Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The IITs and the IIMs – not the best, not the ideal


Post-1991 – it is such a silly milestone, fake landmark because things were happening long before and long after of what we have come to identify as the reforms revolution – many of us, and I too was one of them, argued that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITS) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are symbols of Indian pride and progress and excellence, and there was not any more need to feel embarrassed about being Indian. It was a delirious and hysterical response in the first flush of what seemed India’s arrival on the world stage. The world – that is the West, that is Europe and the United States – was knocking on India’s doors, and the country was in a position to present what is best – the IIT-IIM-trained managers. Looking back one is embarrassed to have argued for the IITs and IIMs as the best of what educated India had to offer.
There is need for a critical evaluation of the IITs and the IIMs for two reasons. First, many are convinced that India’s economic growth and progress will require scores, and even hundreds, of more IITs and IIMs because they are the best of institutions and we must simply have more of them. And indeed in the last 20 years, there has been an increase in the number of the IITs and IIMs, and they have been located in smaller places. In passing, it has to be noted that some of the early IITs and IIMs were set up away from the metropolises. For example, the IITs in Kharagpur and Kanpur were in relatively small places, though the other three IITs were set up in Bombay-Mumbai, Delhi, Madras-Chennai. Two of the first three IIMs were set up in Ahmedabad and Bangalore-Bengaluru, apart from Calcutta-Kolkata. There are now IIMs in Lucknow and Kochi, two places away from the metropolises. It is supposed to be a case of the percolation, or trickle down, of excellence. The assumption has to be scrutinised.
The second reason to have a critical look at these institutions is to look at the criticism, which has come mainly from that morose crowd of leftist intellectuals who are struck somewhere in the 19th century industrialised Europe and North America and who refuse to move beyond the 1930s. The leftists argued with their natural penchant for perversity that the IITs and IIMs symbolised capitalist privilege and bourgeois elitism, and that it did not make sense, economic or moral, in a country of millions of poor people who cannot afford food or can even hope to attend school. I too once argued foolishly that the public schools have no place in democratic India and that they should be dismantled. Then a friend, who had studied at The Mayo College in Ajmer, said that instead of banning them, every student should have access to the quality education offered in the public schools. I had to concede that his argument made more sense than mine. The left critique is unhelpful because it is full of fury and little sense at a time when the market economies are flourishing and the socialist alternatives have failed. It is also to be noted that many of the IIT and IIM students came from modest, and even humble, middle class and lower middle class backgrounds. The institutes were means for social mobility even as the colonial universities were in an earlier period. These were indeed elite institutes but they helped form, however imperfectly, a new meritocracy, another name for the elite. Of course we are familiar with hereditary elites, but they are almost history. What we have now are the new elite of self-made successful, rich individuals.
There is an argument to be made against the IITs and the IIMs – and this does not mean that they should be pulled down but that they are not the best that we have created or we can create – but we have to look at the complex reality and the contradictions of the setting up of the IITs and the IIMs in India before we argue that the IITs and the IIMs do not constitute the pinnacle or acme of good, quality education, and that they do not constitute education in the proper sense of the term at all, and that the elites that they helped in forming are much too imperfect and that they are incapable of leading a society though they can form a good bulwark in an achieving society. They were all set up in the early 1960s and it was done with American help. We have to remember that though Nehru and Congress had declared in the party’s Avadi (in Madras, now Chennai) session in 1955 that India will work for a “socialist pattern of society”. The IITs and the IIMs are on the face of it an antithesis to the socialist idea. The socialist ideology would have demanded the setting up of polytechnics, and even the IITs and the IIMs, should have been patterned as working class institutes. Whatever the contradictions, it seemed in the 1990s that Nehruvian socialist India did well in investing in the IITs and the IIMs and that it had paid off. At one level, there cannot be any contradiction between the IITs and the IIMs and socialism because socialism at heart is the fulfilment of a technological society. Socialism should never be confused with pastoral idyll. Socialism and capitalism are twins born of a dystopian industrial civilisation.
