The government doesn’t seem to be able to keep its hands off the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). As this newspaper has reported, the ministry of education is considering a proposal that will empower it to initiate an inquiry against the board of governors (BOG) of any of the 20 IIMs, if it is found to violate the IIM Act. The heads of the institutes are alarmed, rightfully so, at this clear move to encroach on the autonomy guaranteed to the IIMs almost three years ago by the very same Act. The most recent standoff between the government and the IIMs involves its one-year programme. The IIMs call it an MBA degree, as is the global norm in many business schools. But the mighty UGC rulebook says only two-year programmes deserve that term. This illustrates the kind of tussle over trivialities that bureaucratic systems expend energies on, almost by reflex.
This tug-of-war has played out before. In 2015, the ministry under Smriti Irani was involved in a tussle with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on the matter of government role in the elite institutions. At the time, the PMO had pushed back against the ministry’s plans to give itself sweeping powers over the IIMs, and underlined the need for autonomy on various fronts, from scrapping the President’s role as “visitor” of the IIMs to the composition of the board and regulation of the fee structure. Thankfully, the PMO’s views prevailed. In 2016, almost a year later and with a new minister, Prakash Javadekar, in charge, a new draft of the law gave wide powers to the IIMs, with an internal system of checks and balances.
The current move threatens to undo that detente and slide back into central micro-management for goals that remain extremely unclear. The PM has championed the autonomy of the IIMs, a system which has proved its mettle over and over again. The New Education Policy (NEP 2020), too, envisages greater freedom for institutions of higher learning. Neither of those objectives are met by this attempted change in law. Indeed, dangling the threat of an inquiry over IIM boards leaves little about the ministry’s intentions to the imagination. It also depicts a suspicion of decentralisation characteristic of all Big Government, and signals its patronising certainty that only “sarkar knows best”. It is precisely this attitude that, over decades and over several governments, has cramped the creativity of institutes of higher learning. Of all human endeavour, learning and knowledge, especially, are contingent on institutional freedoms. It is not something that should be granted as a favour by a patrician state to “deserving” B-schools of excellence, but promoted in all educational institutions. In this new flashpoint, the PMO must step in again and convince the ministry of education to trust the IIMs and back off from a pointless wrangle. As an IIM director told this newspaper, learn to trust the Board please, the government isn’t the only responsible agency in the country.