Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Shailaja Neelakantan on the acute faculty shortage in India

Her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education covers many different views (including mine) on this problem. You can read all of it on her website.

Here's a description of how grave this problem is:

A report released last year by a parliamentary committee outlined the magnitude of the crisis. At 16 universities under federal control — considered the country's elite — as many as 1,988 faculty positions lay vacant as of March 2005. The committee said the problem is probably even worse at state universities and that "drastic steps need to be taken so that students are not deprived of proper guidance."

The situation has changed little since then. At the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, for example, 29 percent of faculty positions are unfilled. At a recent graduation event V.S. Ramamurthy, the institute's chairman, called the situation "a disaster in the making," and said it needs to be tackled on "a war footing."

At lower-rung institutions like the regional engineering colleges, which suffer some of the most acute faculty shortages, courses are left unfinished or untaught. In June, a number of third-year students at Jalpaiguri Engineering College, in the state of West Bengal, went on a hunger strike saying that they were unprepared for exams because no classes had been held for six months. These students were supposed to have 20 full-time professors. They had one. Administrators tried to recruit more faculty members from other institutions but realized that many of them didn't have enough professors to meet their own needs.

Naturally, there is a section on faculty salaries, and this is where I get quoted:

Professors and administrators say that flexibility in setting salaries would go a long way toward fixing the problem. As it is, India's notoriously bureaucratic higher-education system is hobbled by rules under which professors, no matter how brilliant, are treated like civil servants. "Even if you get five Nobel Prizes, you can't get more than what an additional secretary [a bureaucratic position] earns, which is something like 45,000 rupees a month," or $1,120, says C.N.R. Rao, scientific adviser to the prime minister. And a bureaucrat typically has a lot more perks and power.

Because strong performance is not rewarded, all assistant professors, regardless of how much they have published, earn about the same."There ought to be some way of measuring the usefulness of a person, and this mechanism has to be created anew," says T.A. Abinandanan ...

Perhaps I can elaborate on this a bit: As some of you might be aware, I am against across-the-board salary hikes simply because our system does not distinguish between a high performer and an also-ran. In particular, it does not have a way of getting rid of poor performers, because government jobs come with life-time warranty.

Thus, I would like faculty job contracts that specify a certain minimum basket of activities for which a base salary is paid. Any performance over and above this minimum earns the faculty member an additional salary. Such a salary structure does not exist, and it is probably worth working towards.

However, even within the current paradigm of equal pay for unequal work, certain incentives can be built in to encourage faculty members to do more of things that are aligned with an institution's mission. Currently, industrial consulting is the only route for a faculty member to earn an extra income. But this route is not available for basic researchers.

Thus, I would recommend allowing a salary component for faculty through their externally funded research grants. Remember, this is already possible if the research grant is from private industry, philanthropic organizations, research foundations, or a foreign funding agency. It's only our government agencies that do not allow a salary component.

* * *

I have argued that salaries, while important, are only one of the reasons for the facutly crunch. Our institutions must do a whole lot of other things (which are easier to accomplish particularly because some of the elite institutions are now enjoying an era of unprecedented riches) if they are to become attractive destinations for top faculty talent.


  1. Gautam said...


    Here is one suggestion for a possible fix. The idea isn't mine but has been circulating for some time, but I'd be curious to get your - and other - reactions to it.

    The idea is the following: There is a fair amount of scientific talent in the purely research institutions (TIFR, IISc, CCMB, IMSc. etc.) which is currently involved only in guiding research at the graduate level. The numbers, overall, are large. However, in contrast to the best institutions in the world, scientists in pure research institutions in India almost never do any undergraduate (or even post-graduate) teaching. In the past- and even now - particularly in the pure sciences, such jobs tended to be more attractive than university or even IIT jobs, since they came with no teaching responsibilities, were well funded in comparison to the university structure and carried, relatively, more prestige.

    There are no (or typically very few) lateral exits from the research institute system and no system in place by which appointments can be jointly made between a university, say, and an institute. For a researcher in his mid-40's, say, in a period of consolidation in his/her research, rather than in an exploratory phase, and who would like to spend more time teaching, there are few options for doing so.

    So why not contemplate a system by which a scientist at a research institute, say in the mid-level phase of his/her career, be encouraged to shift his/her research program to a university. By research program could be meant, in the case of an experimentalist, the shift of an entire lab, equipment and all, at the expense of the research institute, together with funding of all possible expenses connected with setting up the lab again. The deal could be the following: The researcher continues to be paid by the original institution, to receive laboratory support etc. The University only provides space. In return, the research scientist does whatever teaching responsibilities are required, as well as maintains and runs his/her lab/research. Side-by-side, teachers and researchers in the university system could be encouraged to take a breather, by moving to a research institute and to concentrate on research exclusively for a period. At the end of a designated period, the university system/research institute system can absorb the person.

    What the research institute gains is the following. It maintains a turnover of young researchers at an entry level stage of their careers,
    and can provide them funding to take risks at that stage, without worrying excessively about the consequences. After that initial productive spurt, the consolidation of a line of activity can happen elsewhere. This is what the university gains initially. This has the bonus that young faculty interested both in research and teaching can also choose to move at the outset to universities where such mature research programs and researchers exist and are successful. This would act as a further magnet for the university system.

    This could - and in my opinion should - only be seen as a temporary measure, both to relieve the current stress on faculty availability as well as to even out the current disparity between funding levels/laboratory infrastructure etc between research institutions and teaching institutions and universities. It will provide an option to several researchers at the research institutes who are exceptional teachers to access the university system. It will also provide a way by which the university system can access the infrastructure built up by the research institutions over the years. I am not sure it is workable, but believe that it should not at least accentuate the divisions that exist now.