Monday, August 27, 2007

More IITs, IIMs: how, why, when

On the 60th anniversary of India’s independence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced spelt out his vision for eradicating poverty. This vision rests on ‘a revolution in the field of modern education in the next few years’. And it encompasses:

6,000 new “high quality” schools
370 colleges in districts with low enrollment rates
30 new Central universities
5 Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research
20 Indian Institutes of International Technology
And the icing on the cake…
7 new IIMs, 8 IITs

But let’s forget the specifics of the announcement and look deeper into the spirit behind it. The connection between getting an education and getting out of poverty is finally clear. Not just to the classes, but the masses.

The mai baap sarkar can finally move away from the promise of the occasional fish, to say, “We’ll teach you how to fish instead.” The aam aadmi recognizes there’s an ocean of Opportunity out there . And that an education is the modern fishing boat with which the next generation will chart New Economy waters.

So far, so good. But when and how will this vision translate into reality? Last heard the government was agreed on putting all its eggs in the primary education basket, Most notably, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Why then is there talk of more IITs and IIMs?

The kindest explanation is that the vision is a far sighted one. When you send more and more kids to school, there will be increased demand for good colleges. And so, the government steps in and expands capacity.

The more cynical explanation is that IITs and IIMs are like the Taj Mahal. While the monument of love is one of the seven wonders of the world, the IITs and IIMs are one of the few wonders of modern India.

These institutes stand for excellence. For ‘merit’. For fairness and incorruptability. The IITs and IIMs are symbolic of the Great Indian Dream. Dimaag ki taakat aur mehnat se har koi is mukaam par pahunch sakta hai. Money or power have no role to play.

Of course, this belief is not strictly true. Access to good coaching (esp for IITs) and fluency in English (esp for IIMs) make a helluva lot of difference. But there is enough popular folklore of poor but brilliant and hard working young men and women who made it to these institutes to give the common man a feeling, “Perhaps I could too.”

The value of a lofty goal in firing the imagination - is never to be underestimated.

Nitty gritties
But how will the government itself get these projects off the ground? To frame it like the typical CAT question:

If 6 IIMs : 60 years
Then 7 IIMs : ? years

Let’s take a look at the case of IIM Shillong for the answer. The proposal to set up an IIM in the Northeast (either Guwahati or Shillong) goes back to the year 2004. The actual IIM – in Shillong – is to come up in the year 2008.

However, things might be changing. The Planning Commission is to meet on August 28 to discuss several important education related issues. The Plan panel proposes to increase public spending on education to around 5 per cent of GDP from the present level of 3.79 per cent. The panel is also expected to take a decision on funding of the newly proposed IIMs, IITs.

One of the proposals put forth is to set up 4 of the proposed 7 new IIMs in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode.

The term ‘public-private partnerships’ in brings to mind infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports and such like. The cost of the project and onus of development is shared between the government and the private party. And the private party, in return, gets a share of the spoils.

I am, however, unclear how such an arrangement would work when it comes to education. Apart from the philanthropic angle (“let’s give back to the community’) and prestige value, how would the ‘returns’ kick in?

And would private involvement necessarily make the IIMs more ‘autonomous’?

Vested interests
"The IIMs should be granted autonomy and they should not depend on the government for funds," said Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of Bajaj group and a member of Parliament in a recent interview.

"Till these IIMs depend on the government for funds, the government will
have the right to take decisions for them," he added.

Mr Bajaj’s statement implies that non-governmental funds will be completely free of vested interest. But nothing could be farther from the truth! The American university system, funded by wealthy donors and alumni, for example, is actually bhai bhatijawaad and paisa power at its worst.

The stench of money and influence has long been concealed by the heady fragrance of ‘High Up There’ college brand name. But a recent book by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Stret Journal reporter Daniel Golden painstakingly unmasks it all.

‘The Price of Admission’
chronicles how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges. And ‘who gets left outside the gates’. Now I was dimly aware that universities Harvard let in a few rich kids whose great grandfathers may have donated a building or two to the college. But the book tells you just how many such rich kids make their way in – and how. And the numbers are shocking, to say the least.

