The Jet Airways flight from Bombay to Delhi had hardly started taxiing for take-off when the attractive 40-something woman seated next to me, glancing at the stack of IIM reports on my lap, flashed a friendly smile at me and said, "What do you feel about Jairam Ramesh's statement that reputation of IIMs and IITs are not because of their faculty and research but because of their excellent students?"
I turned around to take a closer look at my co-passenger. She was trim and fresh-faced even at this unearthly hour and wearing what looked to me like a Ritu Beri outfit. "Isn't such a public debate healthy?" I countered as I tried to figure out what kind of an answer would make sense to her.
"I think such statements by ministers bring down the image of institutions that we Indians are proud of," she declared.
* * *
Reputations of higher educational institutions are a complicated thing to unravel. What makes these reputations, whether it is the research output of the faculty or the latter life success of its graduates or even the iconic style of its campus is something that truly deserves a debate.
It is as esoteric a subject as figuring out what sets a company's stock price: over the long run it has something to do with that company's past profits and future prospects but it also seems to matter whether that industry is in fashion right then.
Some academic researchers have even concluded that picking stocks to invest in by throwing darts at a board listing all the companies trading on the stock market and picking those that the dart sticks on is as good a way as doing rigorous analysis. That is to say, random chance, does as well as analytical rigour.
Something similar could be said about the rankings and reputations of business schools.
The rankings that Indian and international magazines give out from time to time usually ascribe a weightage of about 20 per cent to the "quality" of research output.
By far, the highest weight often adding up to as much as 40 per cent across all such rankings is given to the salaries awarded to the institute's graduating students.
And since, in recent years, international investment banks and management consulting companies have offered the best salaries, those institutions that place their students in these sectors tend to get the best starting salaries and hence the best rankings in surveys.
Judging the research output of an IIM is an art form. The current method is to count the number of research papers published in international peer-reviewed journals. This is somewhat like judging a person's health by looking at his weight-to-height ratio.
Too high a weight-to-height ratio probably means you need to exercise more or eat less, too low a ratio probably means you are neglecting your food. But for a vast majority of us who fall in the middle range, the ratio may not reveal much.
Most of the IIMs, at least the older and settled ones, neither publish too little nor do they dominate the international sweepstakes with their output. Most published papers in the world seem to be the result of the mandatory doctoral work of PhD students.
So, a sure way to increase the research output of the IIMs is to substantially increase the number of PhDs we produce across the IIM system. That should increase the research output dramatically.
But then, there is a raging debate in international academic research circles whether getting published in reputed international journals really amounts to anything.
Two academics, Julian Birkinshaw and Michael Mol, took a look at the 50 most influential ideas in management of the last 150 years things like Just-in-Time inventory management, the Six Sigma quality system, and the Balanced Scorecard method and point out that all these breakthrough ideas originated within real-life business settings, not from within academia.
The role of management academics in these innovations appears to be merely documenting them and spreading the word about them.
* * *
"Well, what do you think?" asked my attractive travelling companion, bringing me back to earth from my reverie.
"I think that the IIM faculty does a great job of picking the right students for the IIMs, they run the entrance exams and interview process strictly on merit and in a country where most things can be bought, an IIM seat cannot be bought, so the credit for even the student quality should go to the faculty. And do you know that 75 per cent of the students come from families with a family income of less than Rs 70,000 a month."
"But still, should ministers say such things in public?" she asked. "I think such public debates are good," I said, realising immediately that I was repeating myself.
"Are you worried about these issues because you are an alumna of an IIM or perhaps a faculty member?" I asked. "No!" she said, drawing herself up in her seat. "My husband owns a business."
"See!" I said triumphantly, "Jairam Ramesh's statement has drawn even you into the debate about research at the IIMs and IITs. Is that not a good thing?"
She gave me a sidelong look, checking whether I was pulling her leg, then opened the copy of Bombay Times and buried her head into it.