For Indian universities: 'A' for Alumni!
Why the alumni-university relationships are weak (if not broken) in India
How many of us can claim to have made a financial or volunteering contribution to our college or university- an Indian one? In the absence of data, my guess is as good as yours - not many. Prima facie, the relationship between Indian higher education institutions and their alumni appears rather weak. The extent of alumni relations is often restricted to silver or golden jubilee get-togethers where old batchmates unite, meet each other's families and that's about it. Thanks to facebook and other social networks, even the utility of get-togethers has gone down. This doesn't mean that universities in India haven't tried to foster University-Alumni relations, but somehow the traction is missing. One way to illustrate the missing traction is to look at the financial contributions made by alumni to their Indian alma maters. While there is no collective figure available for Indian universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology seem to have picked on the idea of fundraising from alumni. IIT Madras raised Rs. 55 crores from its alumni in 2017-18. As per my research, that seems to be the best fundraising performance and reporting by any Indian university. Compare this to nearly Rs. 600 crores raised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a US university, during the same period through the same medium.
Is this an apple-to-apple comparison? Let's evaluate. In terms of enrolments, IIT Madras had nearly 9,500 students and MIT had around 11,500 students enrolled in 2017. One may rightly argue that IIT has more students based in India while MIT has more in the US, thus the different earning levels of alumni make the comparison unfair. But also remember two other factors- IIT-Madras has a decent alumni network outside India thereby offsetting the US-India difference to some extent and IIT administration's focus on fundraising from alumni is a recent one, thus, one would expect more contributions from a host of untapped alumni (inflating the collections in the first few years) that will flatten out as time passes, which isn't the case with MIT. Hence, a better comparison would have been the value of cumulative funds raised in a given time-frame. In 2017-18, IIT-Madras alumni contributions are 1/10th the size of MIT, think about the mega difference if we compare cumulative funds raised. Also remember, that MIT isn't the best university when it comes to fundraising, it's decent, but not the best. At the same time, IIT Madras appears to be India's best. If we compare institutions such as Jawahar Lal Nehru University or Delhi University, or state universities such as Andhra or Rajasthan University, the difference would be eyebrow-raising.
Why aren't Indian Alumni engaged?
The larger point is that institutions of higher education in India are far behind their western counterparts when it comes to engaging alumni - not just in raising funds but also utilising them to strengthen their own institutional capacities. Seldom do we observe that alumni are on the boards of Indian universities or are involved in decision-making processes. I have a few hypotheses on why the Alumni-University relationships are weak (if not broken) in India:
1. Value deficit: One reason is that Indians are either unable to, or do not appreciate the value of education that institutions provide them. There have been ample number of studies that point out that majority of degree holders in India are not employable enough. So, why should an alumnus care for an institution that didn't provide an education or skills one had wanted? In such a scenario, an alumnus ends up crediting one's own hard work over the university's contribution. This argument cuts the other way too. In many cases, students use Universities just as a means to obtain a degree and a job, thereby diminishing their own value. Hence, in a buyer-seller relation, who cares about the long term?
2. Cold history: The other reason is that Universities haven't tried enough and hence, alumni haven't responded. How many of us can claim that we got a call from our University's Alumni Relations Team to seek help in making the university better. Yes, you may receive a few emails or newsletters, but since when is communication through such means enough? Except a few aberrations, Indian universities have largely undermined the huge gains that alumni can bring on the table.
3. Apathetic institutions: Most Indian higher education institutions (at least the more renowned and old ones) are funded by the government. So, why should the University administration care for Alumni money when easy money is available from the government? Why invest resources in engaging the alumni to make financial or volunteering contributions, if the budgets will be approved by a bureaucrat and governance guided by a government-appointed board? When there is no will, why would there be a way?
4. Distrust in university administrations: Somehow, there seems to be an inherent distrust in the ability of higher education institutions to appropriately utilize the potential contributions made by alumni. University administrations are often perceived as unworthy- sometimes politically motivated (think of the various campus controversies- from Delhi to Hyderabad to Jadavpur), and sometimes outrightly corrupt (remember IIPM? google it if you don't).
5. Ungiving alumni: Research studies point out three major factors that prompt individuals to give: a) warm-glow effect, i.e. people want to feel good about themselves, b) Social Pressure: people give when they feel they will be noticed if they don't give; and c) Reciprocity: people give back when they feel they have received more and it's their moral responsibility to repay. In India's case, all three factors seem to be underplaying themselves. Alumni don't have enough incentives to feel good about themselves when they give back to their institutions; some don't feel they have received enough, and others just don't give because no one is giving anyway. Moreover, I would also argue that anecdotal evidence suggests that Indians follow a hierarchy when it comes to giving. The 3-tier hierarchy has Family on top, followed by God, and last come other Human Beings. But that's another topic for another day.
If not now, then when?
Indian higher education institutions must realise that there's a huge opportunity cost if they end up losing their precious Alumni. They will not only lose an important source of financing their ambitious research and infrastructure projects but also valuable human resources that can help expand their institutional capacities. Alumni should also be aware that if they don't strengthen the educational institutions that helped them even in the slightest possible way, their children will suffer the same plight and end up using education, not as an experience but a commodity. Professors and current students should also factor in the potential gains of strong alumni networks. Not only do they help in finding better jobs but can be a source of funding for their ambitious research pursuits.
Moreover, the time to do so is apt because of India's demographics. More Indians are attending universities than ever. As Universities create fresh graduates, now is the time to start engaging them and create a habit of contribution. It is perfectly fine to not ask for financial contributions from young graduates. Engage alumni through more creative means - ask them to hold student recruiting events in cities they work in; have their advice on restructuring and redesigning curricula; have their feedback while selecting new faculty members or framing hostel policies. Create mentorship programmes where one current student is attached with one alumnus for career and academic guidance. The bottom line is to make alumni feel that their alma mater needs them because it does. My favorite Bible verse (Matthew 7:7) offers the guiding principle for universities to engage alumni: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you".
(The author is Young Professional, EAC-PM. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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