Ethics, elitism and education

Tags: Opinion
An eminent professor visiting from the United States was quite surprised to see how acquiring an MBA degree has become an obsession in our country. On his return from Agra to Delhi, he claimed to have counted almost 60 B-schools.

Such proliferation of a job-oriented course in a poor country is understandable. However, the issue becomes serious when a general perception of elitism is created, believed, and promoted by the schools themselves. An MBA from one of the prestigious B-schools is positioned as a ready-to-takeover leader, and which obviously opens the doors to lifelong riches.

The larger question is whether the professional hi­gher education institutions (HEIs) themselves are geared for leadership and entrepreneurial roles in the society. There are two points: One, are the hallowed HEIs providing the kind of education that prepares young men and minds for leadership roles? Two, are these institutions structured for self-correction and self-regulation, when sycophancy, bureaucracy, and corruption is so endemic in the country. One is about ethics, behavior, and sensitivity to fellow humans, and the other is about governance structures. The answers are intertwined.

How does the HEI respond when plagiarism and copying is widespread and common? It cannot close down the entire programme, especially if it is a private one. The faculty too is scared of poor feedback (which to an equally unethical dean can become an instrument for exploitation). A senior colleague based abroad had the guts to object to mass copying in project report submissions in one of the reputed private HEIs - he was never invited to teach at the programme again.

Ethical conduct goes much beyond bribery and cheating. It is about the manner in which one uses professional knowledge and expertise. E Sreedharan, managing director of Delhi Metro was clear that lack of professional ethics was responsible for an accident when a cantilever pier under load collapsed resulting in seven deaths. He asked, ‘Should we not educate and warn the engineers and scientists coming out of the technical institutes that professional ethics and values should not be compromised for short-term business advantage?”

Jeff Immelt – chief executive officer of General Electric – was equally severe in a speech at a US military academy: “We are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership…. Tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits. Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability.”

In some of the B-schools, it has become a standard practice to have students who could not be placed through the institute’s placement service to write a letter stating that they had voluntarily opted out of the race. Through this ‘minor’ adjustment, the institute claims 100 per cent placement and a great average salary!

Of late, another popular, yet different kind of behaviour has come about. The temples of management learning and research have become gilded mansions with plush offices and expensive furniture and multi-course meals.

A director of one of the IIMs made the astonishing public statement, at the peak of the fee cut controversy, that “almost all of them (the students) fly home for vacations” Another one said, “For the new hostel block that we are building, the first demand of the students was that there should be adequate parking space!” At a third IIM, a 5-star swimming pool complete with jacuzzi and gym has been proudly established. These are only a few examples that suggest something is drastically wrong with our administrators’ understanding about what to deliver.

Leadership means responsibility and accountability. Do we have the courage to implement a zero-tolerance policy towards cheating, plagiarism, distortion of truth and misplaced facts? Or should these continue to remain on paper, to be used on political convenience bases? The ethics crisis is clearly a global one and has created the basis for mistrust between the agents (managers) and owners. It is also linked to the question of elitism!

One of the reasons for decline is the insensitivity we have developed to the nature of trust imposed by the society to meet its needs. We forget that the annual per capita income in the country is still only a paltry few thousand rupees. At many IIMs, the resources earmarked for needy students had actually not been disbursed to any significant extent for at least a de­cade or more.

It is time that the government, governing boards and faculty members of HEIs reexamine what could be ‘ada­rsh aachar’ (ideal behaviour) and sanskaar (core values) for them. Broadly, their purpose must be to enhance quality of life through increased productivity of resources and creation of hum­an talent. The metrics must be based on bottom-up approach of social responsibility, that is, how much the poor of the country have benefited from their existence.

Can Indian HEIs provide leadership to the rest of the world?

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