It's almost an urban legend that our elite institutions (EIs) -- such as the IITs and IIMs -- are facing an acute faculty crunch. The shortfall in faculty in some IITs is alleged to be as high as 30%. With the impending 54 % increase in student intake due to the government's reservation policy -- this increase will preserve the number of general category seats -- the faculty crunch can only get crunchier. At least, that's the theory.
However, for each position that our EI's seek to fill, I'm sure they receive quite a few applications. The fact that so many faculty positions remain unfilled must be because the institutions find many -- if not most -- of the applicants unsuitable. Clearly, there's intense pressure on EIs to do something about making faculty positions more attractive, so that they attract more and better candidates. Increasing faculty salaries is one of the suggestions.
As attractive as this solution is -- hey, I would love a bigger paycheque! Who wouldn't? -- there are some issues that I want to
ramble on about touch upon.
First of all, are the current salaries really too low? A fresh recruit (e.g., an Assistant Professor at an IIT) starts at a pre-tax salary of about Rs. 250,000 per year, which works out to a measly $5,000! Per year!! Convert this figure using purchasing power parity (and I believe the factor is about six for India), this figure magically 'grows' to a far more respectable $30,000 per year.
Let's add some non-monetary perks to this figure. Most EIs have rather nice campuses with their own residential zones with faculty housing, and on-campus schooling for their children. There are other benefits associated with staying on campus: silent, pollution-free campus and healthier living. Most importantly, commuting through brutal traffic conditions is not necessary. If you monetize these benefits, it would work out quite easily to between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000 a year, (or 5,000 to 10,000 PPP dollars).
From this point of view, the salary doesn't appear all that low. However, a PPP factor of six is only an average figure for the entire country. Presumably, this factor is different for different classes of goods; a dollar can go a long way in our country if food is what you are buying. It certainly doesn't go far when you are buying a car or a computer. Thus, the PPP factor is probably quite high for the former, and quite close to (or, even less than) one for the latter. Presumably, faculty members at EIs consume more of the latter than of the former; if so, the PPP factor appropriate for them is likely lower than six. This argument pushes the PPP adjusted salary back -- and down -- to sob-inducing levels.
Let's use another metric: compare the raw salary (without adjusting for PPP) against our per capita GDP, which is about Rs. 25,000. At about 10 times the per capita GDP, the salary of a junior faculty member in an EI doesn't appear too low. In fact, this salary would place our junior faculty members in the top 3 percentile of our population.
One may complain, rightly, that the above metrics are not quite correct. It's the low per capita GDP (and high PPP factor) that lead us to believe that the faculty salary is not too low. In absolute terms, the salary is still abysmal!
Also, one may argue -- and again, rightly -- that the comparison should be not with per capita GDP, but with a peer group of people with similar education and training who are working in other spheres, and in particular, in private industry.
To my knowledge, academics' salaries are generally lower than in industry in every country. If you think of this salary gap (between academy and industry) as the value of academic freedom, this value is huge in our country, and it's growing by leaps and bounds every year. [This perceptive observation comes from Jayant, a good friend and colleague of mine].
Does it mean that EIs should think seriously about enhancing faculty salaries? May be. However, across-the-board salary increases are unlikely due to practical difficulties, which stem from the fact that almost all our EIs are publicly funded. They are autonomous, all right; but public funding imposes certain restrictions. For example:
- In our government, everyone is placed on a certain rung in an enormous ladder called 'pay scale'. The rungs in this ladder establish equivalence across areas. For example, an assistant professor's pay scale may be equivalent to that of a junior assistant deputy secretary (special duty) in the Central government. In our government, the structure of this pay-scale ladder is so sacrosanct, that only a high-power (but un-empowered) committee called the Pay Commission is allowed to tinker with it. Once every ten years or so. Bottomline: this is not a viable route, if you are thinking about enhanced faculty salaries in EIs.
- Our government has difficulty in identifying high performers, and in rewarding them through differential pay. In theory, multiple increments in salary are possible, but this motivational instrument is used rarely. The upshot is that all assistant professors end up earning essentially the same salary. This implies that an across-the-board enhancement in faculty salary is not really a great idea, since it would end up 'rewarding' duds as well as the more deserving.
The answer, clearly, is in getting the EIs to move towards a system where incentives are aligned with their overall goals. What might they be?
Many faculty members offer their expertise to industry through consultancy, and earn some extra money. For example, some IIM faculty have been reported to earn, through consultancy, several times their regular salary. This route of rewarding people has its pitfalls, however. First of all, not all fields are consulting-friendly. Also, consulting can only be a small part (typically, less than 20 %) of an academic institution's activities. Yet another problem is that consultancy projects often tend to be routine tasks, require little intellectual input, and don't lead to substantial, publication-worthy research.
Yet another method, practised in the US, is to allow faculty members to earn some money through their research grants. In India, much of the research funding also comes from government, and at present, our funding agencies don't allow a 'salary component' for the recepient of research grants. If at all anyone should clamour for any 'reform', I believe it should be to get our funding agencies to change this rule. This one change also has the virtue of aligning rewards with the EIs' mission.
[Oh, by the way, research grants from private sources -- such as industry, philanthropic trusts -- do allow faculty to earn some salary. This mode of funding, however, is small in our overall research pie.]
Entrepreneurship is another possibility, but we have too little experience with this route. Moreover, I'm not too conversant with the rules of the game here, so I won't say much about it.
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Finally, faculty salaries can be as high as the market would bear in private institutions. The current, intense competition for highly qualified people should have pushed up salary levels in those institutions that require them. Thus, I would guess that the faculty salaries in the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad are considerably higher than those at the IIMs. Is my guess right? If so, does ISB attract better candidates because of this 'salary advantage'? If you have some insights to offer, please leave a comment.
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Are there other initiatives that our EIs can adopt and implement that will make faculty positions more attractive? I do plan to get back to this topic; but since I have rambled on for too long, let me stop here. It should not, however, stop you from giving your ideas ...