The government is investing in building several new IITs, IIMs, and AIIMSs. These institutes will increase the availability of high quality professional education in India, a vast nation with a young population and a growing economy. States and cities where these new institutes are being established are agog with excitement. Academic institutions generate positive spillovers to their local communities. They attract education oriented, socially engaged, and broad horizon students, faculty, and staff who enrich the community’s social and cultural life. Related enterprises flourish around academic institutions. Real estate prices rise. Not surprisingly, there has been political jostling over where the new institutes will be located and each announcement of an institute’s location has been welcomed by their local community as a signal achievement.
And yet, as new institutes of excellence are dispersed around the nation and welcomed wholeheartedly by the local populace, I worry about possible unintended consequences of focusing solely on building new institutes. To be productive, scarce resources – public finances, policymaker’s time, and implementation bodies’ attention – must be employed to achieve joint objectives of building hardware and software, and extending reach while ensuring excellence.
The hardware of physical infrastructure – land, buildings, etc. – is important for creating an academic institution, but is the easiest to establish. Academic excellence depends crucially on the software as well: a culture of excellence in the institution and high quality faculty.
Whatever the grandeur of the physical infrastructure, quality of learning crucially depends on what goes on in the institution. An institution’s activities are influenced significantly by its culture. A culture of excellence develops in an academic institution only after years of committed effort. Through the dedication of cohorts of students, generations of faculty, and lineage of leaders, an institution develops a sense of what it stands for, what values it upholds, and how it conducts itself in routine and difficult times. The lore of how the institution responded to critical challenges shapes its culture. You cannot prefabricate it; culture develops over time.
At IIMA, our culture has been shaped by stories passed from one generation to the next of the enterprise of our founders, the simplicity and dedication of our early directors and senior faculty, our institute not brooking any external influence on selection despite considerable inducement, the extraordinary extent to which the entire IIMA community gathered together to defend the institute’s autonomy in the face of a threat to its independence, and several other such defining moments. No one of these events by itself defines what IIMA is today, but woven together, they provide the institute a fabric uniquely its own, an identity and a character that nurtures our commitment to academic excellence and meritocracy.
As in IIMA, all institutions of excellence have strong cultures that draw upon their experiences over the years. Strong cultures are likely to develop if the physical infrastructure hosts communities of dedicated individuals who are committed to the ideals of education and excellence. Locating new institutions in dispersed, even remote, locations, disconnected from sections of the local populace committed to the ideals of education and distant from family amenities, such as good schools and local economies that can support dual careers, exacerbates the challenge of building animated communities of such dedicated individuals.
Strong academic cultures are built on the backbone of high quality and committed faculty. In fact, modern technological innovations, such as distance learning, have only magnified the importance of having teachers who encourage enquiry, deliberation, and learning. From where will the new institutions get their faculty?
I am more familiar with the management education space, so my observations derive primarily from that arena, although I suspect they would not be very different in engineering or medicine. The new IIMs, wanting to establish academic rigor, will recruit faculty with doctorates in management and related disciplines. The new faculty will be mostly from India, given our academic pay scales. However, we don’t have enough doctorates coming from top Indian management schools to meet the increased demand for quality educators and researchers.
New doctorates provide the lifeblood of entrants to the academic profession. Even as physical capacity is being created, doctoral programs in the IIMs are not expanding. Expanding their heavily subsidized doctoral programs is a daunting prospect for the IIMs, particularly since the investment doesn’t directly benefit the institutes. The government should step in to support the strengthening of this important software.
The new IIMs will also try and recruit faculty from other institutes. Lateral movement would be welcome if there were a surfeit of faculty at existing IIMs, since it would make the academic labor market more fluid. In fact, most existing IIMs suffer from faculty shortage. Pulling faculty from established IIMs will be difficult for new IIMs. Even if they are partially successful, such movement will not improve academic productivity; quite the opposite. To be stimulating and lively, academic departments must have a minimum size. Having a minimum scale ensures you can bounce your ideas off others, attend seminars that will spark your research interests, and seek collaborations with colleagues that have complementary skills. By increasing the number of institutes while quality faculty continue to be scarce, we risk developing subscale institutes where academics, however brilliant as individuals, will thirst for lively academic discourse.
Even as new institutes are created, the nation can benefit from significant expansion of existing institutes that have a history of excellence and high quality, committed faculty. Several of the existing IITs and IIMs, and AIIMS would fit in that category. High quality though these are, many of these institutes are subscale, compared to some of the top global institutions. My institute, IIMA has approximately 1,000 full-time graduate and doctoral students and 100 full-time faculty. In comparison, both Harvard Business School and Wharton have approximately 2,000 full-time graduate and doctoral students and 230 full-time faculty. Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which has large executive and part-time MBA programs, has 3,000 MBA and PhD students and 205 faculty.
Entering students and recruited faculty would have considerable confidence about the quality of the institutes they are joining, if established institutes such as IIMA were to expand significantly. Public resources would yield better returns if some of those were invested in expanding such established institutes rather than solely in building greenfield campuses. If the nation supports some of these established institutes to become world-class, they are in the flow of cutting-edge global thinking, become magnets to attract the best students and faculty from near and far, and become role models for other academic institutions.
Has this model of seeking reach and excellence jointly worked anywhere? One could argue that the approach of the Chinese government to higher education has been just that. They have developed many new universities, but they have also identified and supported a few to become globally recognized, with remarkable success.
As in most walks of life, pursuit of a singular objective risks yielding suboptimal results. For the nation’s investment in institutes of academic excellence to be impactful, balanced attention must be paid to multiple objectives: building hardware and software, extending reach while ensuring excellence.