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More IITs and IIMs: For our benefit or the government's?

Rashmi Bansal
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September 12, 2007

On the 60th anniversary of India's independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] spelt out his vision for eradicating poverty. This vision rests on 'a revolution in the field of modern education in the next few years'. And it encompasses:

~ 6,000 new 'high quality' schools
~ 370 colleges in districts with low enrollment rates
~ 30 new Central universities
~ 5 Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research
~ 20 Indian Institutes of International Technology

And the icing on the cake:
~ 7 new IIMs, 8 IITs

But let's cut to the chase. Most of us really don't care about any of these grand plans, except the bit about IITs and IIMs. The question is: how long will these proposals take to become a tangible reality? If I were to like the typical CAT question:

If 6 IIMs : 60 years
Then 7 IIMs : ? years

Let's take a look at the case of IIM Shillong for the answer. The proposal to set up an IIM in the Northeast (either Guwahati or Shillong) goes back to the year 2004. The actual IIM -- in Shillong -- is to come up in the year 2008.

However, things might be changing. The Planning Commission is to meet shortly to discuss several important education-related issues, including the funding of the newly proposed IIMs, IITs. One of the proposals put forth is to set up four of the proposed seven new IIMs in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode.

The term 'public-private partnerships' brings to mind infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports and the like. The cost of the project and onus of development is shared between the government and the private party. And the private party, in return, gets a share of the spoils.

I am, however, unclear how such an arrangement would work when it comes to education. Apart from the philanthropic angle ("let's give back to the community") and prestige value, how would the 'returns' kick in?

And would private involvement necessarily make the IIMs more 'autonomous'?

Vested interests, everywhere.

"The IIMs should be granted autonomy and they should not depend on the government for funds," said Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of Bajaj group and a member of Parliament in a recent interview. "Till these IIMs depend on the government for funds, the government will have the right to take decisions for them," he added.

Mr Bajaj's statement implies that non-governmental funds will be completely free of vested interest. But nothing could be farther from the truth!

The government-funded model is exploited in the name of social justice (OBCs, by all statistical standards do not deserve reservation along the lines of SCs and STs). But the American university system, funded by wealthy donors and alumni is actually far worse.

The stench of money and influence in has long been concealed by the heady fragrance of the 'High Up There' college brand name. But a recent book by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden painstakingly unmasks it all.

'The Price of Admission' chronicles how America's ruling class buys its way into elite colleges. And 'who gets left outside the gates'. Now I was dimly aware that universities like Harvard let in a few rich kids whose great grandfathers may have donated a building or two to the college. But the book tells you just how many such rich kids make their way in -- and how. And the numbers are shocking, to say the least.

The book offers insights on:

~ "How the `Z list' make the `A list'" (or how losers like Albert Gore Jr made it to Harvard).

~ "Recruiting the Rich" -- how Duke University built its corpus by admitting kids of wealthy parents who pledged to donate substantial monies to the college. These applicants are actually referred to as "development cases".

~ "A break for faculty brats" -- free and easy entry for children of professors.

~ "Rise of the Upperclass Athelete" -- by offering 'scholarships' for sports like fencing, rowing and polo, colleges create an easy entry route for elite, white, private school applicants.

~ And oh, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest scam so to speak is 'legacy enrollment'. Or preference given to sons and daughters of alumni. To quote an example, "Harvard, America's oldest university, admitted 63 percent of its applicants in 1952. Half a century later, it admitted just 11 percent of applicants overall -- but 40 percent of legacy candidates".

And these kids are certainly displacing very bright but non-connected candidates. Most legacies have lower SAT scores and less impressive high school records. A few are downright embarassments.

~ The Ivy League boasts a lofty 'need blind' admission process. But the process ensures that only 3 to 11 percent of students in these most selective colleges come from the lowest income quartile in the first place.

~ Golden notes: "Legacy preference provides affluent families with a form of insurance from one generation to the next, which might in turn lead to a decline in wealth and power. Just as English peers hold hereditary seats in the House of Lords, so the American nobility reserves slots at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other august universities."

Over the years the alumni donation-offspring admission nexus has become firmly established. Alumni contributed $ 7.5 billion to higher education in 2005, representing 27.7 percent of all private donations to colleges. No college dares rock the boat!

Clearly corporates, alumni and wealthy donors take a generous share of cookies from the cookie jar. In much the same way as our government has been demanding more and more quotas in the name of 'social justice'.

It could happen here.

In India, we've historically had two distinct breeds of colleges: the merit-based and the donation-based. Government established colleges like IITs, IIMs, NID, NIFTs, IHMs lead the 'merit' brigade. The premier government-run engineering and medical colleges also fall in this category.

However, of this lot I think only the IITs and IIMs (and perhaps NID) can boast of never admitting a politician's son or daughter under duress.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are private institutions where, officially, there is a management quota. Under this quota, most institutes will admit just about anyone who can pay enough money. The smart ones -- like a Harvard or Yale -- strike a balance between merit entry and money entry. But the short-sighted and the greedy go all out for the moolah.

Such colleges fail to attract top notch students and while they may be profitable businesses, their sphere of influence remains stunted. Any public-private partnership on IITs, IIMs must take all these stress factors into account.

Education brands require investment and longterm vision. Promoters must build facilities, foundations, faculty and freedoms that result in individual advancement as well as a greater common good.

In the context of India, that good lies in IITs and IIMs remaining islands of 'merit'. Untouched by quotas -- whether government, or 'management'. We need a few symbolic institutions to keep our faith in an otherwise fallible system.

The IITs and IIMs are symbolic of the Great Indian Dream. Dimaag ki taakat aur mehnat se har koi is mukaam par pahunch sakta hai. Not money, not power.

Of course, access to good coaching (especially for IITs) and fluency in English (especially for IIMs) make a difference. But there are enough examples of poor but brilliant and hard-working young men and women who made it to these institutes to give the common man a feeling, "Perhaps I could, too".

The value of a lofty goal in firing the imagination -- is never to be underestimated.

As for sons and daughters of IIM grads, IIM profs, mediamen, moguls and mantris -- there's always a foreign university if your kid can't clear the CAT.

Rashmi will be hosting a chat with Get Ahead readers, regarding more IITs and IIMs springing up all around the country. Join us tomorrow, September 13, at 2 pm.

Rashmi Bansal is a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and founder-editor of the popular youth magazine JAM. She can be reached at

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