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The Problem With MBA Programs In India—And How To Solve It

As just 7% of Indian business school grads are deemed ‘employable’, one top-ranked school is leading the charge for industry change

By  Jonathan Pfeffer

Wed Nov 15 2017

India is a place that vacillates between extremes. Sometimes it seems like life is lived at both ends of the spectrum at once. As one might imagine with a country of over 1.3 billion people—not to mention one with such a rich and complex past, present, and future—India is being forced to re-examine its multiplicities.

In no domain is this truer than in the dual realms of education and business. Just one example: the country is projected to double its GDP in the next few years. Yet at the same, due to a lack of infrastructure, many business schools can’t keep the lights on.

Big questions abound about India’s immense potential for growth in the face of overwhelming social, gender, and economic inequality. From the outset, many Indians are unprepared to even submit an application.

For the lucky few that make it to management institutes, there are reports of an almost pathological ignorance among students to issues that extend beyond the ledger, even in their own backyard. Experts believe that Indian business school graduates tend to make professional decisions based on profitability rather than social responsibility.

In a chicken-or-egg conundrum, the MBA curriculum is tailored to this kind of zero-sum outlook. Many Indian business schools produce cookie-cutter financial advisors uninterested in spearheading initiatives that might have impacts beyond their bank balances. You see its effects on the overall quality of graduates, and in the national employment statistics.

According to an Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India study, only 7% of Indian business school graduates, outside the top schools, are actually employable, and the average ROI for MBAs hovers around $1,442-to-$1,804.

Author and management consultant Abhijit Bhaduri, whose books include Mediocre But Arrogant and Don’t Hire the Best, agrees that business schools in India need to step up their games to address this systemic issue.

“Indian B-Schools like XLRI, TISS and Symbiosis have had courses that involved understanding Trade Unions, Labor Laws and social impact. But the curriculum needs to be updated. The forces that are shaping the world need to be brought into the classrooms.”

What hope does India have if the folks with the most resources—financial, intellectual, or otherwise—don’t have the insight or foresight to think outside themselves?

Perhaps India’s oppressive caste system is to blame for a self-centered corporate culture, but it could be easily argued that the situation is identical everywhere. Due to India’s sheer size, it appears divisions that certainly exist elsewhere—between oligarchs and working poor, the stark real world and the sterile academy—are more pronounced and perhaps more visible.

Abhijit believes the only way to truly change the narrative is to blur lines between industry and academy. Within Indian business schools, “practitioners and professors must co-create the course content,” he says.

One Indian institution that seems to poised to stake out a new path applicable to the country’s massive growth projections is the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in the Western city of Ahmedabad (IIMA).

Founded in 1961 and initially advised by Harvard Business School, IIMA is the flagship program of a group of public management education and research institutes. IIMA has long been a well-known brand in India—half a million people regularly apply for just 200 spots each year—but the school’s name is increasingly one on which the Western media consistently hang their hats when it comes to Indian biz ed.

The school was ranked #29 on the Financial Times 2017 list of Global MBAs, #60 on The Economist’s 2017 list of Full-Time MBAs, and #1 on the Economist’s 2015 list for New Career Opportunities, with a reported 100% placement rate within three months of graduation.

IIMA is also the first EQUIS-accredited business school in India—only one of a handful of schools in the country to hold this distinction.

IIMA’s local prestige coupled with a groundswell of international interest just may be the catalyst to spark a larger conversation about the role of business education in Indian society—and beyond. IIMA Dean and Professor of Economics Errol D’Souza certainly hopes so:

“IIMA has a mandate to further management education as applied to all types of organizations and irrespective of their control by private ownership. It exposes students to courses such as the Social and Cultural Environment of Business, Good governance, and People Living in Poverty, and Social Entrepreneurship, where larger social issues are examined,” he says.