The book offers insights on:
- “How the ‘Z list’ make the ‘A list’” (or how losers like Albert Gore jr make it to Harvard.)

- “Recruiting the Rich” – how Duke university built its corpus by admitting kids of wealthy parents who pledged to donate substantial monies to the college. These applicants are actually referred to as “development cases”.

- “A break for faculty brats” – Free and easy entry for children of professors

- “Rise of the Upperclass Athelete”- by offering ‘scholarships’ for sports like fencing, rowing and polo, colleges create an easy entry route for elite, white, private school applicants.

And oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest scam so to speak is ‘legacy enrollment’. Or preference given to sons and daughters of alumni. To quote an example, “Harvard, America’s oldest university, admitted 63% of its applicants in 1952. Half a century later, it admitted just 11% of applicants overall – but 40% of legacy candidates”.

And these kids are certainly displacing very bright but non-connected candidates. Most legacies have lower SAT scores and less impressive high school records. A few are downright embarassments.

The Ivy League boasts a lofty ‘need blind’ admission process. But the process ensures that only 3 to 11% of students in these most selective colleges come from the lowest income quartile in the first place.

Golden notes: “Legacy preference provides affluent families with a form of insurance from one generation to the next, which might in turn lead to a decline in wealth and power. Just as English peers hold hereditary seats in the House of Lords, so the American nobility reserves slots at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other august universities.”

Over the years the alumni donation-offspring admission nexus has become firmly established. Alumni contributed $ 7.5 billion to higher education in 2005, representing 27.7% of all private donations to colleges. No college dares rock the boat!

Clearly corporates, alumni and wealthy donors take a generous share of cookies from the cookie jar. In much the same way as our government has been demanding more and more ‘quotas’.

It could happen here
In India, we’ve historically had two distinct breeds of colleges: the Merit based and the Donation based. Government established colleges like IITs, IIMs, NID, NIFTs, IHMs lead the ‘merit’ brigade. The premier government run engineering and medical colleges also fall in this category.

However, of this lot I think only the IITs and IIMs (and perhaps NID) can boast of never admitting a politician’s son or daughter under duress.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are private institutions where, officially, there is a management quota. Under this quota, most institutes will admit just about anyone who can pay enough money. The smart ones – like a Harvard or Yale - strike a balance between merit entry and money entry. But the short sighted and the greedy go all out for the moolah.

Such colleges fail to attract top notch students and while they may be profitable businesses, their sphere of influence remains stunted.

The bottomline is: Education brands require investment and long term vision. Promoters must build facilities, foundations, faculty and freedoms that result in individual advancement as well as a greater common good.

In the context of India, that good lies in IITs and IIMs remaining islands of ‘merit’. Untouched by quotas – whether government, or ‘management’. We need these ‘Taj Mahals’, to keep our faith in an otherwise fallible system. To keep alive the dream of Ultimate Upward Mobility – for all.

Sons and daughters of IIM grads, IIM profs, mediamen, moguls and mantris – there’s always Harvard and Yale if your kid can’t clear the CAT.


  1. Keeping IITs and IIMs as "Islands of Merit" does not mean that we should not have more of them. When these institutes started, possible a 95 percentile person would get admission but that number has gone up to 99.5 percentile now. Based on that logic alone, we should plan to open atleast 20 more IITs / IIMs. The debate fore reservations should however be separate from the reason for opening more of these institutes.
    I think some big steps are definitely required in streamlining higher education in India. Converting RECs to NITs was one such welcome step but too bad that it was only one off.
    We need more such places and at a much faster place.
    Even if the new ones are not as good as the old ones, they surely will be better than a ton others!!!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think a lot changes with changing people.
    There is always of a possibility that some private institution might start a certain educational institution today with best of its intentions and then there will be a set of new people in place 10 years from now with no similar intentions and then personal priorities start overriding because there never has been any personal effort in nurturing that institution.

