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Straight Talk: Faculty Shortages are a Huge Obstacle to India's Higher Ed Plans

More than half the positions for professor at central universities are vacant, at a time when more and more Indians are attending college. How are we going to find more faculty for them?
BY Pushkar |   31-08-2016
IIT Kharagpur (photo by newyorkannie)
Above: IIT Kharagpur (image by newyorkannie, used under CC BY 2.0 licence)

For the past many years, faculty shortages at Indian universities have been routinely highlighted in the print media. A report submitted by a parliamentary panel a few months ago was blunt in its assessment of the situation: “Right from well-established Central Universities to those set up recently, State universities as well as private universities, premier institutions like IITs, NITs and IIMs, this problem has emerged as the biggest handicap for the development and growth of Higher Education vis-a-vis maintaining the quality of education.”

According to recent estimates, total vacancies at central universities stand at 1,277 positions for the post of Professor (53 per cent); 2173 for Associate Professor (46 per cent); and 2,478 for Assistant Professor (26 per cent).

The situation is no better at the IITs.

It was reported last November that both the old and the new IITs suffer from huge shortages. Among the older IITs, Bombay had a vacancy of 38.66 per cent; Kharagpur of 42.42 per cent; Roorkee of 41.88 per cent; Delhi of 33.11 per cent; Guwahati of 26.50 per cent and IIT-BHU of 53.39 per cent. At the new IITs, The numbers were somewhat lower with 21.11 per cent vacancy at Patna; 14.44 per cent at Indore; 20 per cent at Hyderabad; 10.18 at Gandhinagar but 56.67 per cent at Jodhpur.

The shortages are certainly worse at state universities and private institutions. Many state governments have put a freeze on faculty hires for the past many years and make do with poorly-paid temporary faculty; most private institutions on the other hand are fully dedicated to profit-maximization and prefer to hire part-time faculty at low wages.

Note that the shortages are therefore not simply about the poor supply of qualified faculty (which they are); faculty shortages exist also because universities are unable or unwilling to hire faculty.

The impact of faculty shortages

As stated above, according to a recent report, faculty shortages are said to be the biggest handicap for the development and growth of higher education, especially with respect to the quality of education.

We already know that the quality of education on offer at our universities is dismal. For example, it is well known that college graduates from Indian universities, across all disciplines, have poor employability rates, though in all fairness, this is in part due to the poor schooling of most students (Indeed, without improving the quality of school education, it would be unrealistic to hope for significant improvements at the college level. It is difficult for students to compensate for the disadvantages they accumulated over many years after they get to college). However, there is no doubt that shortage of faculty, including and especially the shortage of well-qualified people, also explains the poor quality of education and poor student learning.

We are also quite familiar with the poor performance of our universities in world university rankings. Few Indian universities have what it takes to count among the world’s best institutions. Among the reasons for their poor performance is the shortage of well-qualified faculty who are committed to research. Shortages also lead to a heavier teaching load on faculty which takes time away from their research.

A high faculty-student ratio also hurts an institution’s standing in world university rankings. Earlier this year, IIT-Kgp finished third in NIRF’s rankings of engineering institutes in part due to its high faculty-student ratio.

There are other issues of concern which need to be addressed as well.

More and more Indians are attending college, and their numbers will increase in the coming years. According to the 2014-2015 AISHE Provisional Report, the gross enrollment ratio (GER) stands at 23.6% and will likely stabilize at around 30%. More than 36 million Indians already study at higher education institutions of various kinds.

More universities, both public and private, are being built to accommodate these students. In fact, in recent years, the growth of private universities has been spectacular and far outstripped the growth in public institutions. Still more universities are needed to meet the needs of the growing numbers of students.

Alternatively, existing institutions can be enlarged where possible to accommodate more students. For example, the IIT Council recently decided to increase student intake at the IITs by nearly 40% over the next three years. Whether it is new institutions or larger institutions, they will above all need faculty.

What is being done…

Several new ideas are being discussed to address faculty shortages, especially for elite institutions such as the IITs.

The new human resource development (HRD) minister, Prakash Javadekar, has been discussing a new proposal to admit 1,000 bright B.Tech students from premier engineering colleges directly into the PhD programs at the IITs with generous fellowships in the range of Rs 60,000 a month. The expectation is that those who join the PhD program will complete it and then join the academic profession in India. The minister has proposed “Teach in IITs” fairs abroad in order to recruit Indians with newly-minted PhDs from the best universities.

Some institutions, too, are trying new things. Recently, IIT-Delhi advertised for teaching faculty positions, presumably to address its need for teaching faculty. These positions are different from regular faculty positions where both teaching and research ability and duties are required of faculty.

These measures may help provide some relief but they are not likely to go very far in resolving the faculty crisis. According to available data, only 0.34% of the total student enrolment is in PhD programs. These numbers are too low to produce the next generation of teachers and researchers, and will rise only with some combination of financial incentives and sincere efforts at making the profession respectable.

…and what also needs to be done

One of the big reasons for faculty shortages – and this is something no one talks about – is the fall in the profession’s social standing over the last two or three decades. From sometime around the 1980s, there was a vicious assault on India’s higher education institutions (and the academic profession) at the hands of political leaders, bureaucrats, business groups, parents, students and the teachers themselves hollowed out most of the gains that were made in the early decades of independence.

During these ‘lost decades’ of higher education, there was a steady and speedy deterioration of the higher education sector due to financial difficulties, politicization, callous policies, neglect and other factors. Always a ‘noble’ but never a well-paid profession, academics became one of the less desirable career options. With only a hint of exaggeration, one could say that many of those who have taken up the academic profession since the 1980s are those who exhausted other career options. This needs to change if the government is serious about addressing faculty shortages with any degree of success.

Financial incentives may attract more students to PhD programs but they may not be sufficient to retain them in academia. The profession must also regain its lost social status. This will not happen overnight. It will require a concerted effort on the part of the government to elevate academia as a respectable profession. It will also require changes in how Indian society, especially politicians, bureaucrats, parents and of course students, view the academic profession. For now, India’s higher education sector will stumble along with and due to faculty shortages.
Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) writes regularly on India’s higher education.



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