Educating at scale

You can’t run a high-quality business school with 20 faculty members

In the course of a twitter discussion yesterday, journalist Mathang Seshagiri quoted numbers from a parliamentary reply by the ministry of HRD (on the 24th of November 2014) on the sanctioned faculty strength and vacancies in “institutes of national importance”. While his purpose was to primarily show that even the older IITs and IIMs have massive vacancies, what struck me was the sanctioned faculty strength of the newer IIMs. Here is the picture posted by Mathang:

Source: Parliamentary Proceedings (Rajya Sabha). November 24th 2014. Reply by MHRD

Look at the second column which shows the sanctioned faculty strength in each IIM. Once you go beyond the six older IIMs, the drop is stark. The seven newer IIMs have a sanctioned faculty strength of about 20! The question is how one can run a business school with such a small faculty base.

About ten years back, when I was a student at IIM Bangalore, I had gone for an event where I met someone from another business school in Bangalore whose name I can’t remember now. During the course of the conversation he asked me how many electives he had. I replied that we had about 80-100 courses from which we had to pick about 15. This he found shocking for in his college (from what I remember) there were only three or four electives!

The purpose of an MBA is to provide broad-based education and broaden one’s horizons. Thus, after a set of core courses in the first year (usually about fifteen courses), one is exposed to a wide variety of electives in the second year. It is a standard practice among most top B-schools to fill the entire second year with electives. In fact, in IIM Bangalore, electives start towards the end of the first year itself.

With 20 faculty members, there are only so many electives that can be offered each year. For example, in the coming trimester, IIM Bangalore is offering students (about 400 in the batch) a choice of about 40-50 electives, of which each student can pick four to six. This gives students massive choice, and a good chance to tailor the second year of their MBA and mould themselves as per their requirements.

By having 20 faculty members, the number of electives that can be theoretically offered itself is smaller (given research requirements, most IIM professors have a requirement to teach no more than three courses a year, and they have core and graduate courses to teach, too), which gives students an extremely tiny bouquet of choices – if there is any choice at all. This significantly limits the scope of what a student in such a school can do. And the student has no option but to accept the straitjacket offered by the lack of choice in the school.

In the ensuing twitter conversation this morning, Mathang contended that it is okay to have a faculty strength of 20 in schools with 60 students per batch. While this points to an extremely healthy faculty-student ratio, the point is that for broad-based education such as MBA, faculty-student ratio is not a good metric. What makes sense is the choice that the student is offered and that comes only at scale.

Thus, the new IIMs (Shillong “onwards”) are flawed in their fundamental design. It is impossible to run a quality business school with only 20 faculty. One way to supplement this is by using visiting faculty and guest lectures, but some of the new IIMs are located in such obscure places (where there is little local business, and which are not easily accessible by flight) that this is also not an option.

Merging some of these smaller IIMs (a very hard decision politically) might be the only way to make them work.

PS: Here is the sanctioned faculty strength and actual faculty strength numbers for IITs (same source as above). I might comment upon that at a later date.

Source: Parliamentary reply by Ministry of HRD; November 24th 2014

MBA specializations

During some casual conversation earlier this evening, I realized that I get irritated when people talk about ‘MBA finance’ or ‘MBA marketing’. I realized that I feel like not continuing the conversation when someone asks me my MBA specialization. Later I spoke to Baada about this, and he too agreed about the lack of respect for the counterparty when this topic gets mentioned.

I think it has to do with a lot of people assuming that “MBA” is just a set of courses that one does in order to become a manager. Maybe they assume that one can become a manager in a particular domain by reading a set of books. Maybe they think that an MBA is just like any other course where you get “knowledge” rather than change your way of thinking (ok a lot of people say MBA is useless and suchlike but my MBA certainly changed the way I think).

Or maybe it’s just that people find it easier to classify. Sometimes people overdo it, to the point of stereotyping. I’m reminded of my last company which worked on two kinds of products (let’s call them Product A and Product B – details are, er, classified). I started off doing a bit of A and soon I became “Associate for A”. Soon, I started doing some other stuff, which would easily fall under B. Yet, the CEO kept referring to me as “Associate for A”. It was ridiculous, but somehow he couldn’t get this classification out of his head – even when most of my time was spent doing B.

Anyways, point I’m trying to make is that people are used to classifications in education. For example, in engineering you have electrical, mechanical, etc. – all very easy. Similarly in postgrad for medicine – you can easily classify as ‘eye’, ‘bone’, etc. So isn’t it the duty of “management” also to get duly classified? And it did help the classifiers that there were three or four major areas in which most MBAs sought employment, and this made classification convenient.

Most local MBA colleges use this “specialization” funda to optimize on the number of electives that they need to offer. From a couple of interactions¬† with people from local MBA colleges, I found that they had very few electives – the major choice that they had was in specialization. And once you picked your specialization, your set of courses would get more or less frozen which made it easy for the college to organize.

Some local MBA colleges seem to have taken this specialization thing to ridiculous levels. The other day, one of my cousins had come to me for career gyaan and he said “I’m wondering whether to do an MBA in Aviation or an MBA in media”. I completely lost it at that point and blasted him and asked him to work before thinking of an MBA. Hopefully the current bust will take care of such ridiculousness that exists in the colleges.

Even a large number of good colleges had this “specialization” funda. I’m told that IIMC had this funda of “major” where if you took five electives in a particular area, that would go on your degree certi as a “major”. However, I’ve never heard anyone from IIMC (even from those days when this classification existed) describing themselves as a “MBA in XXX”.

Anyway, the next time you ask me what my specialization was during my MBA, you’ll make sure that I lose all respect for you.

Scissors

It was our third term in IIMB. The institute had come up with this concept called “core electives” which no one had a clue about. These courses were neither core nor elective. And one of them happened to be Investments, taught by the excellent and entertaining Prof. R Vaidyanathan.

This was around the time when Kodhi and I had been trying hard to introduce the word “blade” (in the context of “putting blade” meaning “hitting on someone”) to campus. This word had been long established in Bangalore Slanguage, and we were trying to make IIMB also adopt the same. In order to further our efforts towards introducing this words, we even picked a batchmate each and actually started putting blade (ok I made that last one up).

So during the course of the class, Prof Vaidya said “the difference between a blade and scissors is that a blade cuts one way while a scissors cuts both ways”. I forget the context in which he said that, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a collective bulb lit up in the first row, where Kodhi and I had been sitting. “Blade” now had a logical extension. A new slang-word had been born at that moment, and later that day at lunch we introduced it to the general public at IIMB.

So that is the origin of the term “scissors”. Now the title of my blog post series in “arranged scissors” might make sense for you. Scissors happens when louvvu “cuts both ways”. When a pair of people put blade on each other- they are effectively “putting scissors” with each other. So in most cases, the objective of blade is to convert it to “scissors”. And so forth.

While in the frontbenches of Prof Vaidya’s class Kodhi and I were inventing the term “scissors”, Neha Jain was in the backbenches actually putting scissors with Don. Now she has come up with a nice poem on this topic. Do read it. And I want to make a Death Metal song out of it. So if you have any nice ideas regarding the tune and appropriate umlauts, do leave a comment.