The vitriolic public reaction to Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's seemingly innocuous comment that "The faculty in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) is not world-class. It is the students in IITs who are world-class. The IITs and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are excellent because of the quality of students and not because of quality of research or faculty," largely smells of hurt egos and cognitive dissonance.
The Indian middle class, which has been the biggest beneficiary of globalization, is finding it hard to digest an insinuation against colleges that made it possible for their offspring to high jump to the economic upper class by bringing multinational and international jobs within reach. Middle class aspirations which were previously aimed at government and bank jobs, found higher calling in the emerging and better-paying private sector jobs. Suddenly, it was not necessary to have an uncle's 'reference' in order to get a good job; success lay an individual meritorious effort away. An IIT or IIM education became the new status symbol. No wonder, everyone wants to believe that the IITs and IIMs are world-class and have world-class faculty, regardless of whether that is true or not.
There is also a copious proportion of "how dare the pot call the kettle black" sentiment in the tweets, retweets and adrenaline flow that Ramesh's comment has sparked off. Reacting to the minister, commodity literature author and IIT Delhi/IIM Ahmedabad alumnus Chetan Bhagat tweeted, "Before Jairam Ramesh talks about IIT/IIM faculty being world-class, he should comment if our politicians are world-class."
Alumni and faculty associations of the IITs grabbed the opportunity to demand higher research grants and fewer teaching hours for IIT faculty and similar noises were made by IIM alumni too. Their submissions were fair: how can quality research happen with government interference, faculty shortage, lack of funds and the overload of teaching responsibilities compounded by increasing batch sizes at these colleges.
Some IIM alumni also argued that because they had had a very insightful learning experience under a highly approachable set of professors, they indeed must be a big deal on the world stage. This specious argument lacks credibility as it purports good personal experiences as evidence of passing the benchmarks of what actually defines world class faculty. Is it that the faculty at other good b-schools is un-insightful and unapproachable? Professors regarded as 'Gods' in a certain management area may be leading academics in the Indian context, but have remained insignificant in the global top echelons of management thought leadership.
And if you think about it, the ambiguity about what qualifies as 'world-class' whets up rhetoric (much to the enjoyment of those like me who like to watch the fun from the sidelines) and prevents such debates from reaching meaningful conclusions. Having lived in an economy which had shut the doors to the rest of the world for the majority of the country's independent years, it is worthwhile to consider that as Indians we may have little clue about what is regarded as 'world-class' in a modern global context where higher education systems flourished much before they did in India (I am not going into romantic discussions built around the ancient universities of India here as that phase of history is irrelevant now). In India, academic excellence has largely begun and ended with great teaching ability whereas the rest of the developing and developed world considers cutting-edge research as the principal parameter of academic excellence, and teaching excellence is considered to be a given.
Examining some numbers might also help.
According to annual figures published by Batelle - R&D; Magazine, India lags substantially behind China in its annual R&D; spend. India's Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) after factoring Purchasing Power Parity was US$ 28.1 billions in 2009, which increased to US$ 33.3 billions in 2010. In comparison, China spent more than four times that of us at US$ 123.7 billions in 2009 and US$ 141.4 billions in 2010 on R&D.;
The UNESCO Institute of Statistics reports that between 2000 and 2004, India had a research manpower count of 119 researchers per million people compared to China's 708 and USA's 4,605 per million people.
The Shanghai Jiao Tong University's (SJTU) Institute of Higher Education which conducts the annual 'Academic Ranking of World Universities' using empirical data from science and social science research citation indexes as its sources ranks Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science in the 300-400 range and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur in the 400-500 range. No other Indian institutes, whether the IITs or IIMs, feature in its top 500.
Teaching pressure has only recently increased in the IITs and IIMs, after the government implemented caste quotas and forced the institutes to more than double their annual intakes in their flagship programs of study. The faculty numbers, however, have not increased proportionately at least in the older IIMs. The 'teaching overload' pet-peeve brandished by IIM faculty did not exist before the middle of the 2000s, when batch sizes were smaller and the faculty strength was only 70-80% of what it is now. Nor were the IIMs running one-year executive programs then. How did the faculty perform in terms of research then?
I wrote about a study on research contribution to the most competitive journals from Indian b-schools in an article earlier this month. According to the study, the IIMs had shown dismal performance in contributing top-tier research between 1991 and 2009 and while there were some promising signs of late, in the aggregate the Indian Statistical Institutes at Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore and the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad had beaten the IIMs hands down in contribution of top-quality research. The argument that teaching overload prevents faculty from high-quality research is highly suspicious because there were never any glory days of research at these institutes when the teaching pressure was easier.
