Yes, says the recent Yash Pal committee on higher education. I say: no. The IITs and IIMs have serious work to do in their respective fields, engineering and management, and cannot afford to fritter away energies in diversifying into unrelated fields. More on this in my ET column, IITs and IIMs:Yash Pal is wrong.
The Yash Pal committee also takes too benign a view of governance at IITs and IIMs. On the hierarchy of governance, the committee places universities, IITs and IIMs in an ascending hierarchy. Now, it's true that IITs and IIMs have done a better job than universities. But that doesn't mean they have no governance issues. The IITs and IIMs have become high quality teaching institutions, thanks, in large measure, to generous financial support from government and the benefits of exclusivity in a highly uncompetitive Indian market for higher education.
I argue in my column that, to progress further, they need substantial improvements in governance and accountability. The composition and performance of their boards is one area that cries out for reform. The Bhargava committee noted that the IIM boards tended to reduce their roles to one of providing routine administrative approvals.
The most important function of a board is to lay down performance objectives for top management and to measure performance against objectives. How many IIT and IIM boards can claim to have done this? Somewhere along the line, many have forgotten that boards don't exist in order to approve canteen contracts.
I would add: there are limits to the effectiveness of board monitoring. We have seen this in the corporate world and must not expect anything different from academic board. The difference is that companies are subject to the discipline of the market place in a way in which academic institutions are not- certainly not, institutions of higher education in India.
America has a reasonably competitive market for higher education.Yet, it has state universities of high quality. In India, the government cannot afford to withdraw from public institutions until a more competitive market has evolved. For the same reason, board monitoring at the IITs and IIMs will not suffice. There must be periodic, external audits commissioned by an Appointments Committee for Higher Education that I propose.
The Bhargava committee provided an overview of the functioning of the IIMs. The government must now ask for detailed, institute-specific audits for the older IIMs and IITs. These audits must be based on extensive interactions with all stakeholders, not written documents provided by the institutions. There are private schools in the west that have subjected themselves to such an audit on their own. One b-school I know has benefited enormously from external audit is Toronto's Rotman School of Business which has moved up in the international rankings quite a bit over the years.