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Published on: Dec. 15, 2020, 9:39 a.m.
B-Schools undergo a new evolution
  • The challenge for the top B-Schools is to create a balance between their main campus life offering and the recently emerged technology-based solutions

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

For Akash Choubey, a business management graduate from a reputed private institute (it usually figures in the top 50 ranking done by different agencies) located in Delhi/NCR, the post academic life began on a high note. In the usual campus placement drive, the key calling card of top-ranking business schools, he was offered a job by a leading tech-based start-up in the supply chain domain in Gurgaon last December, which he joined immediately after his final exams early this year.

With the Corona-triggered lockdown beginning to have a devastating impact on businesses since April, Choubey received a rude jolt when the company handed him the pink slip around the end of May. “The company had asked 30 employees to leave, including old-timers, plus five candidates like myself, who were picked up through campus placement drive from different institutes,” says Choubey. “You can imagine what it meant for us, as we had just begun our working life.” Unsurprisingly, finding an alternative job turned out to be quite an exercise for the fresh B-School graduate.

“I landed a job after five months, when I joined the customer care department of a consumer manufacturing firm in Pune in November. But I had to make a lot of adjustments – change of place, moving out of the domain that I specialise in and my annual salary truncated to Rs6 lakh from Rs8 lakh. There are many cases like me and I consider myself lucky that I have at least managed to find an alternative job in such an environment,” he adds.

If you look at the larger economic condition in the country today, Choubey’s woes are a microcosm of the intense churnings in the marketplace, which encompass all components of higher learning and their employability deliverable offerings. In an environment where things are in the doldrums and expected to remain so, and with the threat of the next wave of Corona (probably the crisis of the century) becoming increasingly real, making drastic changes and adjustments to the new normal caused by an abnormal phenomenon is par for the course, and B-Schools are no exception.

For the A-listers like IIMs – those formidable citadels of the management education universe in India comprising over 3,000 B-Schools – the challenge is to subtly create a balance between their main campus life offering and the recently emerged technology-based solutions and also impart additional skillsets to their students while pursuing the process of re-invention. For Tier II or Tier III institutes, staying relevant could even become more difficult. Even before Corona, questions were raised regarding the presence of a huge number of sub-standard B-Schools across the country, driven more by profit motives and normally overlooked by corporates which are serious about quality recruitment. The Corona effect has only left them more exposed to scrutiny than ever, when it comes to judging the validity of their existence.

“B-Schools are faced with a future that is unpredictable and it makes sense to plan for a worst-case scenario,” says Errol D’Souza, director, IIM Ahmedabad. “The skills and competencies required to compete and succeed in the new normal will be very different from even the recent past. Business schools have to therefore evolve across all the three axes of learning – content, pedagogy, and impact,” adds Archana Shukla, professor & director, IIM Lucknow. 

Statements from the top functionaries of the country’s front ranking B-Schools subtly underline the wave of transformation, with its own share of inherent problems, which is coming into play. And, as a senior analyst asserts, while bearing this pain would not be easy even for A-listers, for many institutes in the mid to lower hierarchy of the B-School pyramid, this is nothing less than a serious existential crisis which may be difficult to surmount. 

Responding to the crisis

Before looking at the larger picture, here is a quick résumé as to how leading B-Schools have responded when faced with a situation that shook their main activities to the core – offering an exclusive campus life with a plethora of formal and informal learning avenues to prepare a quality workforce for the future. Like other streams of education, where sustaining operations by quickly switching over to the virtual sphere was the key or probably the sole mantra, the leading B-Schools too made swift moves on this front.

“Our immediate priority at the beginning of the pandemic was to offer the best possible educational experience to all our students who are attending classes online,” says Rishikesha T. Krishnan, professor & director, Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru. “Towards this, we made special efforts to upgrade our digital education infrastructure and the digital teaching skills of our faculty, and re-design our curriculum where necessary.” Adds Anju Seth, professor & director, IIM Calcutta: “We have worked seamlessly to plan, develop and deliver online courses, to ensure timely commencement of the programmes, while ensuring that students’ learning is not compromised. Our online classes commenced on 3 August and the students have been distributed across six sections of class, with 80 in each section. There is an average of four to five hours of total classroom live contact hours every day.”