The IITs and the IIMs pose a problem in the first place because they were set up as independent institutions, away from the general run of colleges and universities. There seems to have been certain hostility towards the university spawned by the British colonial rulers, who wanted to create English-speaking clerks in government offices and nothing more. The IITs and the IIMs were to counter the colonial university system with its own internal syllabus and grading. These classy institutions could never become part of the educational system in the country. This dichotomy between general educational institutions like colleges and universities and the institutes of excellence juts out like a sore thumb. There has been a similar mistake in the setting up of scientific research institutes in the country as well. The supposedly quality science research institutes were set up apart from the universities. The disadvantages seem to outweigh the advantages of this system.
There was an anomaly, an interesting one that came of the IITs and the IIMs in the 1960s and 1970s, and to an extent even in the first half of the 1980s. The graduates from these institutes could not be absorbed in the country. The industry was not big and diversified enough to take them and it was not in a position to offer them the lucrative and challenging jobs. What became apparent was that the IITs and the IIMs became skilled manpower exporters of the country, and it is these graduates who formed the seed of the non-resident India community in the United States. Secondly, many of the IIT-educated engineers and technologists did not stay on the technology side but moved on to the more attractive management/marketing sector. The familiar route of progress was from IIT to IIM to the US of A. The manufacturing sector’s need for chemical, engineering and electronic engineers was not really met. They got absorbed in the general marketing side. There was also no place for many of the potential managers from the IIMs in India. For the first 20 to 25 years, the IITs and the IIMs produced an elite management cadre for the American market. And strangely enough, a few of them joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and went on to occupy important positions in the all-powerful bureaucracy. The tide has turned after the 1990s, when the Indian market was able to absorb more of the IIT and IIM graduates. Here too, not many went into the manufacturing sector. They went into marketing. One of the reasons that Indian manufacturing sector remains less-than-mediocre is due to the fact that there are not enough qualified technology-oriented work force at the shop-floor level.
It is now time to turn to the crux of the question: Do the IIT-IIM elite qualify to be one? Do they have the quality to be the leaders of a society, or are they but glorified journeymen – the highly qualified artisans of medieval India and Europe – who do their societies proud but they are not really the people with ideas, with vision which is what expected of leadership? The guildsmen and guild-masters of the medieval period were superior to the IIT- and IIM-trained work force because they were part of the general society and they shared the civilisational ethos. They could absorb local work force and even train them. The IIT and the IIM crowd are not in a position to mould the workers around them in a constructive manner. They have not inculcated the new work culture in the places they work in though the systems are slowly emerging in many of the new set-ups. They have failed the leadership test in their field of work.
What is the sense of values of the IIT and the IIM managerial work force? They tend to be middle class liberals, who respect and appreciate individual rights and to an extent they would support the idea of corporate social responsibility at least in name. They would also favour a free market economy in a naïve manner. Most of them would be unaware of the irony that the IITs and IIMs are government-supported institutes and they are not the outgrowth of private sector initiative. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) at Pilani is an exception, an initiative of private industry. They do not have clear ideas about market regulations and about the norms of fair competition. Their education does not allow or equip them to think of frameworks and much less about values in general.
Are they good at problem-solving, which is the key expectation from a managerial work force? They do not seem to be so. They seem to be quite comfortable in a work place where the systems are in place but they cannot create systems keeping in mind the local challenges. It is the relatively uneducated small shop-owner or the small businessman and businesswoman who appear to be adept in managing the work force.
The IIT and IIM crowd is charmingly conservative in social mores, reflective of their middle class backgrounds. They follow traditions even when they break the small barriers of caste, community and language. They are generally god-fearing. They love the country and they stand by their immediate nuclear family.
What they are not good at is thinking, thinking new ideas and projects. They are incapable of being adventurous in their thinking. They will rarely break a dominant thought paradigm though they may tweak an existing one without causing too much commotion all round.
India needs this conservative, conformist IIT-IIM crowd. It is the dependable, solid middle class that provides social stability. They are not good at doing new things, thinking new things. And they should not be blamed for not doing what they cannot do.

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