Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Management education has failed in India: Nirmalya Kumar

Nirmalya Kumar, one of the world's leading management thinkers, says the current model of management education in the country has outlived its utility and that sweeping reforms are the need of the hour

Published: Oct 26, 2016 07:45:20 AM IST
Updated: Oct 26, 2016 11:38:36 AM IST
Management education has failed in India: Nirmalya Kumar
Image: Joshua Navalkar

Nirmalya Kumar
Designation: Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons
Qualifications: Bachelor in Commerce, Calcutta University; MBA, University of Illinois at Chicago, US; Doctoral degree in marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US
Career: Kumar was a professor of marketing at the Aditya Birla India Centre at the London Business School. He had previously taught at IMD, Switzerland, and Northwestern University (Kellogg School of Management). He has worked with several top global companies in 60 countries apart from serving on the boards of ACC, Bata India and UltraTech Cement, among others. Kumar has also authored six books and is considered as one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategy and marketing.

The traditional model of management education that has been practised in the country for decades has failed to serve its purpose, says Nirmalya Kumar, 56, member of the group executive council at Tata Sons, the holding company of the $108-billion, salt-to-software conglomerate.

This is evident from the massive outflow of management students seeking admission in foreign universities each year and the low level of internationally published research papers emanating from Indian business schools, adds Kumar, who is regarded as one of the world’s leading management thinkers.

But green shoots of change are visible in the way management education is imparted in the country, with the arrival of some new-age business schools that appreciate the need of global managers for global businesses. In an interview, Kumar tells Forbes India that top management institutes here need to change their enrolment strategy and even hire teachers who have trained at top global institutions by offering them competitive salaries. Edited excerpts:

Q. How would you evaluate the current state of management education in the country?
In a sense, management education has failed in the country. Otherwise, so many people wouldn’t be leaving the country to study abroad. We don’t see too many Americans, Germans or Japanese students leaving their home countries to pursue higher studies.

Then comes the aspect of building world-class institutions. None of the Indian universities features among the top 200 in the World University Rankings (brought out by Times Higher Education). If you look at research, the entire universe of Indian faculty across management schools has together published less papers in leading international journals than I have over the course of my career. And I wasn’t even the most productive in the world.

So business schools in India, especially the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management), are stuck in the pre-1991 mentality, which is very much about controlling the supply of students that enter these schools and graduate each year, since there is no dearth of demand.

In that sense, these institutes function more like selection agencies who, through the entrance process, do a pre-selection of brilliant students for potential recruiters to choose from. The intellectual processing that they do with these students over the course of the academic tenure becomes irrelevant.

This model doesn’t serve the country since those who can afford it prefer to study abroad and the intelligent ones get a scholarship. A majority of the remaining students are served by low-quality management schools that have sprung up across the country. They get a degree in business education from these colleges, but it has no value.   

Q. What do you think of some of the newer business schools that have come up in the country and are trying to change the paradigm of management education?
There are some interesting private institutions that are doing things differently. The ISB (Indian School of Business) is truly trying to be a global research institution. Its faculty tried to do a lot of research and a lot of it is also published globally. The SP Jain School of Global Management is another example of an institution that is doing things differently from an academic curriculum and delivery point of view. The education system that it aspires for meets global standards.

Q. What can traditional MBA institutions do to reinvent themselves?
The IIMs keep talking about resource constraints. I don’t know what constraints they are speaking about. I have taught at colleges like Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and the London Business School (LBS), both of which have far smaller campuses than the average IIM, but process a far larger number of students each year. And a larger batch size hasn’t had any impact on the quality of talent graduating from these institutes, which is evident from the fact that they rank higher than the IIMs in global rankings. The IIMs should increase their annual intake capacity by tenfold immediately. The best B-schools in the world are also those that graduate the most number of students in a year. A management school is known by the number of successes it has [students who go on to do well professionally].

No one can predict which student will be successful in the future. So, to increase the chances of such a success, you need to increase the batch size.

These legacy institutions need to rethink their admission process, their size, their research mission and their international outreach. If graduating students from a B-school have to work in global companies, they need to be trained to work with people from other countries. And that cannot happen if there aren’t peers from different nationalities in a classroom, like there are at Harvard or IMD or LBS.

Also, an attempt needs to be made to bring back a lot of Indian academicians who have gone abroad by making the pay scale competitive with global peers and other incentives. This is something that the Chinese universities have done very well.

Q. How employable is the average Indian management graduate? A lot of companies appear to think that B-school graduates need significant reorientation when they join the corporate world.
Students graduating from the IIMs are really smart. They need the spit and polish, which can happen over time. We have also hired a lot of talent from private B-schools and found them to be very good. The reason for the reorientation that is needed is a fundamental difference between the Indian and American model of management education. In India, you can finish your undergraduate studies and proceed directly to do a master’s programme. Abroad, you need an average of four years of work experience between the two courses. Those four years of professional experience teach you a lot and candidates with such work experience are more employable than the others once they complete their MBA.

Private institutions like SP Jain and ISB insist on work experience and even IIMs have started attaching greater importance to it now. It also makes for a more interesting classroom when there are students from diverse professional backgrounds ready to share their personal experiences.

Q. How well are Indian management colleges leveraging technology to impart education and reach out to students?
In a country like India, where a large mass of people needs to be educated, technology has to play an important role. We are so far behind on physical infrastructure creation that we have no choice but to rely on some kind of technological intervention.

One of the models that I can think of is one where the first-year curriculum of an MBA course, which mostly comprises the fundamentals of business like basic finance and marketing, is made available to one and all, for free, through an online delivery platform. Anybody motivated enough to pursue management studies can access this content online and self-learn. They can then complete exercises based on this knowledge and appear for an exam at the end of the year, which can serve as an entrance test to B-schools. Candidates who excel can then move on to the second year of education at an institute, choosing to specialise in their preferred subjects while those that don’t move beyond the first year can be given a diploma in recognition of their efforts. This diploma can help them land relatively low-skilled jobs like store managers.  

Q. Is having an MBA degree a prerequisite to be a good manager? And is the degree losing its charm somewhere?

The MBA degree is a very stable one. The degree is not important; what matters is where you get it from. Schools like LBS, Harvard or the IIMs will never experience a demand drop-off. Just like law or medicine, management education has proved to be enduring since companies will always need managers. One doesn’t necessarily need to go to a B-school to be a good manager, but attending a good MBA programme shows the desire to pursue management as a profession and equips a candidate with the tools that can help him succeed.

Q. Do Indian B-schools focus enough on the soft skills that are essential to succeed as a manager?
I think some of the new private business schools are doing well in this regard. But institutions in general now realise that analytical and soft skills are partners in the dance to success. You can’t just have one or the other.

Q. Do you see the process of the IIMs reimagining themselves under way in any measure?  
I think the IIMs are showing great interest in research. They have shown greater interest in developing the soft skills of students and rethinking the entire entrance process. The more enlightened IIMs are thinking along those lines. But change is always difficult to bring about in any institution that has been around for five or six decades. I would urge the IIMs to also diversify their hiring strategy and hire teachers from a talent pool that has trained at top global institutions, and not only doctorates from other IIMs.

(This story appears in the 28 October, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)