September 20, 2010 12:12 am

Local hero: IIM Ahmedabad faces the future

Widely hailed across India as the best graduate business school in the country, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA) has much to boast about.

“One-third of India’s professional chief executives start out here at the IIMA; it’s remarkable,” says Samir K. Barua, director at the school.

Already famous for its talented students and its faculty members who move in lofty academic circles, the IIMA is now aiming for new heights – in particular, internationalisation.

“We want to be the thought leaders in management,” says Barua. “We want to create new paradigms in the field, just like Harvard has done in the west. We want to be the game shapers and changers, and I want new ideas in the field to come from the IIMA.”

Autonomous, but owned and financed by the state government of India, the school was the second to be established after Kolkata in 1961. It is now one of nine institutes nationally, soon to be 12, that aim to create a pool of elite managers able to lead the economy forward.

The institute, which collaborated with Harvard Business School during its early years, uses the case-based method of teaching and sees this as a prized asset and a key to its success.

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Its flagship courses are the two-year postgraduate programme (PGP), which takes in students straight after their undergraduate degree, and the one-year PGP-X, for students with roughly 5-10 years’ work experience, as is the case with most MBA courses in the west.

While the institute is well regarded in Europe and the US, it wants to build a truly global reputation. “We need to improve our image outside India and be on a level playing field with the world’s top schools,” says Barua.

Recognition worldwide would bring benefits through collaboration and synergies with other business schools, as well as the development of exchange programmes. The IIMA was the first Indian business school to be accredited by the European Quality Improvement System (Equis), an international accreditation body - IIM-Bangalore was also accredited in June this year. Now IIMA has its eye on the US equivalent: accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Better connections with other business schools would also mean more attention from major corporations that would look to the IIMA for project collaborations, and it would broaden placement offers for PGP graduates.

New laws approved in April make it possible for schools such as the IIMA to set up other campuses both at home and abroad. “We are currently in talks, but soon it may be possible to set up campuses in, for example, Singapore or Dubai, which is why international rankings are important,” says Barua. “But we are looking at Hyderabad at the moment, which is a base for many companies in the information technology, biotechnology and infrastructure sectors.”

However, the IIMA faces major challenges that could stall its development and threaten its status as a provider of the best management education in the country.

One of the recommendations made for the school by Equis and other accreditation agencies was that its student population needed to be more diverse – in essence, saying the IIMA needed to attract international students.

But the IIMA is already struggling to meet the demand from India alone. Last year, roughly 242,000 students sat the common admission test, the first round of assessment for a PGP place at a management institute such as the IIMA. Only 1,800 applicants, or less than 1 per cent of candidates, secure a place.

Only the very best in the top quarter percentile attain a seat at the IIMA. Of the current PGP batch of students, 94 per cent are trained engineers, with nearly half having gone to the elite Indian Institutes of Technology first.

“We will never win the numbers game in India,” says Barua. “We are turning away brilliant students each year, as we do not have the capacity to satisfy the overwhelming demand. If we start taking on international students, inevitably we will be cutting down the number of places available to home students.”

He adds: “Another problem is that the brightest students in the west will not come to India. They will go to Harvard or Wharton. So we will have to lower test-score boundaries if we are to attract them. But this will mean they still will not get into the school, unless a quota system or something is set up, as the domestic test scores will still outweigh those of the international students. How can we justify accepting lower-calibre students?”

Moving towards a diverse faculty is also on the cards. “While our programmes themselves are very diverse and constantly changing with the times, we need a diverse faculty to deliver them. We are looking to get professors from outside India who will spend a substantial amount of the semester teaching here,” he says.

But the IIMA is already facing recruitment issues. “There is a huge shortage of teachers, and my faculty is overworked. We have been trying to overcome this, and the IIMA has been successful over the past 2-3 years in attracting roughly 30-plus staff. But this shortage stretches across all management institutes,” says Barua.

New legislation in the form of the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, which will allow foreign universities to establish campuses in India, will increase staffing pressures. B.H. Jajoo, dean of the IIMA, says: “With this bill coming into play, we are preparing to compete aggressively. Retention of our faculty is a major problem we will face. These foreign universities will have [much greater] financial backing than what we can generate, and they have no limits on remuneration of teachers.”

He adds: “They will have a far better quality of organisation and management, and levels of freedom when it comes to running their schools that we can only dream of. We are overregulated by the government, so we have to abide by quotas, audits and levels of scrutiny that these schools will not have to deal with.”

In spite of the obstacles, Barua’s optimism is undiminished: “Having been in the job for more than two and a half years, I think I have a bigger challenge than my predecessors because the global platform is bigger. It is an exciting time.”

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