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‘More Centres Of Excellence Are Needed’

Eminent educationist, academic administrator and former director of IIM Lucknow and MDI Gurgaon Pritam Singh, over a period earned the title of a director with the Midas touch. In an interview with BW Businessworld, he discusses the reforms in higher education and the challenges facing the sector and IIMs/ B-schools.

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Eminent educationist, academic administrator and former director of IIM Lucknow and MDI Gurgaon Pritam Singh, over a period earned the title of a director with the Midas touch. In an interview with BW Businessworld’s Suman K. Jha, he discusses the reforms in higher education and the challenges facing the sector and IIMs/ B-schools. Excerpts:

What do you make of the reforms process currently in the higher education sector?

The scenario of higher education in India, when compared with China, Japan, South Korea, western Europe, and the US, is very dismal. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks about making India a knowledge hub, it’s not going to happen, unless we think radically differently. So far, higher education has been modelled on the basis of western Europe. The European experience worked well in two areas — then Pandit Nehru talked about creating IITs and IIMs as centres of excellence, as also AIIMS. He realised that these professional courses would not be allowed to grow and flourish in the university system.

So many commissions have been formed to reform the university system. Do you see any changes? Same is the case with the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Recently, the Kaw committee was formed, to which I was also invited. Many times, these committees’ recommendations are thrown into archives.

The first reform required is to empower the academic institutions. How to give them freedom and autonomy. For instance, why should the directors of IITs and IIMs be appointed by the government? In some cases, like in IIM Lucknow, to appoint a director, they have a group discussion! When you have got boards, why shouldn’t the boards appoint (these directors)? The government representative can sit with the board, but the decision should be taken by the board. The interface between the government and academic institutions needs to be redefined. The situation under state governments is much worse — where all the appointments are made by the political parties ruling the state.

This country needs radical reforms. At times the AICTE and UGC, it appears, enjoy the role of policemen, which should not be the case.

Is there a case for greater autonomy for IITs and IIMs, and why is the government dragging its feet? Is there a crisis that we are facing?

This is an old crisis, not something that has come up today. For my book IAS profile: Myths are realities, I interviewed politicians and bureaucrats. I gave a concept of “technocratisation of bureaucracy” meaning whereby let the bureaucrats decide in which field they would want to specialise after a certain period. They can’t be experts in higher education, medicine, urban development at the same time! Bureaucracy is the biggest stumbling block for reforms. They (bureaucrats) have an interesting argument — “if you give freedom and autonomy to institutions, then who will come to us”?

When Smriti Irani came (in the Modi government), I said why shouldn’t she have an advisory council, comprising academicians from different fields? They can advise the minister on various issues.

The autonomy of IITs, IIMs, and medical schools should be respected and preserved.

You have been associated with several top institutions like IIM-L, MDI-Gurgaon, etc. What do you think are the hallmarks of a great institution?
There are three pillars of education. One is creation of knowledge. Second is dissemination of knowledge, and third is application of knowledge. All the great global institutions —Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, etc. — have beautifully combined these pillars. That is why they are known as centres of holistic learning.

In India, how many holistic centres of learning can you think of? One area, where we have lagged, is research. Can you think of one management professor who has come up with a theory? For creation of knowledge, you must have good PhDs. How many institutions here are offering good PhDs Vacancies, non-availability of faculty are some of the rampant problems. Good MBAs may not like to go for PhDs. Good PhDs may not like to go for the academic field — this is the principle of diminishing returns.

If an MBA earns Rs 10-15 lakh per annum, why would he like to go for the fellow programme getting Rs 35,000 a month? I gave a concept, why not fix the fellowship at around Rs 60,000 per month, and let the government understand it in terms of long-term investment. Next come dissemination and application of knowledge. An MBA course is like a medical college — you cannot run a medical college without a hospital. IITs cannot function without workshops. Our MBA schools have very poor industry/corporate world interface.

In MDI and IIM-L (when I was there), for every area there would be advisory councils. And 50 per cent would be from the corporate world and the government, and rest 50 per cent academicians.

Dissemination of knowledge also requires in-depth understanding of our own ancient traditions.

You have been a great advocate of our own ancient traditions of wisdom. Why do you think we are not mindful enough of our own traditions in academia?
I am not an RSS person, but for how long will you be de-rooted from your own origin and traditions? That’s why when I was at IIM-L and MDI, I floated the idea of leadership and value centres. I am a believer in Gandhi’s principle that we should remain rooted, but we should also keep our windows open so that we can assimilate other ideas and worldviews required for our own well-being.

Increasingly, we are getting more numbers of IIMs (and IITs). Doesn’t it dilute brand equity?
It’s ridiculous. Some of the IIMs are there, but there’s no industry and market (for interface). It’s a political decision. When IIM Kozhikode came, I said why should not that IIM be in Cochin — an industrial belt? Rather than having an IIM in Udaipur, why shouldn’t it be there in Jaipur? Why should we have these centres in places in Rohtak, or in Himachal Pradesh (and why not in Delhi or Chandigarh)? The short point I am making that political considerations must not dictate these crucial decisions.

In this country, when we have resource problem, should we go for this many IIMs — this questions needs to be asked. IIMs at Lucknow, Bangalore, Ahmedabad have sprawling campuses, why can’t they run in shifts?
Plus, where are the professors and faculty members?

You are known as an educationist with a Midas touch. What should be the qualities of an educational administrator?

An administrator’s capacity to attract star faculty is of utmost importance because institutions are known by their faculties. When I came in MDI, I hired people from IIM Lucknow, IIM Bangalore, IIM Ahmedabad.

Another important attribute is her/his connect and rapport with the corporate world.

The quality of education in lower-rung MBA institutes is a huge issue. Their graduates are not found to be employable. What’s the way out?
I actually did this in IIM-L and MDI. Twenty per cent of the courses would be run by the industry people so that we are capable of combining action leaders and thought leaders. This paid rich dividends.

Second, MBA students come with lofty ideas — they are trained to be CEOs. In the industry, this is not how things happen. So, the academic-industry transition has to be made smoother and purposeful. This is where the industry leaders can tell them how life there is different from that in the academic world.

What would be your concluding remarks on higher education institutions and B- schools in the country?

One, the ministry (of HRD) must have an advisory council so that they understand the ground realities. Two, we must have more centres of excellence. Certain parameters must be fixed based on which centres of excellence be identified. Three, we must (re)examine the role of the AICTE. Four, we should have only one test for (B-schools) in the country.

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)

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