JNU's inadequate communication is to blame: IIM Indore Director Himanshu Rai on #FeeHike protests

The IIMs are participating in solving the nation's issues. Rai says that this country is as much theirs as anyone else's and they will knock on every door, uninvited, with the intention of helping
Himanshu Rai (Pic: Satish/Express)
Himanshu Rai (Pic: Satish/Express)

Not many IIM students or professors are seen on the road, armed with placards and shouting slogans. Are the students misinformed or is the core issue lack of communication from the management? Not many directors dare comment on what is going on across the country or criticise the actions of the agents involved. But Himanshu Rai is known for his positive outlook towards everything he encounters — even if he is criticising the issue or how it is being handled. The Director of IIM Indore sat down with us for a candid chat on a multitude of topics — how IIM students are taught to find solutions to problems, the fear of Mathematics and English, the new National Education Policy and even weighed in on the growing student protests across the country. Excerpts from the conversation:

IIM Indore is part of one of the newer IIMs that were set up to bring 'elite education' to Tier II and III cities. Have you fulfilled your goal of having a more diverse student base?
I would say partly. We need to make the IIMs more inclusive. When I joined IIM Ahmedabad as a student, it was largely male engineer-dominated classrooms — more than 90 per cent of us were males and engineers. The problem starts from the supply side itself — the culture in India is such that if you get a certain amount of marks, your parents will push you towards engineering or medicine. So, to solve this, we did multiple things. We tried to bring in more verbal, comprehensive, logic and data interpretation and also, reduced the difficulty so that it is used only for screening and not the selection of the candidates. We also brought down the weightage of CAT and started to normalise the board marks. And I am happy that at least in IIM Indore, it has bourne fruit. In a particular classroom of ours, girls make up 42 per cent of the class strength. But the 'non-engineer' part is yet to be sorted out. We still have more than 75 per cent of engineers.

Do students coming in from the vernacular boards have trouble coping with an English-heavy curriculum where communication is the most important aspect?
Most people equate their command over the language with their communication skill. Language skills and communication skills are two different things, however, the perception of some of the students themselves is that if they can't speak good English, then they start feeling inferior and insecure. We do a few things to make sure this does not become a hindrance during admission — there is a 40 per cent weightage on the interview where we look at their communication skills rather than language skills. However, when a student comes in, we hold language, comprehension and communication tutorials to help them. We also hold tutorials for those who are not so comfortable with numbers.

Students who come from a non-mathematical background tend to be afraid of the subject. How are you helping them get past this?
Students are afraid of Math simply because what is taught in our school system is not Math but Arithmetic. Math is logic. Very few school teachers focus on the logic part of it. For example, I love probability. I have learnt the logic behind it and I can solve the arithmetic related to it. But if you do not know the logic, it might seem quite daunting. This problem can be dealt with in two parts. The way Math is taught in schools needs to be different. We must train school teachers to teach Math first and then go to the Arithmetic part of it. As far as the IIMs are concerned, I ask my colleagues to first explain the logic. We also provide support systems where the students take up remedial classes.

How important is a review or a reshuffle in the education system?
We review the courses every year and the bouquet of courses every three years. But the way things are changing and the way technology is becoming all-pervasive, we should hasten that process. More often than not, we review only the content and not the pedagogy. The system has to focus on the pedagogy because, increasingly, people are consuming more audio-visual content. We need to produce content that people prefer to consume. I am not saying that we should do away with books but I would rather watch a video or listen to a podcast to brush up on a topic.

We often find policies that looked great on paper falter due to on-ground issues that take years to solve. How can the IIMs help with this?
We have been looking at government agencies, as an independent verification agency, and telling them where the loopholes are and giving them solutions as well. Likewise, when it comes to the National Education Policy (NEP), one of the things that both the Central and the state governments need to understand is that whenever an education policy is drafted, there has to be larger participation. It is one thing to open it out and say that everyone is free to comment and it's another thing to bring a set of diverse people together and then ask them to debate and arrive at a draft itself. When you bring up data without any discussion, then everybody is just giving an opinion and you really don't know what that opinion is based on. You are also looking at it from a very static perspective, assuming that if I have an opinion today, I would be unwilling to change it. While working with the traffic problem in Indore, what we realised is that we do not need to wait till someone calls us for help. This country is as much ours as it is anyone else's and we can knock on their door and tell them that we are willing to help out.

Why don't we see too many IIM students protesting on the roads when the rest of the student community is speaking up against what they think is unconstitutional? Is it the elite education that prevents them from doing so?
My answer would be no. They are empathetic to the issues, they participate in discussing the issues; the only thing is that unlike a university system, where the participation and the expression happen publicly and in full media glare, it is not so much in the IIMs. The reasons for this are twofold. We have multiple courses where we handle such questions. For example, I used to teach a course called Justice, Ethics and Morality, where we would pick up societal issues like the issues between men and women, patriarchy, reservation system, religion, even Article 370 and discuss them threadbare. So, when it comes to the socio-political issues in the country, our students are clued in. 

The other reason is that our coursework is so heavy that the students are busy with that while at the same time being empathetic towards what is happening around them. There is another reason. I do not believe that students in universities are protesting just because they are far more impacted than students in other institutions. I think the question is 'would their voice be heard otherwise?'. Power or the ability to influence outcomes is a basic need as far as humans are concerned. Everyone wants that power, failing which they want to have a voice. My view is that in a lot of the universities, the opportunity to express one's voice does not exist inside the classroom, so they go outside the classroom or manifest it in many other ways.

Time and again, student protesters have been blamed for being ill-informed about the very issues they are protesting against. Do you think your students are more educated on these topics as they discuss them in class?
They may be better informed than some students in some of the universities but they are also taught problem-solving. If an IIM student was to look at an issue that is social or political in nature, they would rather look for solutions and figure out what to do about it than protest against it. Another thing that differentiates us from other institutes is that we have never had the culture of protesting in a way that is public and in full view.

With the student protests that are on right now, as a management professional, how would you solve the JNU fee hike issue and the students' unrest that began at Jamia in December?
Anybody who would have a problem with a fee hike has to be predicated on the fact that the fee hike is going to prevent some people from getting admission. Therefore, we need to isolate the real problem from the apparent problem. The real problem here is the fee hike, the apparent problem is the fact that it is preventing people from enrolling in the first place. If I had to make a policy decision, I would create some scholarship or tuition waiver for those who would not be able to afford the education and then, increase the fees.

It's been more than two months since JNU shut and it's no longer just about the fee hike. The management has been unresponsive, the students were not taken into confidence before the decision on hostel rules was taken — the unrest is about that too. How would you tackle the problem?
That is what my PhD was on — Conflict Management and Negotiation. And one of the findings of my research was that the real reason of the conflict has its roots in the past and it keeps adding up and the apparent reason is just the last provocation that finds its way out in a violent expression. I am very sure the fee hike is not the real issue. It must have been a series of other things that happened in the past. Second thing, you can resolve a conflict by various means — you can use force or by doing nothing and wishing it will blow over.

And does that help?
No. And these are not matured ways to resolve a conflict. Therefore, negotiation is psychologically the most matured way to resolve a problem which is all about communication. This (JNU issue) is a complete lack of communication that has to lead to this situation. As an administrator, you need to make sure that you communicate with all the stakeholders so that people know the same version and they do not have to assume the worst. I squarely put the blame on the inadequate communication that has happened in this case.

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