Ranjan Banerjee, dean, Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), cites a host of digital initiatives which the institute has undertaken to ensure its functioning and adequate response to a new but challenging normal. These included training its faculty with online tools on a war-footing, when the Maharashtra government declared closure on 16 March 2020. Tools like the padlet (online notice board used both by students and teachers to post notes on a common page) and the mentimeter (easy to use presentation software) were allowed and Google hangouts in small groups were used to maintain the high faculty and student connect. “We have managed to conduct our weekly faculty meeting without any break,” he says. “This is another unique feature of SPJIMR, where the faculty meet for an hour on Thursday mornings. This has continued online without any break during the lockdown.”

The institute has successfully completed its autumn internship recruitment online. Additionally, for the new recruits, the institute runs a personal growth lab wherein within a month of students joining the institute, they are taken to Khandala for four days – a familiarisation exercise to help student transformation from ME to WE. This year, since students were on-boarded virtually, this programme was modified to complete one part online and the second part to be done, as and when the environment permits.

Flipped classrooms

Leading institutes like IIM Sambhalpur claim that taking the virtual route to ward off any operational disruption has not exactly been an issue since it had already begun toying with new-age technology-enabled concepts like the flipped classroom, which effectively brings in industry applications as live projects inside the class. As opposed to a traditional setting, flipped classrooms reverse the learning environment. Most often, the structured content is learnt online, off the classroom and activities that may have traditionally been considered live project assignments are incorporated in the classrooms.

“Our belief in contemporary and new age learning enabled us to introduce flipped classrooms in 2018 – a unique concept, following a model of blended pedagogy, combining the advantages of both online and traditional classroom education,” says Mahadeo Jaiswal, director, IIM Sambalpur. “As soon as the country underwent a complete lockdown, we were immediately able to make the transition seamlessly into the online mode due to our preparedness and farsightedness.” 

H. Chaturvedi, director, Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH), emphasises that, even before Covid, top ranking institutes had set up a preliminary IT infrastructure base to strengthen their delivery system which aided them in the crisis period. “Top 100 B-Schools have been ahead of the curve in making investments in IT infrastructure, which came to their aid in the Corona-hit session. As an institute, we immediately invested Rs3-4 crore in upgrading our IT base for the seamless flow of symmetrical online (live video) and asymmetrical online (recorded) courses,” he underlines. 

According to T. Krishnan of IIM Bengaluru, the institute has been in the vanguard of adopting technology, as more than a decade ago, it had offered a pioneering weekend degree programme for the software industry simultaneously in Bengaluru and Chennai, with two-way video and audio using ISRO satellite technology. This was much before streaming video became commonplace. It was reinforced when IIM-B took the lead in adopting Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Business and Management in India in 2014. “Today, we offer close to 50 management courses on the edX and Swayam platforms, and customise many more on the IIMBx platform,” says he.

Meanwhile, the crisis has also turned out to be a blessing in disguise for emerging online education platforms like Coursera and UpGrad. The pandemic-led disruption of offline streams has resulted in the engagements of leading educational and professional institutes including B-Schools, with them going to the next level. “An increasing number of Indian B-Schools are coming to Coursera,” says Raghav Gupta, managing director, India & APAC, Coursera. “Indian School of Business (ISB), Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C) and Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (IIT-R) are the leading institutions, which have partnered with Coursera to offer courses. However, we have not launched an MBA degree from an Indian university.” The platform offers five MBA courses in collaboration with the University of Illinois, Macquarie University, and HEC Paris. 

