'IIMs, Elitism and All That', 16 February, 2004.

Professor Murli Manohar Joshi, is set to reform the IIMs. This is in itself 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 all of a piece with a certain picture of Hindutva. 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 M.F. Hussein. Now, that would have been elitist.