Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pulapre Balakrishnan: Pay and Autonomy in the IITs

Here's his opinion piece in MInt. He's sympathetic to the demands for more autonomy, but raises questions about the pay hike demands on two different grounds:

We may query the demand for higher pay on two grounds. First, it is not clear that the principle that engineering faculty should earn more than the rest in the public educational sector is a sound one. Is it commonly agreed upon in India that engineering is superior to philosophy? As a principle this would be hard to find applied in the great universities of the world.

The privileging of engineering in India is the direct legacy of the plan for rapid industrialization of the country in the 1950s when the IITs were formed. Engineering education was the natural beneficiary. With hindsight, we can say that it would have been entirely possible at that stage to increase the number of engineers without hiving off the engineering college and paying its faculty more. Instead, India chose a strategy which resulted in a tiering of its public educational system, placing the IITs on top. Therefore, the demand by the IIT faculty for preserving this salary differential is not surprising, but that does not make it justifiable.

The claim that they have had to work harder to get there is untenable. The faculty of the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1960s combined the finest international qualifications with the highest class of research. Amartya Sen went on to win a Nobel Prize for work initiated there. Secondly, IIT faculty representatives have claimed a higher salary on the ground that this would mimic the industry standard for engineers. However, market signals are not always available to guide public sector pricing. Consider defence, which is publicly provided. We can now only guess at what its market value would be, and have to use other means to arrive at a reasonable salary for our jawans.