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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2004

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Fee in Govt's bonnet

THE HUMAN RESOURCE Development Ministry order slashing the fees charged by the Indian Institutes of Management — the country's premier B-schools — is wrong from more than one perspective. Certainly from the point of view of timing it could not have been worse. The decision comes in the wake of reports that the Ministry was keen on taking administrative responsibility for the conduct of the admission test, which was rejected by these institutions even at the risk of forsaking the budgetary support available to them all these years. In the event, the suspicion that the latest move is in retaliation of the rebuff by the governing councils of the IIMs is too strong to be ignored. That elections to the Lok Sabha are just round the corner makes the timing even more suspect, triggering as it does doubts whether this is not an attempt to score cheap brownie points among the voting public.

Then there is the question of the steep cut itself. If the Government really thought that these institutions could be run just as effectively with an 80 per cent fee cut, it needs to explain to the public why it had remained a passive spectator to their high fee structure in recent years? And why it had all these years remained silent at the gross under-utilisation of publicly funded academic infrastructure, if it thought that the student intake can be doubled without any loss of academic effectiveness? If the Government was convinced that many students were not making to these portals only because they could not afford the fees, surely offering them full scholarships would have been the answer, not lowering fees for all. Finally, the section in the approach document to the Tenth Plan dealing with technical and management education makes no mention of the fee structure or the optimum level of student intake. Yet, these are precisely the issues the Ministry is now trying to foist on these institutions. The IIMs of course have only themselves to blame for the situation. For too long have they viewed policy formulation for them as a matter to be sorted out between themselves and the government, the principal benefactor. There was no attempt at involving the general public in the decision-making process on policy issues by dissemination of information about their financials and other operational parameters. They have not cared to put out even bare financial information about their operations so that public opinion can be shaped.

Yet, the issues raised by the Ministry's order, whatever its inherent motives, are too important to be dismissed. What is the appropriate level of public funding for institutions of higher learning in the face of gross under-funding of elementary and secondary education? Has the rising fee structure meant that students from the poorer sections of society do not even contemplate writing the entrance examinations? To what extent does subsidised education hinder enforcing market discipline on academic output? These are questions that need the widest possible debate, and both the Government and the governing boards of IIMs must take the initiative in resolving them.

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