This does not mean that the IIM faculty has been sitting idle when it was not teaching. Many have been publishing their research in not-so-competitive peer-reviewed or non-refereed journals, while some others have been involved in sparking off rural innovation initiatives (such as the Honey Bee Network from IIM Ahmedabad) or advising the government sitting on policy panels. Some have also co-authored Asian editions of management textbooks. While such initiatives do make the faculty local heroes, they do not make a compelling case for IIM faculty to call themselves at par with the best in the world.
As of today, all the six older IIMs put together produce just one or two top-tier research papers every year, compared to the HKUST School of Business, Hong Kong which singlehandedly produces 30 in one year, or schools like Wharton or MIT-Sloan which produce around 80 per year. On the world stage, the research contribution of the IIMs is negligible.
Cutting-edge research --- studies that are at the absolute forefront of human discovery and have long-lasting influence on society have rarely happened at the IIMs. No IIM professor has ever come within meaningful distance of being nominated for a Nobel Prize, though a couple of names from the IITs and government universities have flown around in the Nobel nominee backchannels in the past. Many ethnically Indian professors have appeared in various lists of the world's top thinkers (the late CK Prahalad of University of Michigan, Vijay Govindrajan of Dartmouth, Bala V Balachandran of Kellogg), but none belong to the IITs or IIMs. In their 50-odd years of existence, the IIMs have failed to produce a single thought-leader in the international arena.
According to academicians who watch the research landscape closely, most faculty at the IIMs neither aspire to conduct cutting-edge research, nor do they possess the necessary skills even if they wanted to. Who should one blame? Most academicians blame the previously low-quality training of the FPM programmes at the IIMs. "Not only have the IIMs produced insufficient PhDs, most of them do not possess the quantitative skills required to produce compelling research that can pass the most rigorous peer-review processes known to the world," says a professor who taught at IIM Ahmedabad in the first six years of its existence.
If there is a genuine grouse that IIT or IIM faculty may credibly have, it is the lack of adequate research funding or competitive salaries at these institutes. While undergraduate or post-graduate programs, executive training and consultancy are money-making ventures for b-schools, research is entirely a cost center. Research requires money for the scholar to travel, commission surveys, buy data or engage paid associates or assistants.
There are various avenues that the IITs and IIMs can arrange funds from. Student fees comes to mind as a natural source of funds, but given the hue-and-cry surrounding 'return-on-investment' of placement salaries against fees, it is unlikely that the IIMs can look forward to students funding their research aspirations anytime soon.
Top b-schools worldwide enjoy abundant donations from their alumni. In 2010, MBA alumni of Chicago-Booth, Harvard and Columbia gifted in excess of $10 million each to their alma maters' funds. The business schools of both Harvard and Stanford now boast of endowments of more than US$ 1 billion. With that kind of cash, the schools better be involved in cutting-edge influence on the world. Such kind of alumni giving-back or fundraising is unheard of at the IIMs. It is worthwhile to consider why the wealthy lot among IIM graduates do not give back to their schools in such copious amounts. The IITs however do boast about sporadic instances of multi-crore gifts from their alumni.
Which leaves the IIMs and IITs mostly dependent on the government for research grants, such as the Rs 20 crore one given to IIM Calcutta in the 2011 Union Budget. No doubt India should increase its spending on research and development and foster indigenous intellectual property. So should the IIMs and IITs divert more funds towards churning out a larger number of PhDs. But can these institutes sustainably grow to become world-class centers of research excellence on taxpayer money alone?
It is ironic that the same IIT/IIM alumni who have been spewing defensive venom on Jairam Ramesh's comments have been loath to enabling their alma maters in becoming world-class research institutes. How many of these IIM alumni would have joined and not decried their institutes had the fees been Rs 30 lakhs instead of Rs 13 lakh? Forget crores, how many lakh rupees are the IIMs getting from their alumni this year?
"It's a tough job and someone's got to do it. Not me, of course. But someone, definitely."
Jairam Ramesh's comment is at least half true. With a super-difficult entry barrier in the Common Admissions Test (CAT), the IIMs have been successful at aggregating some superhigh-IQ youngsters at one place which the corporates get convenient access to for hiring. In the two years of the MBA, the IIMs may also teach a thing or two about management to these bright minds, albeit using second-hand material not generated by the native faculty, but by the professors at the Whartons and the Harvards. Now imagine what the results would be like if the same set of super-able students were instead taught by Harvard or Wharton faculty using cutting-edge and first-hand knowledge. That may help you assess the substance in Jairam Ramesh's comment.
Jairam Ramesh might have had ulterior political motives in making provocative comments that fire up TV news and Twitter. But as a good side-effect, sections of our society have started to question the media-created hype around the so-called 'world-class intellectual capital' of the IITs and IIMs. For it is only when we acknowledge the existence of problems, can we begin to think about finding solutions to them.