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The first foreign management experts’ report on the need for MBA in the late 1950s recommended that India had better give top priority to strengthening basic education instead. Prime Minister Nehru and his followers disagreed and invited Harvard and MIT to build the two Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), at Ahmedabad and Calcutta respectively. Since then, the extraordinarily scarcity-value of the qualification more than any other factor, has given the IIMs a rare premium image. They offer youth the rare gift of an assured career, at a pretty respectable wage, very early in life. Little wonder that it is the acme of middle class parental ambition and student dreams.
The IIMs started by envisaging it as a mid-career, post-experience qualification, but chose to gradually ditch this one significant element critical to the success of the MBA as originally designed. Perhaps it was in deference to the strongly held Indian prejudice that one must first finish with all education — and only then venture into the “real world”. We also take a rather dim view of those working and studying at the same time later in their career — either they must have been just plain lazy in their college days or not been very academically bright. Above all, education is judged worthwhile only by the salary at the end of it. Thanks to the opportunities of a globalising economy, the young person in his early twenties today can realistically start thinking of not just Indian degrees but foreign options as well. Universities from Singapore and Australia have joined the United Kingdom to offer our students competitive options less expensive than going to the United States.
We also tend to draw a parallel with other professions. Just as a doctor or a lawyer can practise only after he has acquired a formal degree in the subject (so the argument runs) a professional manager too must need a competency stamp. There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Management is not a specialisation in itself. One can never teach the art of managing in a class room, independent of the act of running an activity, managing a group of people. You can teach a good deal of theory, simulate decision making by cursorily looking at case material and learn about how businesses ought to be run. You can also learn about the big mistakes and heroic success stories. But as any decent scholar will tell you, such evidence is hardly generalisable into codified knowledge of any depth, which continues to be a handicap to management education. Few would pretend that an MBA stands comparison with a master’s degree in basic sciences in scholarship or scientific content. There is, therefore, a serious disconnect between what passes for rigorous management research about running a business and what practical managers know from years of experience.