Watch this NDTV episode which I presume was aired on the day of the historic hunger strike by IIT faculty members (24 September 2009). What follows is a bunch of assorted observations, triggered by this show.
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Prof. Thenmozhi, who has championed this protest movement at the IITs, is one of the guests. She does a competent job of getting across the views of the protesters; ultimately, I found her unconvincing, but that's probably because I don't share those views, and certainly because I think the hunger strike was based on a set of imagined grievances whose financial implications were just an additional 2% hike in salaries. I also think that the 'autonomy' plank is a fake.
[BTW, I admire Prof. Thenmozhi for the way she has rallied the IIT faculty to agitate against the pay hike notifications. Here's a profile of this news maker].
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Prof. Dinesh Mohan of IIT-D takes a strong anti-strike stand, and scores some excellent points. About how faculty salaries in other countries are roughly in line with public sector salaries. About how it is wrong to use private sector criteria to judge public sector salaries -- the latter come with job security (and I would have added, many other perks).
To a question about the fat salaries in the US, his answer is wonderfully blunt: Let those who are interested in such salaries stay / go there!
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Mohandas Pai chants the mantra of free market-based pay scale. He seems oblivious of the kinds of things that can be inflicted when economic conditions turn sour.
Frankly, his free-market ideas should scare the wits out of most IIT faculty. Here's why:
A market-based pay works wonders when the economy is doing well. But an economy in recession could have devastating consequences.
In a recessionary economy, the pay hikes stop for those lucky enough to keep their jobs. Talk to anyone in the IT industry -- including Infosys -- about how bad things are. The starting salaries of fresh hires has barely budged in the last couple of years!
In a recessionary economy, it could get worse -- there may be a pay cut! I'm sure you can find examples from Indian industry, but here's an example from one of the most respected public university systems in the US -- The University of California. A severe crunch has forced it to institute faculty furloughs of 4 to 10 percent.
Heck, in a recessionary economy, people could lose jobs! Ask all those who got the pink slip from Infosys in the last one year.
[Isn't it ironic that we are talking about pay hikes in the public sector at a time when the private sector is bleeding?]
Tell the IIT faculty about the possibility of a pay freeze, a pay cut, or, gulp, job loss -- the miserable things that accompany the wonders of free markets. Then wait and watch how many of them choose to protest against the "indignity inflicted by the government" on October 1, the new ultimatum from the faculty federations.
Tell the IIT faculty about the brutal differentials in faculty salaries in the US system, in which the average salary of a full professor in philosophy, sociology or physics could be far smaller than that of an assistant professor in computer science. And then see how many of them show up for the protests.
[In the NDTV show, Prof. Thenmozhi wisely avoids getting into these uncomfortable aspects of the 'autonomy'].
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Kapil Sibal comes in at the end, comes on strong, and comes out swinging. His basic point: The hunger strike is not at all about autonomy, and it's entirely about money. In his view, it is a blatant and unfair attempt to take a larger share of the (public sector) resources.
He reiterates his stand (which I think is largely true) that the IIT faculty have actually got a better than anyone else has. He went further by offering interesting arguments -- in a combative tone! If you think the new salaries are too low to attract new faculty, he pointed out that the IITs have attracted tons of people over the last decade when the salaries were about 40 percent lower! And the the attrition rate at the IITs has been "next to nil!" [He could have taken a dig at Mohandas Pai by saying that it's far, far lower than the attrition rate at Infosys ;-)]. IITians can also make extra money through consulting.
None of these arguments is new. It's a pity that these things had to be spelled out by none other than the minister himself.
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Sibal also waxes eloquent about the new position created by MHRD: on-contract assistant professorship (OCAP). It's not at all clear who advised him on this one, but he is totally, completely wrong on the merits of this move. I have a post on why I think OCAP is an utterly horrible deal; if you have anything to add, please comment there.
I hope Mr. Sibal will go back, take a hard look at it, and scrap the OCAP scheme.
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Similarly, I hope the IIT faculty associations would dump their dishonest use of 'autonomy' to get their senior professors piffling extras -- that extra 2 percent over the 75 percent pay hike is just not worth it.
And I hope the IIT faculty associations will stop using on-contract assistant professors as human shields in promoting what is essentially a senior faculty agenda.