'The IIMs and us', in Malayalam, by invitation, The Mathrubhumi Weekly, 4 April 2004.

It seems that Professor Murli Manohar Joshi, is set to reform the Indian Institutes of Management of which as the Education Minister he is the custodian. This in itself is unexceptionable. Indeed if he is insisting on a social audit of the IIMs, it is to be welcomed as a norm for all public institutions. I understand that he has flagged two aspects: that the IIMs charge high fees and that the IIMs are elitist.  

The argument to reduce fees has been motivated variously. Two that have been making the rounds are that the IIMs are making money out of their courses and secondly that a lowering of the fees is a move towards greater equity. No doubt the heads of the IIMs have answered quite effectively the former charge and I would have little to add, but try this statistic nevertheless. The diploma from an IIM comes for the rupee equivalent of about six thousand dollars while an MBA from a leading US university comes for approximately one hundred thousand. The argument that fees must bear relation to the lower per capita income in India is altogether spurious. The average salary of an IIM graduate is two and a half times the expenditure on the course, while it would be only a top-flight graduate who would take home even one hundred thousand dollars as exits an American business school. This detail alone is germane from the point of view of the ability to pay. That most of the students of the IIMs are from families with incomes far higher than the national per capita income is irrelevant from the point of view of justice which must be impervious to the accident of birth. There is of course the pure issue of financing an education, but suddenly banks have found IIM students a hugely bankable project. Thus an argument to lower fees at the IIMs cannot be based on the ability to pay. What about equity then? Equity as a concept explores relative positions within a population. Now armed with information on life-time earnings of IIM graduates we can see how a policy of lowering fees can actually generate inequality within the society. As moneys are fungible, the move re-distributes income to the better-off who would now pay less for an education that brings them earnings far greater than the per capita income of the country. This is just another example of a wider malaise in the country that while all subsidies are universal, in principle not everyone can avail of them. 

The strangest argument attributed to the honourable minister, however, is that the IIMs are elitist. There should be wide agreement that elitism is an intellectual attitude. When applied to education it would entail encouraging the cultivation of an aloofness from this world. Now whatever may be the criticism of the IIMs, such a philosophy may hardly be attributed to them. In fact, of late they appear to have turned themselves into mere employment exchanges acting as honest brokers between eager students and worldly corporations. What makes this stance particularly free of elitism is not that the IIMs facilitate mutually advantageous trade - such a worldly practice - but that in so diligently ensuring the placement of their wards at the highest salaries on offerthe IIMs are only carrying out what is expected of them by anxious parents, thus furthering the cause of the mainstream of Indian society. Having re-invented themselves as conduits to the market, the IIMs must forfeit the pleasure of being seen as elitist. Rabindranath Tagore had once described Hinduism as highly motivated by a materialism, so evident in the devotee's self-conscious engagement with the external world, especially the show-casing of ritual. While this is perhaps equally true of all the major religions, Tagore was responding to the construction of Hinduism as other worldly. From this perspective, the record of the IIMs in producing students whose sole pre-occupation is a career circumscribed by financial prospects appears to be in consonance with a discerning picture of India. Something similar may be said vis a vis the alleged accumulation of corpus funds by these institutions. In the highest traditions of Indian mercantilism these have been duly hoarded.They could instead have been splurged on paintings by Yusuf Arakkal. Now, that would have been elitist.  

To us in Kerala a concern over the current fracas involving the IIMs should go well beyond the fact that there is one in Kozhikode. Of course it should be a matter of some pride that this fifth IIM has done so remarkably well in the short period of its existence. It is also living proof that it is possible to successfully operate a national institute from what is not even the state's second city. But the whole IIM affair should lead us to think actively about the role of public educational institutions in the state and what the degree of governmental involvement should be in respect of their day to day functioning. With this in mind, let us take Kerala's universities. Universities may be seen as a device by which we ensure that a mirror is held up to us as a society. They can do so only if they are truly autonomous or free of external control. But this is not enough. We would expect them to be peopled by fearless individuals. This is possible only if the loosening of governmental control is matched by a vigourous internal democracy that is committed to ensuring intellectual independence. At present Kerala's universities are no more than degree granting bureaucracies unable to serve their original charter. If a mirror were to be held up to us as Malayalees what would it reflect of our mathrubhumi. It would reflect a consumerism where we would aspire to a conservation mindedness; it would reflect the disempowerment of women where it should reflect gender equality; it would reflect the grip of vested interests while we would have hoped for true democracy. So long as our universities are run by a relatively small number of party-controlled functionaries we cannot hope that they will hold the mirror. The extended battle between the IIMs and middle-level bureaucrats of the Ministry of Human Resource Development may look like great tamasha. But far from some sport being played out in distant Delhi it has great relevance to us in Kerala. Indeed, we could see the event as an opportunity to restore to our own public institutions their rightful independence. For any society the only university worth having is an independent one.