‘The quality of learning is better when there is diversity and inclusiveness’

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 16, 2018


Ashish Nanda, Director, IIM-A, talks about new IIMs, Flipkart fiasco, global economic outlook and more

IIM-A Director Ashish Nanda says efforts to improve diversity at India’s top B-school are paying off. In this interview, Prof Nanda also talks about the institute’s steps to raise funds for the school’s research, to improve the quality of student life, and to conserve its heritage buildings.

Excerpts from the interview:

With six new IIMs being added, what happens to the premium IIM brand?

For a country such as India, with its young demography, there is a great need for good quality institutions of higher learning. But the question is whether capacity should be added exclusively by adding new institutions or if we should also look at scaling up existing institutions.

Building a new institution is a challenging task. The easier part is getting land and erecting the buildings. But academic institutions are more than just physical infrastructure; software is much more difficult to establish than the hardware. The challenging part is getting a vibrant educational environment with good faculty, eager students, and an atmosphere of learning. You cannot compress time beyond a point to achieve quality. And academic institutions require a minimum scale to be vibrant. Even at IIM-A, I feel we are sub-scale. Our student population is close to 1,000 full-time programme students.

Take any top educational institution in the US; you go to Harvard or Wharton, where full-time student strength is over 2,000 and faculty is over 200. Their greater scale brings efficiencies and benefits. Administrative fixed costs are distributed over larger size, making the per student burden smaller. Faculty size is larger, allowing faculty members to bounce ideas off, and collaborate with, colleagues in their area of specialisation.

Sometimes, I worry that in India, we are not attentive to scaling up existing institutions. Over the past few years, the government has committed to investing heavily in building new IIMs, whereas established IIMs, including IIM-A, B, and C, haven’t received any funding for expansion. In our haste to grow capacity, primarily by establishing new institutions, the nation should not end up with a number of sub-scale colleges.

Scaling up existing institutions of excellence might be an effective use of limited financial resources. Educational institutions the world over cannot fund capital for expansion from operating earnings; they need external funding to expand capacity. If government funding is constrained, perhaps established institutions such as IIM-A need to seek alternatives to 100 per cent government grants, such as debt, public/private funding and endowments.

How have you achieved your objective of making IIM-A an institution of diversity on many fronts?

We strongly feel that the quality of learning, particularly in a discussion-based setting such as ours, is better if participants come from diverse backgrounds. Diversity can be considered on many dimensions. One dimension is economic diversity. There are some very good institutions abroad where people come from all over the world, but are all pretty much from the same economic stratum.

IIM-A students come from a broad range of economic backgrounds. At our convocation two years ago, the father of one of our gold medallists gave me a big hug, and said, “Our son is the first person in our extended family who has studied beyond high school. Now, thanks to education at IIM-A, the world is his oyster.” So, on the dimension of economic diversity, we are quite good.

Another dimension is the spread of regions our students come from. IIM-A is such a magnet that we get students from all over India.

Where we fall short is diversity across gender, academic discipline, and international experience. For an institute of world calibre, IIM-A has too few international students. We do get a number of exchange students, but the numbers are dismal.

Till two years ago, we were not even permitted to admit international students in our flagship PGP programme. The argument was that every seat given to an international candidate would deprive an Indian applicant of the opportunity. We were able to get Board and Government permission to offer supernumerary seats to foreign students, since their presence would improve everyone’s learning by introducing different perspectives on issues.

Last year, we went to a number of countries, primarily the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, to market IIM-A. We discovered that recruiting students from abroad cannot be a one-year effort. We have to make a concerted effort over several years to be able to attract international students on a sustained basis.

How are you addressing the issues of gender and discipline diversity?

A quick fix to increasing gender diversity would be by establishing quotas or giving women applicants extra credit on account of their gender. But our women students and alumni have strongly said that they don’t want special consideration on account of gender during admissions.

I was also struck by the lack of discipline diversity soon after joining IIM-A three years ago. I had asked a class of first-year students how many were engineers and found that literally everybody in the class had come from an engineering background! When we probed the cause, we found that our admissions process favoured applicants with strong analytical skills. There are smart people from other backgrounds who have the potential to be effective leaders, but were not getting into IIMs because of the analytical bent in our admissions.

To address this issue, one of the big changes the IIMs have crafted in recent years in CAT is reducing the degree of difficulty in the analytical section. Our objective is not to recruit rocket scientists but potential leaders of enterprises (some of whom might actually be rocket scientists). In consultation with CAT convenors from other IIMs, the analytical section has been moulded such that it tests for math literacy rather than super-specialisation.

