The IIX Question – How Many is Too Many

There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to a brand. It is what it is, and it is what it can grow to be.
Some of the NIT/IIT/IIM institutions in India (source: https://hi.wikipedia.org)

Ever since the new government has promised “an IIT and an IIM” in every state, there have been doomsday predictions going around about how this will ‘dilute’ brand IIT or IIM (hereafter referred to as IIX). Too many IIMs already, they say. You’ll just have more people churned out by the system, moan another, without improving the quality of managers. Another excuse for the government to spend money on tokens, say a third group.

No, no and maybe.
First of all, the demand for MBA in India is going up faster than Congress spokesmen closing ranks around the Gandhis. True, a lot of B-schools are facing lower enrolment rates – but that can be chalked up to two factors.
One, anyone investing in a B-school – as a backer – understands that it takes a few years for it to take root and start attracting the kind of talent that will give it a self-sustaining critical mass. The plethora of B-schools that opened up in the middle of the previous decade have either started to hit their strides now, with at least 3-4 batches of alumni now helping their causes by channeling placements, or decided to lower their standards to the extent that they stop just short of kidnapping an unsuspecting fellow passing by their gates. The problem for the established B-schools is that they now have to meet the higher expectations of their staff (with regard to salaries, profiles and exposure) and their investors (who’ll expect the RoI to start kicking in) – with the result that their fees start going through the roof, paving the way for younger, hungrier B-schools to attract those with lower ceilings on acceptable liabilities. The aspirants, therefore, get split between the old and the new, with the outcome that no one is satisfied.
Two, beyond the IIMs, there are very few institutes that offer the same returns for a student. For someone serious about getting the maximum out of every rupee that goes towards tuition, a big package at the end of the course is the gold standard, and with the conservative hiring climate that’s been on for the last few years, it’s often a risk to shell out an almost-comparable amount for a much higher risk. Most aspirants caught in the middle of this fuddle either go abroad for their MBA, or postpone it by a year, investing the time in prepping themselves for one of the IIMs.
How is this relevant to the debate on more IIXs, you ask?
Adding IIXs in the present educational system is like prescribing more placebos and antibiotics to a patient who’s already under a lot of medication. The likelihood of this turning out into little more than an exercise in aspiration fulfilment is high, as present evidence testifies. None of the IIXs have contributed significantly in terms of research, development or innovations in any of their fields. IIT Delhi and IIT Chennai are sometimes in the news thanks a few students who break the mold, but the very fact that this is the exception rather than the norm is a telling commentary of how generations of shoddy/lazy thought leadership has reduced our expectations.
IIXs these days churn out overpaid bodies for businesses for whom India still remains a labour-supplier than a market of choice; in the field of management, without disrespecting the immense efforts that the students have put in to qualify for these institutions, fat paychecks at burning-up startups overshadow the much smaller percentage of genuine talent that will one day lead MNCs.
Sadly, once they graduate, we still do not have an ecosystem that encourages innovation. Failure is still seen as a black mark against an entrepreneur, with the result that most of India’s “new-gen” startups are still copycats of safe, successful ideas. The alumni network is what keeps these startups floating for far longer than they should have been allowed to; that, and the characteristic Asian proclivity for meekly following the leader, has brought us now to a point where reality hits hard. The innovations that they tout – barring a few notable exceptions such as Practo – are essentially operational or social tweaks, not a fundamental rewriting of behavioral patterns or industries.
The lack of originality is not the fault of these IIXs. By the time the students get to these institutions, they’ve already been ruined by a system that discourages understanding in favour of remembering, a system where teachers can’t appreciate elegant solutions because even they are rote-learners, a system in which what you score matters more than what you can extend your learning to. The NDA’s HRD, especially under Ms Irani, did try to set some of the hygiene factors right (such as breaking the monopoly of textbook publishers), but there is still no sign of the much-needed overhaul anywhere on the horizon.
Nor, I am afraid, are the faculty members of the quality and temperament needed to bring to fruition the lofty ideals behind the IIXs. Perhaps a few gems are there in academia (I can personally vouch for some!), but politics (of the type that you’ll always see in an autonomous institution in India) and reservations (where the entry barriers are reduced to obscene levels instead of helping deserving candidates equip themselves better) have resulted in an instructional landscape that’s shallower than what you’d find in China or even the much-smaller Scandinavian nations.
Which is why, as I said, the new IIXs shall remain an image-building exercise than a nation-building one.

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