Challenging the Status Quo: IIMs and the NEP 2020

The Indian Institutes of Management Act, 2017 declares the Indian Institutes of Managements as institutions of national importance with a mandate to attain standards of “global excellence in management, management research and allied areas of knowledge.” The New Education Policy (NEP), 2020 expects the IIMs (along with other standalone institutions) to move beyond their core strength—management education—and fashion themselves à la large, multidisciplinary universities. This article explores and outlines some of the challenges involved in this envisaged shift towards a higher educational system prescribed by NEP 2020 and the future that it holds for the IIMs.

IIMs as Elite Institutions

Over the past six decades, IIMs have acquired a distinctive identity as elite institutions imparting quality management education comparable to the best in the field. For many observers, much of the credit for its academic quality and institutional standing goes to its origins as standalone institutions, distinguishing them from the universities in terms of their structures of governance and the larger autonomy that they have historically enjoyed. Noticeably, the IIMs never had to struggle with gigantic regulatory frameworks prescribed by the University Grants Commission and the All-India Council for Technical Education.

Undoubtedly, this freedom to work as self-governing institutions enabled the IIMs to chart an agile, flexible, and independent path towards global excellence and international recognition. Besides, the IIMs were primarily concerned with one disciplinary field—management. Viewed thus, their scale of operation remained manageable where they could go for experimentation in relation to their curriculum and pedagogy. Echoing the ethos of “small is beautiful,” IIMs, by and large, did exceedingly well in their chosen field. One should not overlook the generous financial endowment that the government bestowed on them before some of them turned into financially self-dependent institutions. Arguably, the global ranking and standing of the IIMs cannot be separated from some of the advantages that they have had to begin with.

However, the IIMs’ national and international stature has also meant their increasing proximity with business schools in the West (mostly American). Their participation in international accreditation and global rankings has further strengthened this proximity. In the process, the IIMs have become more enamoured with global benchmarking of their standards of excellence in terms of publications, disciplinary scope, and other identifiable attributes of global competitiveness. Although this thrust towards internationalisation has had definite payoffs for the IIMs, it has simultaneously entailed their moving away from their foundational goals, that is, to contribute to the efficient management of the national economy by providing trained managerial cadre and producing nationally relevant research. Contribution to nation-building was the central leitmotif sought to be articulated through various institutional activities. Over the years, that commitment to nation-building has been relegated to the background or at least acquired new forms and contents. Working for a Public Sector Undertaking in a remote town in Chhattisgarh is as much about nation-building now as working for an investment bank in New York.

NEP 2020: Towards Multidisciplinarity

The NEP 2020 proposed by the central government is designed to significantly transform this country’s educational landscape. In the context of higher education, the NEP 2020 visualises “a complete overhaul and re-energising of the higher education system to overcome these challenges and thereby deliver high-quality higher education, with equity and inclusion” (NEP 2020: 34). From the perspective of management education (covered under the umbrella of technical education), the most significant policy prescription is moving towards a higher educational system consisting of large, multidisciplinary universities, colleges, or Higher Education Institution (HEI) clusters.

One of the key recommendations of the NEP2020 is to overcome the rigid separation of disciplines and convert every technical HEIs into a university structure with a range of academic disciplines, including humanities and arts. The objective is to address the all-pervasive issue of what it calls “fragmentation of the higher education ecosystem” in the country and eliminate harmful hierarchies and silos between different areas of learning. For the NEP 2020, fragmentation and disciplinary silos are the major obstacles to developing well-rounded individuals and fostering a vibrant community of scholars and peers across disciplines. At the same time, the NEP 2020 is equally concerned with bringing in material and human resource efficiency across the higher education landscape. Towards this end, the NEP 2020 wants all the HEIs to have multidisciplinary programmes facilitating cross-disciplinary conversations of an optimal scale of around 3,000 students per campus or across HEI clusters.

Keeping these goals in view, the NEP 2020 expects institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)  and the IIMs to move towards a holistic and multidisciplinary education. In fact, the NEP 2020 proposes a timeframe in this regard—a plan for becoming multidisciplinary by 2030 and then gradually increasing student strength to the desired levels by 2040.

IIMs: Challenges Ahead

Realising these NEP prescriptions and expectations pose some serious set of interconnected challenges for standalone HEIs in general and IIMs in particular:

1.         Disrupting the status quo

An institution’s success generates its own constraints for future growth and expansion. The IIMs (along with the IITs) have evolved as elite institutions owing to favourable factors—well-demarcated disciplinary mandate, the small and focussed scale of operation, autonomy in governance, and generous government patronage. Not surprisingly, the IIMs have become the most desired destination for the country’s bright young men and women. The fact that IIM graduates have already proven their mettle earlier by getting admission to prestigious institutions, such as the IITs and the National Institute of Technology (NITs), and the additional layer of rigorous scrutiny through common admissions test (CAT) adds further glory to the IIMs exclusiveness and elitism.