Switching over to online modules has not exactly been a smooth process for many management institutes in Tier-II and Tier-III cities. “I know many cases where institutes have seriously struggled or are still struggling, since they did not have much in the name of online infrastructure,” says a senior faculty member of a private MBA institute in Uttar Pradesh. “Most of them are run for profit and creating an efficient IT infrastructure taking care of most of the functional requirements as an alternative to offline teaching and interactivity meant a cost to them. Secondly, they do not have qualified staff who can readily adjust to tech-enabled modules,” he further comments, while requesting anonymity.

Blended learning: the way to go

For the A-listers, however, the experience with going online as the main module has not been disappointing, considering the gravity of the situation imposed by the pandemic, even as they maintain that the advantages of a regular campus life remain invaluable. “IIM Sambalpur has become one of the first IIMs in the country to have conducted the Written Aptitude Test (WAT) of their MBA 2020 admission process through an online proctoring system,” says Jaiswal.

“We have also conducted our term exams through the same process. The online proctoring system allows each student to be monitored and invigilated through an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based tool, so that they did not receive any external help for writing their answers. The interface also captures the retina movement of the prospective candidates,” says Jaiswal. Adds D’Souza of IIM Ahmedabad: “This year all our summer internships were conducted online and we are fortunate that the outcome has been good because firms took extra care to mentor students to ensure that delivery of the internship requirements were on par with their physical presence.”

According to Janat Shah, director, IIM Udaipur, heavy alignment with the online mode of education in response to the challenges of the troubled times has brought its own benefits. “It has become easier to get renowned captains of industry to address and interact with your students more regularly rather than getting them to the campus. Plus, since this generation is naturally inclined to online or digital means, we are finding students opening up more and getting more participative,” he points out. 

Considering the enhanced digitalisation of the education system, the writing is on the wall. The future belongs to the blended learning format and this will have an encompassing effect on all forms of higher education, including management studies. The government, under its new education policy (NEP), which came into effect early this year, has set a target of achieving 50 per cent gross enrolment rate (GER) in higher education by 2035. This entails creating 35 million additional seats in higher education institutes.

“What the government is targeting, if pursued mainly through the offline mode, will entail fresh investments to the tune of Rs10 lakh crore to significantly augment physical capacity, which looks too difficult,” Chaturvedi of BIMTECH reasons: “This could happen only when you move towards an evolved, blended learning stage and this would also be a panacea for leading B-Schools.”

Questions are, however, being raised as to how much of an effect the online component could possibly have, even in a full-fledged blended learning model, in the medium run. Even within top business school circles, there are those who strongly believe the campus life deliverables will remain unmatched.

“Online education can’t completely replace a physical classroom, where student-teacher, as well as student-student, interactions are a key element of learning,” argues Ramesh Bhat, officiating vice-chancellor, NMIMS. “It provides a fertile ground for birth of ideas, exchange of views, and the energy which can only come with physical interaction. Blended learning will be a critical tool of learning, but we see it more as a partner of traditional classrooms.”

Shah of IIM Udaipur has a similar viewpoint. “I think, for well-established and leading institutes like IIMs, the possible ratio of offline to online as components of a blended learning model would be 80:20. In the case of schools in Tier-II and Tier-III locations, they may opt for a higher quotient of online deliverables.” Another analyst explains it in more specific terms – while the top institutes will continue to thrive on their quality standards rooted in their campus life offering in its entirety, B-listers, with their structural weaknesses in faculty management and offline deliverables, may focus more on online courses (this may be easily accessed from leading online education platforms and tweaked to suit the requirements of the institute). “And some of them can play it out smartly as they fight for their survival,” he remarks. 

Placement trends 

Considering the fact that session 2020-21 has been massively disrupted due to Covid-19, the critical speculative point is: how will the placement scenario unfold in the coming months? Buffeted by a serious economic reversal this fiscal, will leading companies have the appetite to absorb a new workforce from B-Schools during the placement season, which has begun (November to February, extending up to March is the normal season)? B-School observers are particularly keen to examine the trends in the Tier-II and Tier-III institutes, which have often been found to be in a struggling mode even in normal times, on this front.

