It has been a richly deserved New Year gift for the Indian Institutes of Management, courtesy the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This without question has been a significant turnaround for a party which in 2003 ~ when it was in power and when Dr Murli Manohar Joshi was HRD minister ~ was determined to dictate the terms of engagement to IIMs and IITs. Unmistakable is the dramatic change in the strategies of the NDA government then and now, if last Tuesday's approval accorded by the Union cabinet to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bill, 2017, is any index to go by. From an attempt to regulate the pay-structure and other terms and conditions of faculties, the Centre has eventually conceded a long-standing demand of the premier B-schools ~ the grant of autonomy. Chiefly, the belated embroidery of “complete autonomy” will enable the IIMs to award degrees and not diplomas, as now. The fact that the MBA from an IIM has been a diploma since their inception more than 60 years ago has been one of the puzzling features of these centres of excellence. It is hard not to wonder whether successive governments, cutting across party lines, were intent on reinforcing their stranglehold over the B-school campuses. Beyond the conferment of degrees, the autonomy will cover administration, recruitment, and daily operations. Of course, the concept of “complete autonomy” has been couched in the rider of what the cabinet calls “adequate accountability”. Is that a hint of an overarching entity akin to the University Grants Commission? The IIMs are at a par with the best of B-schools in the world, and it will be deeply unfortunate if the government is loath to give up its total control ~ the obverse of what has now been fashioned as “complete autonomy”. It is fervently to be hoped that the HRD ministry will follow through on the Prime Minister’s tweet ~ “The IIM Bill, which was approved by the Cabinet, has been prepared with the aim of furthering excellence in these premier institutions.” And also of course the HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar’s assertion that the cabinet approval is a “historic decision”.
Theoretically, the IIMs stand to gain as the Bill will ensure that they are “board-driven, with the chairperson and director selected by the board”. This rules out the government's intervention in the matter of helming these institutions which have been accorded a free hand in the matter of course fees as well. It marks a significant measure of forward movement not least because the board's role was hitherto confined to advancing recommendations that the government could either accept or reject. The distinct departure from the MM Joshi strategy will hopefully be sustained. The evaluation of “accountability” ought never to be the government's prerogative.