So, for any institution, particularly the IIMs, to discard or significantly depart from a model that has served them well will be a disconcerting endeavour. There is always going to be a lurking danger of its dilution of quality and rigour because of the changes in any of the parameters that have held them in good stead so far. Moreover, the IIMs’ reputation has been built through international accreditations and rankings, which are essential in distinguishing themselves in the field of management. The expansion of its disciplinary field and the scale of its operation willy-nilly necessitate newer ways of proving its excellence vis- à-vis its global competitors. For the IIMs, thus, breaking away from the well-established silo would require serious introspection. Any attempt at experimenting and establishing credentials beyond the allied disciplines would not only be challenging but could also prove adventurous.

2. Moving Beyond the Dominant

The quest for global recognition of the IIMs has also meant increasing reliance on and uncritical acceptance of the successful model of business education prevalent in the United States. Their rankings and accreditations have further strengthened the IIMs’ alliance with the dominant but narrowly defined management research and curriculum. The pressures to publish in the prestigious but confined list of international business journals, such as the FT50 list, presuppose an inherent and mostly imitative internalisation of the paradigms, models, and theoretical and conceptual framework of the global North. This has meant incremental separation of the IIMs from their national context and founding vision of contributing to the national economy and providing solutions to the intractable national problems. Sadly, the IIMs are showing signs of captive minds that need to be shed to realise the vision of NEP 2020.

In light of the NEP 2020 mandate, the IIMs can afford to be bold enough to get out of the established moulds of global excellence in relation to benchmarking research, teaching, and learning standards. This would, however, mean mending the indiscriminate acceptance of Western standards of research quality and venues of research output (in terms of journal hierarchies), research relevance and its current incentive structure, and aiming for a curriculum emphasising national relevance. The global North need not be our significant “other” for all the time to come, and the IIMs and their practices could very well be the sources of alternative images of what good management education is and should be.

3. Expanding the Scale

In the context of HEIs in India, resource distribution has been one of the contentious issues. Generally, institutions like the IITs, IIMs, and select central universities have been bestowed upon a disproportioned amount of public resources, enabling them to strive for excellence in their chosen fields. In a way, the adequacy of institutional resources is one of the key drivers of quality. Any scaling up would mean redistribution of the available resources and their thin spread across the institutions’ needs. This acquired added salience in the context of those IIMs who have stopped receiving government support for some time. They are largely self-dependent economically and have managed their finances through internal efforts. Diverting their scarce resources would mean compromises or even counterproductive.

Evidently, the IIMs will ponder over their continuing ability to do so in a changed context unless there is a firm governmental assurance of financial support. Indeed, the NEP 2020 does refer to adequate public support and stability in passing with no concrete framework or commitment to improving the financial robustness of the HEIs—a necessary prerequisite for the success of this policy. The existing provision of granting interest-free loans for academic infrastructure and other endeavours through the Higher Education Financing Agency does not appear incentivising enough for an institution to consciously go for expansion as prescribed by the NEP 2020. Few institutions may do this through their own solitary efforts, but this may potentially increase the cost of education they offer. Effectively, the higher cost of education could undermine the twin objective of equity and inclusiveness in higher education that the NEP 2020 has envisioned.

Needless to say, the funding model of HEIs generally calls for more than a policy with good intent. Thus, for the policy to succeed, there is a need for generous endowments from the government, at least in the beginning. Otherwise, institutions will hesitate to put in their hard-earned resources in the realm of the unknown merely based on exhortations contained in the NEP. Noble ideals are not always a precursor to sustained action towards actionable goals.

4. Fearing the Unknown

In general, institutions develop a tendency to work within the boundaries of everyday rules and practices that they acquire over time and a general reluctance to get out of one’s comfort zone. The change envisaged by NEP is far-reaching and wide-ranging. It does not merely call for tweaking something here and mending something there. The NEP is emphatic in underlining a “holistic and multidisciplinary education” leading to the development of “all capacities of human beings—intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional, and moral in an integrated manner” (NEP 2020: 36). In other words, the NEP calls for a fundamental reorientation of the very purpose of higher education of necessity; this means refurbishing the entire institutional architecture to align with the policy goals.

Clearly, this could mean consensus-building at the institutional level towards these goals for their buy-in by the stakeholders. The IIMs may have to come up with new academic programmes reflecting the would-be disciplinary diversity. Faculty may have to revisit their disciplinary moorings while reworking the curriculum and instructional materials. Likewise, research will have to be reoriented towards national relevance and contextual peculiarities. For example, the research and teaching should not only reiterate the strategies and best practices of multinational corporations. It might make better sense to investigate the trajectories of the family business or the emerging configurations of multiple forms of ethnic capital, the changing relationship between caste and capital, and the nature of the Dalit chamber of commerce and industries. The historicity and the attributes of democratisation in India may be the source of different sets of insights into the state and the business environment. Decidedly, the envisaged changes will have to be seen as sources of transformative practices rather than mere descriptions of the existing ways of doing things.