As expected, the leading IIMs are confident there will not be any serious reversal on the recruitment front in a year in which the country’s GDP growth is expected to be in negative territory. In a recent communiqué, IIM Lucknow maintained that it successfully completed its summer placements for the 2020-21 cycle, for the 36th batch of PGP and 17th batch of PGP-ABM students. “The institute secured 100 per cent placement for the largest batch in the history of its 36-year legacy, placing students across a multitude of roles in marketing, consulting, finance and general management, with top recruiters from across the country,” the release said.

“It is noteworthy that this accomplishment was achieved through entirely virtual conduct of the recruitment processes. Amidst the global pandemic, IIM Lucknow efficiently on-boarded the summer recruitment processes on to the online platform designed specifically to ensure smooth interface among all the stakeholders in the process,” it added, while mentioning the names of top firms like Accenture, Aditya Birla Group, Alvarez & Marsal, Amazon, Avendus Capital, Axis Capital, Bain & Co, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citi, Colgate-Palmolive, Deloitte, etc, as the leading participants in the internship programme.

By end-November, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C) also claimed it had beaten down pandemic and economic recessionary pressures with 100 per cent summer internship placements conducted online. The institute said 40 per cent of offers were from consulting, finance and BFSI firms. According to the director, IIM Sambalpur, the institute has witnessed the best placement season for its fifth batch (2019-21) for its flagship MBA programme, with more than 85 companies participating.

And premier B-Schools outside the prestigious IIM fold too appear to be unconcerned about the issue of facing major obstacles in the final placement this year. “This belief comes from the fact that our 2020 batch is performing well in their respective internships. They adapted well to their virtual internships and the response has been very encouraging,” says Bhat of NMIMS.

Going by the broader perception within B-School circles, the companies expected to take the lead in the final placement this year will be from verticals like IT, ITeS, pharma, e-commerce, logistics, digital marketing, etc, while the traditional recruitment power houses like automobile, consumer durables and electronics will have a rather guarded approach. Market participants also maintain that despite the adverse economic environment, salary levels in the top institutes are unlikely to be affected.

“I do not think the average salaries offered during campus placements will see any major disruption,” contends Rohit Thakur, CHRO, Paytm. “It would be on par with or even higher than the average of the previous year.” Over the last several months, the digital payment major has inducted and virtually on-boarded hundreds of new personnel at various levels, he adds. According to a research agency on higher education, the average annual package at IIM Ahmedabad in 2019 had stood at over Rs26 lakh, whereas at IIM Jammu, the package was close to Rs10.5 lakh. According to market observers, premier B-Schools outside the IIM fold register an average of Rs12-20 lakh while, for Tier II institutes (with a lower placement ratio), the figure is usually between Rs5-10 lakh.

But, while leading B-Schools, with their agile digital moves, may manage to ward off any serious placement pressure even this year, the current crisis could further expose Tier-II and Tier-III institutes’ vulnerability in meeting with a criterion which best defines their standing in the market – job placement. Those in higher education circles have plenty of stories to share about massive disruption in internship programmes or such programmes not even taking off at lesser known B-Schools this year due to pandemic pressures.

“There is tremendous placement pressure even for the usual 100-200 ranking B-Schools. They started their placement drive early in November but the response is not that encouraging. The companies are coming but the volume of fresh grads they are picking up this time is on the lower side. We are all worried with final placement prospects this year,” says the dean (placement) of a Tier-II B-School in Rajasthan, requesting anonymity. 

Serious streamlining

The prevailing management studies structure as supervised by AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) is believed to be dominated by mediocre institutes across the country with not too many bright spots in the sphere. But the blow from the unprecedented crisis is expected to lead to some serious streamlining in the near to medium run. And this, as many analysts point out, will include a large number of B-Schools closing their shop and the sphere assuming a leaner and smarter shape. “The rate of closure of Tier-II and Tier-III institutes has gone up in the recent past and this crisis will further expedite it. Adjusting to blended learning modalities and getting their students employment when the economy is not faring well will increasingly become difficult for them.

