Thursday, March 15, 2012

What is high about our higher education?

In today’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, published from Washington DC, USA, I came across an interesting article entitled, ‘In Search of India’s Missing Professors,’ by P Pushkar, who is a research fellow at the Institute for International Development at McGill University.  The article would have one believe that alarm bells are ringing in Indian higher education. ‘There are reports,’ says Pushkar, ‘that India faces a shortage of 300,000 faculty members in its universities and colleges. It is estimated that the shortage will increase at the rate of 100,000 each year. These are big numbers even for a country of one billion-plus people and counting. What is remarkable is that the faculty shortage is serious not only in poor-quality public universities and colleges, but even at the world-class Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The truth is that, with some exceptions, higher education is in deep rot. India simply does not produce a sufficient number of high-quality PhDs. Not surprisingly, the IITs and the IIMs are trying to recruit Indians from abroad to fill faculty positions. It remains to be seen, however, how many will actually take up such jobs. Here in North America or in the UK, there is no dearth of Indians with Ph.Ds who distinguish themselves in teaching and research. Few, however, want to teach in India, not even at the IITs and the IIMs. The motto for Indians abroad–certainly those in academe–is still “anywhere but India”.’

Pushkar raises an interesting question: ‘How has such a large and populous country, and one where education is highly valued, reached a point where it cannot find faculty members for its most venerable institutions?’ This is his answer: ‘The problem is in part about salaries. According to a study by Philip G  Altbach of Boston College and Jamil Salmi of the World Bank on academic institutions around the world, salaries at the IITs are “ridiculously low” compared to IIT graduates who go into the private sector. They could have added that salaries are also “seriously low” compared to salaries in Western or world-class Eastern universities, even adjusted for the lower cost of living in India.’

This is how Pushkar concludes his article: ‘India’s political leaders do not seem to appreciate the extent of the faculty crisis. Mostly, there is a lot of talk and ambitious plans about reforming higher education. They need to first try and change the way Indians think about the profession. That and better salaries, especially to attract qualified faculty for the IITs, IIMs, and the all-too-few other quality institutions. Until then, Indians will prefer to teach on North American, British, and Australian campuses.’

These are my reflections on Pushkar's article:

Except for the sensational headline ('In search of India's "missing" professors), the article is a fairly accurate picture of the abysmal situation in India. Jairam Ramesh's observation about the so-called excellence of the IITs and the IIMs was not a tongue-in-cheek remark; it was a perceptive observation which the minister had the courage to articulate, even though political compulsions made him retract it later. Several decades ago, one of the Indian Vice-Chancellors, V V John, who never minced words, put it even more bluntly: 'There is nothing high about our higher education.' 'It cannot be brought lower,' he might say if he had lived to see the abysmal depths to which higher education has sunk in India over the past quarter century.

I think it is not just better salaries and better living conditions that have forced talented people to emigrate to countries like the USA, Singapore and the Gulf. Indian higher education doesn't just have the environment in which self-respecting people can breathe easily. One of my friends who is teaching abroad once said, 'I would not go back to teach in India even if they doubled my pay.' And he gave two reasons for not going back to India: political interference and a hierarchical atmosphere in which the head of the department or the Principal acts like a feudal lord. There is room for all this in our academia because it consists predominantly of lowbrows. At the lower rungs of the higher education ladder, where you find State-funded universities and colleges, the situation is much worse. As a teacher in one of those colleges who rejected an opportunity to work in a foreign university early on in my 30-year-long career and stayed behind, I have often been a victim of thuggish brutality for standing up for intellectual freedom.  About a decade ago, I was forced to resign as the Head of the Department of English in my college, and, a few months ago, I was abused ("Bloody fellow!" shouted a lecturer, advancing menacingly towards me) by some of my colleagues at an official meeting in my college and threatened with violence.  This is by no means an isolated incident; colleges and universities have by and large become a haven for idle gossip, calumny, slander and what have you.

Research, which Pushkar’s article talks about in passing, is one of the sordid aspects of Indian higher education. Some years ago, I spent a few days with Professor Helen Christiansen from Canada who was an authority on second language acquisition and who was a research examiner for some of the prestigious Indian universities. When I asked her about her perception of the state of research in India, she told me with no hesitation that, without a single exception, the PhD dissertations she had received for assessment from India were third rate. And she took pains to justify her remark. 

Helen was blunt. And what she said hurt my national pride. But the fact remains that we, Indians, are a nation of third-rate researchers. Much of what goes on in the name of research in our universities cannot stand up to close scrutiny. The recently-reported case of plagiarism in Indian academia is just a tip of the iceberg. I have refused to evaluate several MPhil and PhD dissertations and asked the universities which had sent them to spare me the agony in future.

I shall conclude with an amusing anecdote which can demonstrate how appallingly lowbrow Indian academia is. Once I attended a scholarly lecture on research methodology which, I thought, was brilliant. The audience consisted of college teachers most of whom were engaged in either MPhil or PhD research. Behind me was a row of lecturers who launched into an hour-long natter minutes after the lecture began. In front of me were several rows of teachers, some chatting, some snoozing, and some with a bored expression of their faces. My own row was kept awake by the loud snores that came from a senior lecturer seated beside me!


  1. Olá querido! seguindo seu blog, se desejar este é o link do meu, será um prazer ter vc no meu blog.

  2. How I wish I could understand what you are saying in Portuguese, Neide!

  3. After all, there are only two numbers before 3 and innumerable after that (speaking Mathematics) in "Natural numbers" (which are used for raking and rating). Third rate! Indians can still go about with their boasting...