Feature of the Week

May 28, 2012 12:12 am

Academics lament lack of respect and reward in India

Bakul Dhlakia©Varun Patel

Bakul Dholakia: academics are no longer accorded as much respect

When Bakul Dholakia was a young man, he says being a teacher meant something. The former dean of the elite Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad says the respect that students then had for teachers rivals that which they now have for star cricketer Sachin
Tendulkar.

Whether teachers and professors were so venerated can be debated, but there is no doubt the profession has fallen several notches on the list of students’ preferred careers.

In a country where wealth matters more than most – if only because of its extreme shortage – being a teacher once meant making a decent living. However, as salaries for corporates ector jobs have soared and those for professors have stagnated, the respect afforded to academics – and the subsequent desire of students to become them – seems to have done the same. A government panel said recently that India’s shortage of faculty staff could be “significantly higher” than the 40 per cent widely estimated.

While the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology – which cater to less than 40,000 of India’s roughly 16m college students – are largely immune to the overall shortage, even they have come under fire for lacking top-quality professors.

“There is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs. The faculty in the IIT is not world-class. It is the students in IITs who are world-class,” Jairam Ramesh, a cabinet minister and IIT alumnus told reporters last year.

Elite institutions in ‘no need of top teachers’

The heads of the IITs and IIMs and others stress the need for more funding for fundamental research that will attract top-tier professors so that Indian schools are able to compete on a global level. But according to Karan Khemka, Asia head of the Parthenon Group, a US consulting group, the needs of those elite institutions are
at best overstated and in general irrelevant to the broader picture of Indian higher education.

“The reason why [such institutions] can even float to where they are is the natural selectivity in India . . . if
you can afford to select from the top 0.1 per cent of your applicant pool, you are probably going to get kids who are so motivated and so brilliant that you could not teach them [at all] for three years and they’ll still come out pretty darn good,” he says.

There is little point in viewing the IIMs or IITs as high quality, he says. It is the students who are high calibre. Consequently, says Mr Khemka, with such students these institutions have no need for world-class professors.

That being the case, he adds, such institutions should continue to produce world-class students, but not research.

“Can you name for me a piece of fundamental research that has come out of the IITs? So let’s not talk about fundamental research at all – in fact, [in] a country like India which has one-half of the world’s malnutritioned children, one-third of the world’s poor, should we even really be thinking about fundamental research?”

As far as the rest of the higher education system is concerned, he believes, in a country where an estimated 84m young people are not in college, India needs to focus on its basic higher-level education.

The IITs and IIMs, he said, were excellent because of the quality of students.

The shortage of faculty staff has been further exacerbated because of
a government pledge to double the enrolment in India’s higher education system by 2020, to help meet the needs of its growing population. A lack of overall funding for the system has also meant that India has been unable to develop the sorts of world-class universities – and the incumbent fundamental research – that attracts top staff. Lower salaries and lack of research have made the shortage all the worse. How the country resolves these dual problems of the shortage of faculty staff and the dearth of world-class universities will determine whether it can realise the potential of its massive population.

The shortfall in faculty staff has its roots in the economic liberalisation of 1991. Since then, private sector salaries have increased from twice an academic’s $30,000 to sometimes more than 10 times that figure. By contrast, the average full-time business school nine-month salary in the US was $111,084 during the 2009-2010 school year, according to AACSB, the US accrediting body.

Prof Dholakia’s concerns are supported by a report this March from the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s taskforce on Faculty Shortage and Design of Performance Appraisal System, which reads: “Academic careers are unattractive when compared with the other professions. Not only are academic salaries uncompetitive, there are additional constraints to attracting the best talent . . . the social status of a teacher is not as high as it used to be in earlier decades.”

As more students desire MBAs (or engineering degrees) because of the lucrative remuneration, fewer will pursue PhDs and an academic career. Those that do invariably join the private sector or go overseas to teach, leaving fewer students with the necessary qualifications to teach in India.

Solutions for public sector schools especially, according to academics, come in a few broad categories: increase fees to boost staff salaries; upgrade decrepit facilities to attract researchers; and remove constraints on academic freedom.

The first is a fiscal issue that has been solved at the elite IIMs – where fees have more than trebled in the past five years, to about $30,000 for a two-year programme. That money – and their own prestige – has allowed universities such as IIM-Bangalore to escape the faculty-staff shortages, says the Trilochan Sastry, its dean.

“The universities are not paying well enough . . . [but] more than that, it is the way that things are governed: academics value freedom and some flexibility. Very often some of the systems tend to be very rule-bound and rigid,” he says.

IIMs tend to have more freedom, he adds. IIM-Bangalore produces 25 doctoral students each year, many of whom are going into academia.

According to Ajit Rangnekar, dean of the private Indian School of Business, institutions should explore more creative options to recruit faculty staff and raise funding.

“The IITs and IIMs are now some 50-odd years old, which means a large portion of people from these schools have recently reached the superannuation age of 60, so there is a large talent pool of talented Indians who are probably looking at a second career,” he says.

Those experienced professionals could undertake a three-month programme to “teach them to teach”, says Prof Rangnekar. At the same time, he adds, “no institution in this country besides the IITs and IIMs has really harvested their alumni for funding [and] nobody has looked at courses outside of the normal curriculum for sources of funding.”

Those could include, he adds, using the facilities for short-term courses, continuing professional education, and using technology and the internet to allow potential students to take classes online – allowing a teacher to teach 600 paying students.

There is also the government, whose higher education funding in the March budget was a total of $4.74bn. In contrast, according to a World Bank study, the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University each have annual expenditures of more than $3bn.

If India is to compete on the global stage and not lose its large talent pool to international institutions and the private sector, it must invest more in giving teachers the respect that Prof Dholakia remembers from his youth.

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