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Straight Talk: Foreign faculty will be immensely beneficial for Institutions of Eminence

The combined research output of all India’s central universities is less than that of either Cambridge or Stanford alone. Hiring foreign faculty will boost research and internationalization.
BY Pushkar |   29-12-2017
Image by AKS.9955, used under CC license

In September 2017, the University Grants Commission (UGC) called out leading higher education institutions (HEIs) in the country to apply for the prestigious Institutions of Eminence (IOE) tag and gave them three months to stake their claim. Public and private institutions were both eligible to apply, as also were green field institutions. By December, 100 universities submitted their applications. If all goes according to the timetable laid out by the UGC, an Empowered Experts Committee (EEC) will soon be named to undertake the task of choosing 10 public and 10 private institutions to become part of the elite IOE group, likely by March 2018.

The selected institutions will be completely free of UGC regulations. They will be able to exercise unprecedented administrative and financial autonomy in a broad range of areas including faculty and staff salaries, student fees, course offerings and content, and many other areas where UGC rules currently apply. The government will provide up to Rs 1,000 crores to each of the public institutions; private institutions will not receive any direct financial support from the government but will have access to public funds for research (see here and here for details).

Universities in the IOE group will be expected to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 universities in 10-15 years, and eventually into the top 100.  To be able to do that, however, these elite universities will need to, above all, substantially increase the quantity and quality of research output.India lags way behind global leaders in terms of research spending. While India spends 0.85 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on research, China spends 2.1 per cent, the US 2.74 per cent, Japan 3.58 per cent, and Israel 4.11 per cent. Low research spending is a big reason for low and poor quality research output, though there are other factors which matter as well.

Most Indian institutions are lacking in research culture and faculty members often take recourse to plagiarism and publishing in fake journals without repercussions and indeed benefit instead in terms of promotions and other benefits. A 2017 study found that the combined research output of all the central universities taken together was less than research output of either Cambridge or Stanford Universities alone. 

India’s universities must also register big improvements on the internationalization dimension by recruiting larger numbers of foreign faculty and attracting many more students from abroad. Currently, the number of Indians studying abroad greatly outnumber foreigners studying in India. Attracting more foreign students to study in India will be hard. Similarly, hiring larger numbers of foreign faculty will be a huge challengefor Indian universities. While universities located in the largest cities such as New Delhi/NCR may be attractive for potential faculty in some ways, overall urban conditions – pollution in particular – in most cities, may discourage foreign faculty from moving to India.

For the institutions in the IoE group, addressing the weaknesses in research performance and low levels of internationalization will require paying greater attention to hiring foreign and/or foreign-trained faculty. To improve research output, they will be better off hiring larger numbers of foreign-trained faculty since they tend to be more research-focused than those trained at most Indian universities. They will also need to hire more faculty with foreign passports to improve on the internationalization dimension, which may also be helpful in attracting more foreign students over the medium- to long-term.

The set of recommendations and guidelines for the IOE group of institutions is cognizant of the need for foreign and foreign-qualified faculty in improving research and in contributing to the betterment of the overall academic standards. In a section titled “Expectations from a Government Institution of Eminence,” it is noted that:

  1. It [the Institution of Eminence] should have a good proportion of foreign or foreign qualified faculty. Institutions which succeed in mobilizing a broadly diverse national and international academic staff are likely to maximise knowledge capacity (emphasis added).

The same section goes on to define foreign and foreign-qualified faculty as follows:

  1. Any faculty of non-Indian residentship or
  2. Any Indian citizen who has spent considerable time in academics in a foreign country, with his academic qualification/experience from top 500 institutions figuring in a reputed working ranking.

This definition is consistent with the suggestionthat the inclusion of foreign-trained faculty in any definition of ‘foreign’ faculty provides for an ‘inclusive’ definition which does not discriminate against Indians who studied (or even worked abroad) but retained their Indian passports. While this inclusive definition of foreign faculty may help in addressing the research deficit, it will not promote the cause of internationalization for which the IoE group of institutions need to hire those with foreign passports.

What is interesting here is that while this section deals with both foreign faculty and foreign-trained faculty but does not mention the OCI category. Since some select institutions, notably the IITs, have been specifically permitted to hire OCIs for faculty positions, while regular institutions such as state universities cannot without the permission of the government, it would have been useful to clarify the status of OCIs with reference to the IoE group of institutions. Technically, OCIs should fall under the foreign category.

In a later paragraph, the IoE group is given the “freedom to recruit faculty from outside India subject to the limit of twenty-five percent of its faculty strength.”

The sections on foreign and foreign-trained faculty leaves no doubt about the logic behind supporting the hiring of such faculty. However, there are doubts about the terminologies that are used or excluded and the cap of twenty–five percent on ‘faculty from outside India’.  

The ‘expectations’ from IoE group of institutions refer to ‘foreign faculty’, ‘foreign-trained faculty’ and ‘faculty from outside India’. It is not obvious which category OCIs will fall under. Further, the faculty from outside India could be either foreign faculty (including OCIs) or those Indians who are currently completing their PhDs abroad. This may seem like hair-splitting but knowing the ways of the Indian government and the UGC, it is perhaps necessary to split hairs given the fact that the IoE institutions will have sufficient autonomy and may interpret the terms – especially ‘foreign faculty’ and ‘faculty from outside India’ -  in different ways.

The numbers of faculty from outside India is capped at twenty-five percent and different institutions in the IoE group may interpret them as follow:

  1. Faculty with foreign passports;
  2. Some combination of faculty with foreign passports and foreign-trained Indian passport holders.

Those which choose option 1 will in theory be able to recruit many more faculty members with foreign PhDs (i.e. foreign faculty plus Indian faculty with foreign degrees) and this will help them not only increase their research output but also the internationalization dimension. Those going for option 2 (i.e. capping foreign plus foreign-trained Indian faculty at twenty-five per cent) will benefit from greater research output but will not benefit as much on the internationalization dimension.

It is important for the IoE group of institutions to address and resolve such ambiguities. On paper, they seem to have the opportunity to hire, if they can, up to twenty-five percent faculty with foreign passports which will give a fillip to both their research output and internationalization. Alternately, they could cap at twenty-five percent a mix of faculty with degrees from abroad and those with foreign passports which will boost their research performance but have a weaker impact on their internationalization.

Dr. Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.



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