The other change we introduced was to shortlist for the written test and personal interview stage, the top five per cent of students who took the CAT from each of seven distinct academic streams. This enabled high-performing students from non-engineering backgrounds to appear for the interview.

Third, candidates who came for the interviews were asked to write short pieces. We used this to evaluate students’ analytical (both quantitative and qualitative) and communication abilities. Fourth, during the interviews, we tried to judge not only their analytical abilities, but also other skills and capabilities that contribute to making potential leaders.

The combined consequence of all these tweaks was that, in the 2016-18 batch, for the first time in many years, close to 20 per cent of the entering class were non-engineers, and women constituted over 20 per cent of the student strength. These numbers are better than before and we are proud to have a diverse class without taking recourse to relatively blunt measures of quotas or special credits. Hopefully, as the class grows more diverse, the quality of learning from conversations in class has become richer.

Do you give preference to people with work experience as well, as this is an international practice?

We believe that students with work experience contribute considerably to class learning through their experiences. So, we do give weightage to relevant work experience while evaluating candidates, but a large fraction of our entering class consists of students graduating directly from college.

A part of the reason is that CAT scores, unlike GMAT scores, don’t have multi-year validity and many potential students feel best prepared to take CAT right after they graduate, and before they start their jobs. If they get into IIM-A at that point, they are loathe to turn down the admission, even if they feel pre-PGP work experience might be beneficial.

For such candidates, we have begun to offer deferred admissions. For a subgroup of selected candidates with no work experience, we offer guaranteed admission in the next one or two years provided they use that time to gain work experience. Several selected candidates have accepted this offer, which has made a difference to the fraction of students with work experience in our classes.

How have your efforts been at raising funds for IIM-A’s research as well as for infrastructure?

We are looking to raise funds for three purposes: student life, research, and infrastructure. People have been willing to contribute, once we promise two things: naming rights and accounting of how their contributions are being spent.

During the last three years, we have received total commitments of close to ₹190 crore, which is greater than what was raised cumulatively in the past 50 years. But while raising funds is one part of the challenge, the other lies in deploying them effectively.

For instance, we raised funds for 15 chairs but have to find internal or external individuals who various stakeholders feel are eminently qualified to assume those chairs. Finding people who are highly qualified, willing and able to grace those chairs is not easy at all. After almost a one-and-a-half-year effort, we have been able to fill only three chairs.

Aren’t you tapping into IIM-A’s large alumni base to raise funds as well?

We are raising money from our alumni, and they have contributed, either directly or through their organisations, to all three initiatives. I would point particularly to our alumni’s handsome contributions to conservation and restoration of our heritage buildings.

What are your comments on the Flipkart issue, when it reneged on job offers made to students?

It was an unfortunate episode. We understand that environment changes, sometimes dramatically, for organisations. What we request of hiring organisations is to acknowledge and respect the fact that when you make a commitment to hire students, the students are making a reciprocal commitment to not seek alternative employment.

So, companies coming for campus placement have a moral duty to the candidates whom they have offered jobs to. If the external environment changes, the hiring organisations must engage with the students who have been invited to join the organisation as quickly as possible, explain the changed circumstances, and work with them to craft alternatives.

Late, unilateral announcements of cancellations or deferments leave a bad taste among the identified recruits, and damage the labour market reputation of the hiring organisations.

Have the job offers at IIM-A been good this year, as it serves as a proxy business barometer?

The outlook for the global economy doesn’t look good. Europe has a pessimistic outlook, wracked with threats of the European Union’s unravelling. Brexit threatens the idea of a common market and has negative economic implications for Europe. China is trying to make its economy more consumption-driven, even as slowing growth triggers social uncertainty and negatively affects resource-rich economies. Japan has been going through two decades of contraction.

The bright spots we are left with globally: the US, with its positive growth rate partly because of its immigration policy; Africa, partly because it has such a low base and such potential; and India, due to its internal demand and demographic profile.

Thus, compared to the rest of the world, India is in a good place. It may not be buoyant, but business sentiment is positive. And that is reflected in the robust job market that our students face. Of course, different sectors go through their business cycles, so the sectoral mix of jobs has changed. But the overall job market scenario for IIM-A graduates continues to be strong

Published on December 16, 2016

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