Photo Credit: Benson Kua
IIM Bangalore's recent decision to make student attendance in classrooms optional is raising a lot of questions. Are Indian students at the post graduate level mature enough to come to class without the whip of compulsory attendance? Will they use or misuse the freedom that they are being entrusted with? And can such deviation from the norm take place in only some of India's most elitist institutions?
When the director of KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, Satish Ailawadi, was asked about IIM B's latest move, he disapproved of it. With all due respect to the institute, I don't think it is a wise decision, he said. Based on personal experience, it will not work in our cultural context, where the students are not mature enough at 21-22 to voluntarily attend classes. Unlike students in the US, they are still financially dependent on their parents for the course, so the intensity of the commitment is not there. He insisted that when Indian students take the responsibility of paying for their own education, that commitment will also come, but at this stage, he is unsure of the students' commitment.
For other IIMs, it is not the question of maturity here since the students who come at the IIMs are not just freshers, but those with some years of work experience. Nonetheless, according to Ananda Kutty, professor of consumer behaviour and Chairman PGP at IIM Kozhikode, making attendance optional is not a good idea. It is a system that we are trying to create that will become part of the academic life at the campus, he said. If you stand in a queue for a movie, it is not about maturity, it is about a system. We believe in processes that will make a system convenient to make it work, otherwise there will be anarchy.
Some faculty think that the quality of education could also take a beating when classes become optional. XLRI Dean of Students, Prof P Ray's take is that compulsory attendance is not about maintaining discipline in the class, it is about face-to-face interaction. It also applies more to core classes than the optional ones. For core courses a minimum attendance is required, otherwise how will the teacher be assured that the students know? he said. The idea behind compulsory attendance is to bring people together to interact with each other. As future corporate leaders, the students need, not only knowledge, but the skills to deal with people too.
If students' voices are something to go by, they don't seem to be ready to shoulder the responsibility of freedom that IIM B's decision brings on them. In IIM Calcutta, where the rule is 75% compulsory attendance now, first year student Anil Narayanan believes that compulsory attendance makes sense for Indian students used to playing truant at the undergraduate level. I think there should be compulsory attendance otherwise the old mentality will continue and students will not attend classes, he said. Another student, Varun Sharma of IIFT (Indian Institute of Foreign Trade), is also wary of students coming right out of undergraduate college to show that kind of commitment. His institute is of course at the opposite end of the IIM B attendance spectrum. The registrar of the institute, Dr LD Mago, says that since the course is residential, the expectation of attendance is 100%, but they have increased the minimum required percentage from 75% to phenomenal 90% in the last five years.
Incidentally, Dr Prakash Apte, former director at IIM B, was not aware of the changes in the attendance for students, but supported the decision taken by the school anyway. It applies more to the core courses where many students already have an economics degree and so don't want to learn the same thing in class again, he said. Apte also reiterated that the responsibility of getting students to class rests on the teachers abilities. The faculty should make the classes interesting and attendance should be left to students said Apte.
Is it that only the top rung colleges can afford to deviate from such rules? H'vovi Bhagwagar, a clinical psychologist who has worked with students, believes that the rule works only for some schools. IIMs decision is meant for a select group of students- IIM is a premier institute, students pay lakhs of rupees to attend their programmes and so the commitment is already there, she said. If this 'voluntary attendance' rule was enforced at some of undergraduate colleges, the rule would be misused thoroughly and the classes would be empty!