Added to these challenges are the unknowns of the NEP 2020 prescription, allowing the top 100 foreign HEIs in India. The latter’s entry into the Indian higher education market will result in enhanced competition for those disciplinary areas that are in demand and “highly lucrative,” as in the case of management education. This could be particularly problematic for the revenue-generating executive management education arena, which may see an increase in competition for the IIMs.

5. Overcoming Disciplinary Hierarchies

The fragmentation of the higher education landscape in India has also meant some kind of reinforcement of the existing disciplinary hierarchies that accord inherent superiority to a set of disciplines over others. The success of the IIMs, IITs, IISc, ISIs, etc., has perpetuated these hierarchies, which are, in any case, part of the societal common sense. The expected shift proposed by the NEP 2020 towards multidisciplinary universities would mean imbibing a capacious view of management education drawing from a multiplicity of disciplines. Put differently, this would imply a deliberate dismantling of the hierarchical boundaries among academic disciplines, which have stilted the conversation so far. This would open up ample possibilities for the learners in terms of choice of courses and disciplinary breath, thereby enabling them to transgress disciplinary barriers and look at education beyond employability and acquisition of narrow sets of technical skill sets. For example, certain modern insights into management and change of organisation might get enriched in dialogue with the Indian intellectual traditions or social-scientific research produced in India.

This endeavour may not be as challenging as it appears to be in the first place. The beginning may have been made in this direction. For instance, some of the IIMs have already moved towards this direction by offering integrated programmes, programmes in allied disciplines, such as law, analytics and artificial intelligence, and public policy, as well as creating spaces for research beyond the conventional understanding of management sciences. IIM Calcutta’s Management Centre for Human Values, IIM Ahmadabad’s Centre for Agriculture Research and Education, IIM Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy, etc., are exemplary examples of such endeavours.

Footsteps to the Future

The NEP 2020 is full of noble sentiments and lofty ideals like any other policy document. It reaffirms the values of access and equity and gives us a roadmap for an integrated vision of higher education and its governance. More importantly, it situates higher education in the larger field of republican and democratic values enshrined in the Constitution of India. Viewed thus, the higher education for NEP is as much about creating an enlightened citizenry as it is about creating skilled human resources for the knowledge economy. It highlights the need to cultivate an ethos that nurtures some of the best elements of our shared humanity and planetary health. As a visionary document, NEP's success depends on our determination to create institutional structures that should help realise this vision. To be sure, it calls for a new compact between the state, HEIs, and the aspirational classes in the country.

The IIMs must imbibe the spirit and flexibility offered under the NEP and chart a course best suited for their continued excellence. In a way, NEP is gently pursuing the IIMs to get back to their foundational roots and reignite the ideals that led to their creation 60 years ago. Leveraging on the current strength and standing and with NEP as the base, the IIMs could reimage the contours of management education to one that is nationally relevant and is well placed to be a thought leader resonating the alternative epistemologies of the global South. In a way, this will clear the ground for serious disciplinary engagement across sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

This is surely going to impart a robust academic culture to the IIMs for whose lack they have been occasionally criticised. Also, this will provide the IIMs with a wider disciplinary scaffold to branch out in newer and frontier areas of knowledge and accordingly offer new programmes of education. Some of the IIMs have already branched out in domains other than the conventional business administration (MBA). However, there appears to have been a certain aphorism in opening them up for some of the newer programmes. The latter have been more responsive to the perceived market demands and a softer mechanism to generate resources for the institutes. In a way, the NEP offers the IIMs an opportunity to combine the business logic behind their programmes of education with the academic-disciplinary logic. Some of these efforts may need inter-IIM coordination, and the yet-to-materialise IIM Coordination Forum could provide an appropriate forum to move forward.

Be that as it may, public spending on higher education remains the sine qua non for the successful transition to the newer blueprint of HEIs contained in the policy. There is no shying away from this acknowledgement of the centrality of government support to further the goals and objectives of the NEP. In no way can this core responsibility of a welfare state be wished away, and no amount of rhetorical appeal to private businesses, charitable organisations, and not-for-profit entities can replace the role of the state.

Historically speaking, a policy acting through the persuasion of its many-fold stakeholders has a better possibility of inculcating its goals in both letter and spirit. On the contrary, a policy that is top-down and activates the coercive instrument of command and control has less lasting value even as it may appear to be successful in the short run. Encouragingly enough, the NEP 2020 leaves enough flexibility for debate and discussion so that the IIMs can opt for the best possible course of action given their current capabilities and future aspirations.

Views expressed here are personal.

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