions? Many times bitten, eternally shy, would be a good reason. The immediately previous version of the bill drafted in Smriti Irani’s time said that boards could take decisions “subject to central government approval”. Kapil Sibal, before her, said that his hands were tied on granting autonomy since he was responsible to parliament and they considered IIMs to be elitist (despite the 50% reservations for SC/ SF / OBC). He also decided what size IIM boards should be and in the process of downsizing to comply, IIM A at least blundered and removed a whole constituency on the board representing “society at large”, men and women drawn from business and industry.
 
His predecessor Arjun Singh granted chairmanships at whim without concern for suitability, and Murli Manohar Joshi before him wanted a cap on fees and even assurances of a need blind admission process and scholarships for all deserving students did not cut any ice with him.
 
The fact is that IIM-A (which is the one I know well) has not taken any grants for operating expenditure for well over 10 years now and funded most of its own capex for almost a decade except for the expansion of capacity that the additional reservation for OBC seats required (as per the government diktat, the total capacity was to be increased such that the number of seats in the general category must remain unchanged pre and post reservation being implemented).
 
However the oft expressed faculty view is that if financial self sufficiency does not guarantee government non interference in the functioning of the institutions then why bother, may as well take grants. So understandably, the paradigm shift from Joshi-Sibal-Irani to Javdekar, from “ Jiska lathi uska bhains” to “we will fund, sans controls, sans our micro management” is mind boggling.
 
We have always hoped for a ‘1991’ moment that liberalizes and liberates education, especially for the older IITs and IIMs which have demonstrated a sound system of faculty governance and delivered high quality teaching and social contribution . The moment appears to be here now. But we need to see the details. Key concerns are how the chairman and director are selected and what role the boards play in it. Also of concern is the bogey raised by MHRD earlier that it would set up a ‘super board’ for all the IIMs which it would populate through a process not discussed yet, which would take a set of decisions on behalf of all IIMs, bonsai-ing the existing IIM boards more formally than ever before.
 
There was talk of forcing commonality across all IIMs, old and new, reducing them all to a common denominator, pursuing a common strategy, sharing a common faculty pool. This is of course patently stupid. Freeing institutes to choose their own paths will yield much more diversity and make the whole richer, some may pursue research aggressively some may choose to be the best teaching grooming place for future leaders, some may choose to tilt more towards public policy and public administration, others may choose classical ‘business school’ agendas; some may choose to be specialised manufacturing schools others may choose to pursue excellence in finance and banking, yet others may choose a special program for social entrepreneurships or urban planning and smart city management and we won’t ever need to hear the secretary MHRD say based on impressions not data. “Oh all your students go to banking and finance that’s awful”.
 
Lets assume that this bill is indeed a ‘1991’ moment for the IIMs, and gives them everything that Mi Jardekar promises that would have made his predecessors go into shell shock leading to cardiac arrest. Are the IIMs ready and what needs to be done to seize the ball and run with it?
 
One fear is that they will behave like the baby elephant which was shackled and birth and after reaching adulthood when the shackles are removed, they still don’t move their legs because they are not used to it any more. The other and bigger fear is that their boards may not be capable of guiding them through this transition. IIM boards typically comprise a majority of corporate sector or business people. They are notorious for their lack of spine and their understanding of the difference between how institutions of education function differently from companies.
 
They don’t ‘get’ the idea of academic freedom and room to innovate. Or the idea of how institutions grow or how the director unlike the CEO, cannot (and should not) be directive and prescriptive; that she should be a shaper through influence and persuasion rather through clout of hierarchy. Boards will have to play a very critical role in managing the transition to a board and not government controlled institution. They need to learn how to make a performance contract with the institution each year and what action to take if not adhered to. With autonomy comes accountability. Javadekar has said he would only have CAG audit and a report placed in parliament annually. Boards will of course need to ask for much more.
 
 
What will that be? Do IIM boards today have the requisite knowledge wisdom and EQ to be able to get the faculty and the ‘management’ to do more than be polytechnics churning out the same “me too” MBAs? How will they foster the innovation and knowledge building that IIMs must now do – the reasons  Javadekar gave for their liberation! Corporate India which typically populates IIM boards is notorious for its lack of understanding of how to create and foster diversity at the highest level.
 
Academic institutions need the oxygen of diversity of thought – not people who look different but think in that same blinkered way but people who genuinely think differently.

Are boards ready to give autonomy, true autonomy, to institutions? Will any of the chairperson lead the way with a radical re-cast of board composition and governance practices as well as encourage bold moves from a hitherto shackled elephants? We hope the bill walks its minister’s talk and we hope boards of IIMs acquire the humility to learn to rise to the change and building true institutions.

(The writer is an alumna, a visiting faculty, and a former board member of IIM-Ahmedabad)

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