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Money management

It’s the admission into an IIM that is the defining value creator and not the value added in the course itself, writes B Narayanaswamy.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2008 22:32 IST

Cut to its essentials, an educational institution is a pipeline where unqualified raw material enters at one end. And ‘qualified’ people emerge at the other. The defining characteristic of the Indian Institute of Managament pipelines is not the fees. It’s the fact that one out of several hundred applicants makes it into these institutions. It’s a very narrow pipe. The rest of the flow that entered the race perforce goes elsewhere.

There is a full ecosystem of suppliers who help to prepare right from school onwards. The tutoring, the IIM preparation costs, the expenses on the graduation course itself, which might include ‘donations’, the preparation for the MBA Common Admission Test… The parents spend more than they would at the IIM itself, even before the student arrives there.

So there is a lot of money that goes into this gambit. Rightly so, as it’s the admission into an IIM that is the defining value creator — and not the value added in the course itself. Besides a job, a great starting salary and maybe even a career, it gets you ‘club benefits’ in the form of an alumni network for instance. This has nothing to do with the learning while there or how well he or she performed.

The Human Resource Development Minister wants to know how the IIMs plan to help poor students defray the increased expense. Wrong question. He should be asking how to help the poor enter the race in the first place. It’s in the run-up to the CAT and the admission where most of the money is spent, and over a longer duration like seven years, than just the two years in the last lap.

Even assuming that the Minister is merely making the right political noises to his constituency, the poor, I would think his constituency does not care. Any one who is smart in MP would have figured out that while they are being fed this rhetoric by their MP/Minister, the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu has already delivered on the free TV that they promised. The election promises there have gone up the Maslow hierarchy away from the bijli, sadak, pani.

Meanwhile, on the supply-side of the pipeline there is another crisis brewing, that of faculty. This is so across the board, whether at schools or college. That pipeline is simply not drawing any flow. I don’t think it’s only because of poor salaries. The education system sucks in more ways than that, whether government-run or otherwise. And it’s not just the poor infrastructure, poor facilities and politics etc, the usual ‘Indian’ adjuncts in all aspects of human endeavour.

By the criterion of long-run total return on investment, teachers ought to be the highest paid lot. No question. The traditional value systems recognised this, and also recognised that it’s not practical. The answer was to build a ‘marketing device’ that celebrated knowledge and the academy. My Tamil Brahmin upbringing included a regular feed of how the hierarchy is ‘Mata’, ‘Pita’, ‘Guru’, ‘Deivam’. The teacher not only comes in ahead of God. It’s also the only occupational or professional entry in this hierarchy. It does not say, for instance ‘Archer’ or ‘Apsara’.

But ‘Teacher’ probably stops as an answer to ‘what do you want to be’ beyond that fancy dress occasion in the nursery school. The IIMs — and indeed all our educational institutions — have to figure out a way to attract high quality faculty. The money is poor, the cachet value is zero, the respect is negative.

My guess is that this gap will be filled by foreign institutions. American Business Schools are busy wooing Indian corporates for customised executive development programmes. And these institutions will likely send in the faculty who are, well, Indians.

This is not just because the paying customer is an Indian corporate and the case studies have to be based on Indian research. Indians dominate the cutting edge in American academia, especially in management- related disciplines.

Indeed Indians were a force in global academia long before they became salient as global corporate managers. So let us celebrate the fact that we are becoming pervasive as managers and academics — most of whom probably went from the IIMs. An indirect side–effect of the economic reforms is that the traditional hierarchy has also reformed into just one level: Celebrities who make a lot of money. The HRD Minister has to recognise that this is the aspiration that the nation breathes to. Those who did not enter the MBA race are busy looking at acting courses, air-hostess training, and those who can afford it — go abroad to learn to fly aeroplanes — probably the one subject that does not have a crash course.

B Narayanaswamy is Director, Indica Research Practices and Consulting