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Straight Talk: Put Merit First in Indian Education

A culture of meritocracy must replace a culture of mediocrity if Indian Universities seek to match their international counterparts.
BY Pushkar |   06-01-2015
Pushkar
Everybody knows that one of the main reasons for a growing number of Indians to head abroad for higher education—to North America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia—is the enormous gap in the quality of education on offer at our institutions and theirs.

Recent data on student mobility also shows that a large majority of those who head abroad do so for graduate degrees—master’s and PhDs (nearly 60 per cent of the total in the US)—and are more likely to stay back and contribute to the phenomena known as “brain drain.” While remittances from abroad and “brain circulation”—an outcome where those who go abroad to study or work, return home with new sets of skills and experiences, and contribute to the growth and dynamism of local economies—offset some of the losses incurred due to brain drain, there is no doubt that the poor state of our universities is an enormous obstacle to the nation’s development.

Studying abroad is rewarding in many different ways, even for those who live in countries with an abundance of world-class institutions.

However, when the primary reason for studying abroad is the lack of good options at home, and when the state of higher education impedes a nation’s growth and development, tough questions need to be asked.

Why can’t India improve the quality of education on offer at its universities to an extent where young people are not forced to leave for foreign shores? What are we doing to narrow the gap between their universities and ours?

The failures of today are inherited from the past. For over several decades, we underfunded, neglected and mismanaged higher education so that better funding today is proving to be insufficient to  improve the quality of education.

Our best universities have failed to catch up with the better universities abroad and the overall quality of education at the nation’s colleges and universities has hardly improved. A “culture of mediocrity” characterized by nepotism, corruption and a deliberate preference for the mediocre runs so deep in higher education that it will take a sustained herculean effort for overa couple of decades at least for our universities to overcome their inferiority. Unfortunately, the task of recovery is made doubtful because we have thrust the job in the hands of the very same people who are responsible for bringing down higher education in the first place.

Just look at one of the big reasons why our universities lag behind the better ones abroad – the shortage of well-qualified faculty.

It is well-known that even our premier institutions—central universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)—have hundreds of vacancies, with the problem more acute at some institutions than at others.

However, it is not clear whether current faculty shortages reflect an actual shortage of qualified faculty, the inability of some institutions to attract qualified faculty to particular locations, or the casual pace at which India’s universities go about recruiting faculty. What is certainly true is that meritorious students opt for nearly every profession other than academics, thereby severely limiting the supply of potential faculty. Finally, a large number of positions remain vacant because they are reserved for candidates belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) who are even harder to find than suitable candidates from the General category.

Beyond such routine problems, the reason for the poor quality of faculty even at premier institutions is the selection process of new faculty. The ‘old guard’ runs colleges and universities, and to expect that it will choose on merit today when it has never done so in the past is unrealistic.
 
New faculty at most Indian institutions is, on occasion, hired on merit. Otherwise, hiring is commonly based on ethnic, personal or institutional ties to the head of the department, senior faculty members or those in key administrative positions. Most universities tend to hire their own—those who have completed their PhDs at the home institution—at the expense of better-qualified candidates from elsewhere. This perpetuates pre-existing, incestuous relationships within the ‘old guard’ at the cost of improvements in the quality of education. Better-qualified ‘outsiders’ are rejected because their arrival threatens the status quo. There are a good number of cases where heads of departments and others in the faculty selection committees conspire to reject applicants with PhDs even from the world’s top 20-30 universities in favour of their own, often mediocre candidates.
 
The faculty selection process at the better universities abroad, though not entirely above faults, relies substantially on putting merit first. The fact that our universities are less likely to hire better-qualified faculty, even when such faculty may be available, is one of the big reasons for the obvious difference in quality between their universities and ours.

Pushkar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.

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