IIMs must start graduation level courses to fill India’s liberal arts vacuum

(This appeared in DailyO on 23rd October, 2017)

IIMs should utilise the opportunity IIM Bill has afforded them

‘IIM Bill is passed by Lok Sabha — now IIMs can grant degrees instead of diplomas’, screamed many newspaper headlines in August.

However, to most IIM alumni and IIM aspirants, the degree-diploma distinction is utterly immaterial. No one cares whether your certificate says you got a PGDM (Post Graduate Diploma in Management) or MBA (Master in Business Administration). As far as the corporates are concerned, IIMs are part filtration mechanism, and part finishing school.

As a hiring manager, you don’t want to sift through thousands of CVs, design aptitude tests, and take rigorous interviews to hire only a couple of candidates. IIMs do that filtration for you. All you have to do is to reach the campus on the appointed campus interview day, and you get a bunch of candidates who have been selected among two lakh aspirants through a scientifically designed aptitude test and interview process. That makes your job much easier — which explains the beeline made by the corporates at the gate of the IIMs in February-March every year.

Recruiting is not the only aspect of HR manager’s job that’s made simpler by the IIMs. Training is the other area which is made easier as well. Here, I’m not talking about job specific training. Obviously, companies need to have specific training programs for their own specialized area of expertise.

But majority of Indian graduates and post-graduates lack basic employability skills. Corporates bemoan their inability to speak logically, write coherently and use computers productively. IIMs do a good job of building those skills.

I remember we had a course called Introduction to Computing which taught the basics of MS Office. We had courses on oral communication and written communication. You might think IIM is too lofty a place to learn such basic stuff — but you will be wrong. Most MBA aspirants, indeed most Indian graduates, lack those real-life skills.

That brings me to the most important point — if the main job that the IIMs are doing are filtration and basic skill development, why do they need to do it at the level of post-graduation? Why not just have a graduate level course for these?

Till now, it was not possible — because IIMs could not offer degrees. Though a diploma at the post graduate level is fine, a bachelor’s ‘diploma’ just does not work.

A post-graduate diploma was not a problem because most people do not pursue any further education after MBA. In the rare case when you want to, you are at least armed with a recognized bachelor’s degree that you earned before you came to the IIM.

But the idea of a bachelor’s ‘diploma’ was a non-starter. I know degrees are useless, but sadly our society values them — and it would have been a tough sell convincing anyone to opt for a course that sends them out into the world with only a 12th standard pass certificate.

But now, after the IIM Bill, that handicap no longer exists. IIMs can now legitimately award Bachelor’s degrees — and indeed, they should. It would be a great service to the nation where most of the non-engineering colleges rank below 500 in any respectable world university rankings.

This is not such a crazy idea. IIM-Indore already offers a 5-year integrated course in management — so they do teach bachelor level courses. The course at IIM-Indore is quite popular. But I wonder, is there any need to offer a 5-year integrated program, when all you want to do is to teach basic real-life skills needed to enter the world of business? Why not just offer a 3-year course instead, when you now have the liberty to do so?

You might argue that IIMs offer more than entry level real life skills. At IIM, there are courses on Leadership, Negotiation, Strategy — none of those can be called entry-level courses. Yet I would argue that they are not appropriate for the kind of students that are taken into IIMs.

A course on leadership is useful when you are already a leader and looking to refine your leadership style. A course on strategy is useful when you are a CXO, or at least a division head. Given the profile of a typical IIM batch, these courses are wasted on most students. You might say that IIMs now take a greater number of experienced students — but a year or two of experience does not really count. That is not enough to appreciate aspects of leadership and strategy.

Of course, those courses have their place. If I go back to IIM now, may be for a short 6 month or 9 month course, it may be useful for me. It may be good to understand aspects of leadership from other corporate leaders of my age, not just the professors. It may be useful to have discussions of strategy in a classroom where experienced heads of divisions talk about challenges that they faced, and how they dealt with them.

Such a course, offered to only people with 10+ years of experience, can truly be called an MBA. Institutes offering such an MBA may even be rated among the best in the world, as opposed to being in the top 50, as some of our IIMs currently are.

However, the real value is in the courses that the IIMs currently offer — because India desperately needs its institutions to teach basic, real-life skills — as early as possible in the life of a student. IIMs already do that job well. All they need to do is to offer it earlier, at the undergraduate level.

Instead of teaching leadership to fresh graduates who cannot possibly appreciate it, why not teach communication to students after the 12th standard itself, who need it desperately? Why not teach them history, sociology, psychology and economics — most of which are taught through ineffective rote-learning methods at the school level?

If our twenty IIMs all offer such undergraduate courses, we will have twenty great undergraduate colleges. As a result, we might even be able to reduce the unhealthy craze for IITs as our students get an option to study in a world-class liberal arts institution after 12th standard.

I wish the IIMs will now demonstrate the traits that they teach — vision, leadership and strategy — and utilise this opportunity that IIM Bill has finally afforded them.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.