 If the ‘Corona pressure’ is prolonged, I won’t be surprised if 750-1,000 institutes out of the total B-School count of over 3,000 go out of business in the next couple of years,” says the director of a well-established B-School usually placed in the top-50 ranking in different surveys. According to a report, the number of B-Schools has fallen from about 3,450 in 2015-16 to a little over 3,000 in 2019-20. And, going by current trends, this number will slip below 3,000 at the beginning of the next session. A report published by AICTE in July had confirmed about 179 higher studies institutes applying for closure and this included a substantial number of B-Schools.

But for those who are well-placed to continue with their journey, having adjusted suitably to the unforeseen crisis, the challenges in the foreseeable future will be of a different kind. While management of campus life (as and when they open) may need different SOPs (lower number of students in class, library, etc, if Covid-19 does not completely go away), the growing online constituent may pose an issue regarding the fee structure. Going by B-School observers, the prevailing fee rate for top-notch IIMs and premier institutes for a two-year, full-time programme ranges from Rs15 to Rs25 lakh while, for Tier-II institutes, it is in the Rs10-15 lakh range on an average basis (for Tier-III institutes, it falls below Rs10 lakh).

And much of this fee structure has been built on the basis of exclusive campus life and scores of other defining attributes offered by them including alumni support system. But, with online quotient on the rise, will this result in some kind of gradual downward revision of the fee structure? “The fee for us is a function of the investment in quality of education that is provided and not whether one is being a student online or in a class,” responds D’Souza. “Given the rapid pace of change, a good management institute focusses on finding answers to contemporary problems, as much as it highlights providing knowledge that will be of value in the future. That is costly and the fee reflects the value of that knowledge being provided which is what recruiters look for during the placement season.”

Cost of the programme

The emerging digital education players like Coursera in collaboration with established offline players, however, seem to be well-poised to up the ante on the pricing front. “The majority of degrees on Coursera cost less than half that of comparable on-campus programmes,” Raghav Gupta of Coursera points out. “For example, the iMBA costs a total of $22,000, about one-third the cost of a traditional MBA from a similar institution. Along with the reduced fee, an online degree’s flexible nature allows savings as learners don’t need to relocate and incur a high cost of living.” 

There are preliminary indications to suggest that, going ahead, established B-Schools may opt for robust and online-only programmes in association with branded and growing digital players. BIMTECH, which was recently awarded category one autonomy by AICTE, along with XLRI, Jamshedpur (such institutes can launch new courses without seeking AICTE approval), has floated an online PGDM programme for freshers and working professionals in association with UpGrad. And the cost of the programme, starting early next year, is nearly one-fourth of the pure offline model. 

Another serious debate emerging in education circles is the possible impact of the New Education Policy (NEP), which encourages foreign universities to set up base in India. Will it result in leading global B-Schools rushing to India and adding a new dimension to management studies? “We have been hearing about it for quite some time,” responds Chaturvedi of BIMTECH. “But this is not something which will happen immediately, considering the present state of the global economy.”

While there could be a debate on how different emerging components of management studies will play out, there seems to be complete unanimity on a single point: Corona-led disruption has dictated that B-Schools design a new path or seek a new evolution which would also involve future business managers requiring different or additional skill sets. “Elements of Industry 4.0 (automation; IoT; 3-D printing; data warehousing and analytics, etc) are becoming an integral part of contemporary manufacturing. Contemporary services businesses are dependent on technology and advanced data analytics.

A successful manager will need to integrate a good understanding of technology and data with the traditional functional skills,” emphasises Krishnan of IIM Bengaluru. Quite clearly, for B-Schools’ structure and functioning in the country, 2020 may well turn out to be a path-breaking year for guiding them to embrace decisive future changes.

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