IIM Bill: Give academic freedom importance
The government has proposed an IIM Bill 2017. The difference between institutional autonomy and academic freedom needs to be articulated, with a view on which of the two is more important. It needs to be analysed whether the IIM Bill in its current form address these two aspects of autonomy.
We are witnessing an ongoing debate on the balance between apposite governance and institutional autonomy in higher education institutes in India. The government has proposed an IIM Bill and in the discussion related to the IIM Bill, the issue of institutional autonomy is at the forefront but no discussion is taking place on academic freedom per se. Traditionally, the most important type of autonomy in an institution is academic autonomy (related primarily to teaching and research). However, in recent times three more types of autonomy have come to the forefront, namely, financial, organisational, and staffing autonomy. Financial autonomy refers to institutes to ability to raise funds in an autonomous manner. More specifically, financial autonomy implies that the institution can set fee as it deems fit for the various programmes that it offers. Organisational autonomy is the ability of an institution to establish sub-units and specifically set up research centres, satellite campuses, etc. Staffing autonomy refers to the power to recruit its employees as per its own processes.
The IIMs have always had financial autonomy. One can review the construction of IIM campuses and a simple analysis of randomly selected data of at least the new IIMs and some old IIMs clearly indicates that the cost of construction of the campus is higher than CPWD rates that are usually the benchmarks for construction. The cost of construction is higher on account of unique designs that provide an important character to the institution, which cannot then be benchmarked with CPWD rates for standard institutional buildings. However, who decides that character of the institute? It is primarily left to a great extent to the institute administration. Thus, one can infer high level of financial autonomy
provided to the IIMs.
IIMs have always had organisational autonomy. A simple review of websites of IIMs elucidates that almost all of the IIMs have centres of research several registered under Section 8 of the Indian Companies Act allowing them even greater level of autonomy with its own staff, funding, budget, management, etc.. Additionally, IIM Lucknow extension campus in Noida, IIM Indore extension in Mumbai, IIM Kashipur extension campus in Dehradun, IIM Trichy extension campus in Chennai, etc. are all together evidence of organisational
Finally, IIMs have always had staffing autonomy. Most of the IIMs follow their own recruitment and promotion policies with regards to faculty and staff. For instance, many IIMs have a standard tenure between each promotion and many promote faculty based on their unique evaluation criteria. Even greater autonomy is evident in terms of staff recruitment. Several IIMs recruit staff members well beyond the government sanctioned posts. Many of them employ staff at salaries
higher than faculty salaries.
So, one must wonder, why this question of autonomy again and again? Does it imply that the IIMs want unbridled financial, organisational, and staffing autonomy? Is it desirable? I guess not. Specifically, would we want opaqueness in how IIMs deal with their finances? This is already happening. A few IIMs have not made their annual reports available in public domain for
multiple years in a row.
Contrary to discussion on institutional autonomy there is no discussion on academic freedom. Most IIMs administrators direct their faculty to publish in narrow lists dominated by North American research journals, where publishing with Indian data is usually an unsurmountable task. While there is definite merit in publishing in these well-established North American journals in the initial stages of the career but most IIMs administrators direct faculty into narrow pigeon holes research even for promotions. Is this
academic freedom? Well, I guess not.
The reason for the aforementioned anomalies is that IIMs were founded under the Societies Registration Act, which requires almost no compliance with any standard. The British introduced it after the mutiny for the local groups to do their own things. Later, the society format got picked up by the nationalist and later by Gandhians. Hence, there was no question of the Societies Act being reformed. Foreign donors picked up NGOs (as societies mostly) for funding as they considered them to be far more economical and effective. The primary reason is the nearly non-existent statutory requirement for societies. A good part of the problem with the IIMs is that these are societies and the act makes no statutory requirements. Hence, the need for the IIM Bill that creates these robust structures. In the current shape, the new IIM Bill only promises greater institutional autonomy. There is the peril of replacing the “external powers (government power)” with “new internal powers”. This is worrisome because the government represents the people and the institute board does not. The representatives of the government are accountable to people vis-à-vis Parliament, CAG, CBI, CVC, CIC among others The self-appointing board as proposed in the Bill is not.
Consequently, we must rise above this reductionist discourse of institutional autonomy and debate academic freedom. Great institutions are faculty led, administratively supported and technology enabled. Hence, we really need a right IIM Bill. Not one that gives undesirable or unlimited financial, organisational, and staffing autonomy alone but actually allows for faculty governance in the true spirit of academic freedom. Academic autonomy would be seriously simplified and endangered if it were put on a continuum with “full government control and no autonomy” on the one end and “full autonomy and no more state control” on the other.