If the government is indeed planning to amend the IIM Act to give itself control over the running of the premier institutions—after having relinquished it through the 2017 Act—it will signal a complete lack of intent to reform higher education in India. As per a report in Mint, the government is seeking some checks to the IIMs’ autonomy—ironically, “without flouting the autonomous spirit of the IIM Act”—fearing that their boards could abuse the power the Act vests in them. Given how contradictory the two goals are, it is difficult to imagine how the government plans to do this.
While the Act had removed the government fetters on administrative, academic and financial matters, the Centre’s rethink seems to have been triggered by certain IIMs raising their fees and building corpuses without any specified plan for use of the funds. The HRD ministry wants fees to be commensurate with expense, and also serve student welfare through scholarship. The problem with such thinking is that true autonomy—crucial for top-rung Indian institutes to acquire global reckoning—calls for the IIMs to be free from the inclusion/social development obligations of the government. Even as the IIMs remain subject to reservations in admissions under the 2017 Act, pushing “student welfare” through lower fees and more scholarships amounts to making them submit to informal fee caps. This will drive the government goad—dependence on outlays from the Centre—deeper down their napes. What’s worse, the government brought down the outlay this year, and if this continues, the IIMs will be constrained for funds. As for IIMs building corpuses from fee hikes, this is a standard practice at world-class institutions, including the Ivy League in the US. Most such institutions use their corpus to not just build infrastructure and spend on R&D, but also to invest and grow these funds to meet emerging needs. The IIM Act, in section 9, itself places reasonable restrictions on the IIMs’ use of surplus funds—“no part of the surplus, if any, in revenue of such Institute, after meeting all expenditure in regard to its operations under this Act, shall be invested for any purpose other than for the growth and development of such Institute or for conducting research therein”. So, it is hard to understand why the government is so wary of the corpuses and the supposed lack of plans for their use. The government, as per the Mint report, also wants the IIMs to increase their intake. While creating more higher education opportunities is a must for a country like India where the tertiary level GER is just 25.2%, forcing the IIMs to admit more students than they do now is not how this is to be achieved. The IIMs’ intake levels ensures thorough checks on student quality through intense competition. If the government truly wishes to address enrolment, it should focus on developing more IIM-like institutions instead of asking existing ones to relax standards.