The Minister for Human Resources Development, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi has raised a number of issues concerning IIMs and IITs that need closer examination.
Dr Joshi has complained that the Indian Institutes of Management have too few students and have a high student-teacher ratio. They should be able to admit many more students without raising faculty strength. He recognises the need for additional physical infrastructure if number of students were to increase.
He argues however, that IIMs have large corpuses, which they should use to build the facilities. Since the corpuses have been built out of past government grants to IIMs, if they don't wish to build facilities for additional students, IIMs should return part of their corpuses to the government, which will then presumably build the facilities.
Dr Joshi further argues that IIMs charge very high tuition fees that should be drastically reduced so that poor students can afford to join IIMs.
To this Dr Joshi has added some observations on Indian Institutes of Technology. He has argued that the education that students at Roorkee get is better than what the students get at IITs. Many more students of Roorkee stay and work in India after graduation than IIT students do.
Also he observes that research output in terms of publication and citations of Roorkee faculty is as good as IIT faculty even though the annual budget of Roorkee is only one fifth that of an IIT.
As an academic, one's knee-jerk reaction is to reject what Dr Murli Manohar Joshi says and argue for academic independence and that a politician should not interfere in academic matters. However the questions raised by him are important and one must face them even when one may reject his solutions. What is a desirable student-teacher ratio?
Can IIMs maintain quality of teaching by raising substantially student-teacher ratio? What is an optimal allocation of faculty time between teaching and research? What is the right level of tuition fees that an IIM should charge? Two related questions that arise are: how to measure research output? How to assess quality of teaching? I address these questions here.
The optimal class size depends on the subject taught and the need for interaction. Graduate classes at top universities vary in sizes. I have attended at MIT classes as small as six students and as large as 150 students. When student participation and discussions are considered essential, a class size much larger than thirty seems to be unwieldy.
On the other hand a class in mathematics where information flows one way can be much larger and still lead to effective teaching. Dr Joshi would say he does not suggest increasing student-teacher ratio to increase student intake but by having more classes.
This raises the second question, what is a desirable student-teacher ratio? Or in other words, how much should a faculty member teach i.e how much time should a faculty member devote to teaching?
To answer this, we should realise one thing. If a teacher does not do research, there is a danger that she will become stale and obsolete. Barring some exceptional persons who are passionate about teaching and who keep themselves up to date, faculty research is important to maintain quality of teaching.
Also, one should recognise that research facilities and time to do research are important in attracting and retaining good faculty. At the same time, a researcher who does not teach also runs the risk of being too narrow and redundant. She misses out on the stimulation that bright young questioning minds pose.
The IIMs need to do some self-examination and see if their faculty has an appropriate mix of research and teaching. If there are many faculty members who are only researchers and do no teaching then Dr Joshi's complaint that they have too few students would be justified.
Yet even when we want to increase the intake of students in to IIMs, one should ask, is it better to have one larger IIM or two smaller ones? Is there an optimal size of an institute?
Once the student-teacher ratio is fixed, the number of classrooms needed, the number of hostel rooms needed and the number of teachers required are more or less proportional to the number of students. Thus the economies of scale are not very dominant.
Of course, in terms of other facilities like library, administration, directorial efforts, etc, there are economies of scale. On the other hand, having two institutions rather than one provides competition as well as geographical dispersal. On balance I would argue for more institutions, each of a reasonable size.
Dr Joshi has also suggested to reduce drastically tuition fees charged by IIMs, from Rs 175,000 to Rs 25,000 so that no deserving student is deprived of an IIM education for want of money. The intent is right but the solution is not the best one can think of.
There is no reason why those who can afford should not pay for the marginal cost of their education. It costs IIMs Rs 250,000 per student year. Also a tuition fee of Rs 25,000 may not be affordable to all. The solution is simple.
Decide admissions on merit as adjusted for difference between performance and potential due to socio-economic background, and then provide financial assistance based on need. Such assistance should range from full fellowships to tuition waivers to loans of various sizes.
American universities do this all the time. Financial assistance depends on the financial need, which in turn is based on parents' income and wealth as well as educational needs of other siblings. One can develop appropriate norms for Indian conditions as to how much should one expect people to spend out of their income and wealth on education. There is no need to subsidise all to subsidise some deserving poor.
How does one assess the relative quality of education at IITs and Roorkee? If one were to analyse the performance of alumni of these institutions, one may get some idea. However, the performance of alumni may be better because the students were brighter and not because the education was better.
Even the relevance of their careers to India's development is not a completely satisfactory measure. If more Roorkee students stay and work in India, that may be because of lesser opportunities for them or due to the values created in them.
Also IIT alumni who have gone abroad have served the country in many ways. They have created a brand name from which the country has benefited enormously. The feeling of we can do it that one sees in the country is at least to some measure due to the success of these alumni.
Yet, IITs and any institute that wants to maintain quality should be constantly asking the question raised by Dr Joshi. Are we providing quality education in a cost effective way?
Similarly, IITs ought to monitor the research output of their faculty. A continuing system of assessment should be instituted by them. Of course, it is not always possible to compare a journal article with development of a product or new design. Yet in spite of all these difficulties attempts to assess quality of research output can help one improve and maintain quality.
Dr Murli Manohar Joshi's observations should lead to some introspection by the IIMs and IITs.The writer is Chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development Professor Emeritus, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research