    I think setting up more IITs and IIMs id definitely ambitious, important is how well the execution is.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Whenever a PM promise "NEW NEW" programs on a issue ,skeptic in me start questioning the logic behind them.PM office spent too much time in desiging and defineing new new program instead of reporting progessof programs already running or need fund for execution.I guess they beleive that "NEw NEW" things add weight to every PM's and majority party portfolio.

    We need 1000 IIMS and IITs.No question about that but how do we wil we have so many IIT/IITMS?. How they ensure they will able to replicate the exsiting model? How will government ensure same quality? From Where they get faculty for new institues?

    Even existing "TAJMAHALs" dont have enough keepers.You read too often Directors compaining about lack of faculties and high faculty/student ratio.

    PPP model is way to go as far funding of higher education goes.I doubt higer education is point of discussion for governmentright now.They seems to be too narrowly focused on primary education.PPP comes with dilution of quality and fall of merit to some extent.But I guess better to have elite exploited "Harvard" then graduation shops we have in India.Qaulity education need research,research need money.Somebody have to pay for that and I doubt Goventment capalibities for provinding qaulity education to a 100 billion population at all levels.PPP is bad but it works. It works far bteer then what we have today.

    Reservation in education can do more harm to out sytem then elitist invisble hands in PPP model.Coming generations will blame us if we failed to reverse this process.

  6. I quote you from the post:
    "Clearly corporates, alumni and wealthy donors take a generous share of cookies from the cookie jar. In much the same way as our government has been demanding more and more ‘quotas’."

    You seem to be mistaken in the analogy which you have drawn between the nepotism in ivy league institutes in US and the reservations which the government is trying to put in place. The beneficiaries of bhai bhatijawaad in US universities are the uppermost strata of the society whereas reservations in india are targeted for the most backward of the classes who have not had enough opportunities even after reservations being in place for so many decades now.

  7. Rashmi,

    A few pointers for you.

    1. Arjun Singh has not had a good experience taking on the might of IITs/IIMs in the past when he tried to wrest control.

    2. The HRD figured, the power wielded by these institutions, are because of 2 reasons.

    2a. The first reason is the alumni have done tremendously well.

    2b. The second reason is that these institutions are far too exclusive, and therefore valuable.

    3. To ensure, that bhai bhatijawaad for our beloved congress sycophants, the government is clear that it needs control of these institutions. The aim is not systematically destroy them, but lets suppose that the aim was in fact to destroy these institutions. They then adopted a two pronged approach to deal with the strengths.

    3a. The HRD has passed a resolution BANNING ALL FOREIGN PLACEMENTS AND ALL FINANCIAL SERVICES jobs from IIT. IIT Guwahati has been the first to comply, and recruiters like Lehman, Goldman have had to return without even being able to make a ppt to the final year students. IIT KGP is following suit.

    3b. To counter the exclusivity power, the HRD has decided to erode the brand name and set up 1000s of qualtiy not controlled lesser clones.

    Finally, this fits with the overall education agenda. Voila!!

  8. Rashmi

    I would like to point you to the case of BITS Pilani, which inspite of being a private run institution - has never had any 'politician/aristocrat backdoors'- much to the extent that KK Birla earned the wrath of Madame Gandhi for saying 'NO' to one of her 'referals' in 1970s.

    A lot depends on the principals an institution is built with...whether its an educational one or a corporate like your JAM or a TATA...there are good and bad ways of doing all things.

  9. What is the use of creating new IITs and IIMs , instead they should use the same money in improving the existing institutes and converting them to IIT/IIM standards. This will save lots of money and time also. But finally our politicians...we know what they all are.

  10. there might be a quota at HBS for the kids of influential politicians/industrialists. But i doubt whether there is a so-called money based entry in such schools. That way, every random rich dude could find a place at HBS.

  11. Admitting wealthy legacy students is a brilliant idea. While Harvard may have admitted 40% of legacies that applied, I am sure they would not have been more than 10% of the students Harvard admitted. This in turn led to far more money for Harvard, which led to a MUCH better educational experience for the 90% that were admitted on merit.

    I think it is worth the trade-off to let a few less deserving students in so that those students have a better college education. Besides, everyone in the world and their grandmother wants to be from Harvard, so obviously they are doing something right...

  12. PP,
    IITs are paid for by MY taxes. It is quite right that the graduates stay to serve my India, NOT go abroad. Asking professionals to stay in India will only enable the Indian economy to grow. Just ask the CII who constantly moan about talent shortages.

  13. wonderful....esp. the last line. I loved it.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Rashmi, is running a similar report, I wonder if they've snitched your articles...

    What surprises me is the timing of these pieces, they came up almost a week into your new iit/iim expansion episode.

    In my eyes, on a macro-level I could associate you with two words, "Nation-Building".

  16. A lot has been said about creating more IITs and IIMs.
    But what are these IITs and IIMs???
    just bricks and mortars??.... what is required for these institutes is good faculty... and in the present scenario when these IITs and IIMs are struggling with lack of quality faculty members.... thinking and creating of new IIMs and IITs would be a sin. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of both IIT and IIM as student.. but reality is far from what people have written about IITs and IIMs in this blog.

    when you talk abt many more IITs and IIMs.... what u want is the mass production of intellectuals which is simply so absurd.
    Let us remember that these Institutes are meant for professional education for people capable of it. Education at IIT and IIM are not the regular university type education which can be commoditised, because the day it is commoditised it would lose its value and postion.
    An attempt of Mass production of IITs and IIMs would mean more products with IIT and IIM lable without any concern of quality.
    There so many colleges in india with classrooms, and teachers and students in it, labeling them all as IIT and IIM will create the desired number of IITs and IIMs on paper. But we all know this would be cheating.... and we all know why this would be cheating. Let us all agree that we donot have the processing capability to produce more IIT and IIM at present.

  17. Rashmi - Very nice analysis and argument...

    Creating new IITs and IIMs also has a very strong political tone to it I am sure. Focusing on the regions where there are strong vote banks sure help. Even an announcement that a new IIT or an IIM is going to come, with some shoddy ground work done to prove it, is good enough to spread the message.

    As regards the quota by money system - The only factor that these institutes (say an IIMK or IIMI or IIT Guw etc.) have risen up the rankings despite absence of strong alumni (cause they are of course new!) and infra / money / faculty etc. which are on par if not marginally better than the top and middle tier of colleges (maybe an SP Jain / FMS / BITS / NIT etc.) is because of the unifying factor of admissions (the CAT and the JEE respectively) God forbid that the 10% quota system starts akin to Harvard. It sure will be a downhill trend for these institutes too.

    The reason possibly why that 10% quota or whatever worked there is maybe that the other 90% studs went on to pursue research in their chosen fields in the same colleges and built up all these colleges as very strong research centers. This reputation built over many years (maybe due to a lack of other colleges in US / other countries to do that research) has established these American colleges as the de-facto standard to do an MS or a PhD. Even if you pump in that amount of money into an IIT or an IIM, it is going to be so difficult to stop the cream of the talent to hunt behind the super GRE score and admission to an MIT or a Berkeley cause thats what the "in-thing" has been for many years...

  18. I'm not sure what is stopping Bajaj from creating a BIM. He definitly has the financial resources and could easily muster up the intellectual resources as well. As one commenter pointed out, BITS Pilani is an example of a successful non-government sponsored educational institute. Why hijack an establishment when you can create your own, Mr Bajaj?

  19. I completely agree with Yogsma's point. It is better to convert one of the existing institutions to the level of IIT/IIM than build one from scratch.

    Recently, there was an article on DNA about a petition from Deepak Parekh and Anand Mahindra to convert Mumbai based NITIE into an IIM.

    I feel the government should adopt this path to build newer IITs/IIMs as at the end of the day, it will help set up institution faster without any paucity of faculty and infrastructure.

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