Pipe dreams for Indian Academia — I

The earlier system of promoting teachers just by virtue of their having lived out a certain number of years in the system allowed many individuals to slip into a complacent disregard.

Published: 16th January 2022 11:52 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th January 2022 11:52 PM   |  A+A-

University grants Commission

Image of UGC head office used for representational purpose (File photo | PTI)

In the New Year, it is customary to wish for good things to happen. In this two-part series, here are just a few good things one wishes happened to higher education in this country. 

First, there is a need to free Indian academia from bureaucratic strangleholds. For instance, if you look at the rules for promotions in public universities ever since the 6th Pay Commission was introduced in 2006, there would appear to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. 

The earlier system of promoting teachers just by virtue of their having lived out a certain number of years in the system allowed many individuals to slip into a complacent disregard for research and continued learning. However, the UGC’s Academic Point Index (API) system now in currency, in the hands of recalcitrant colleges and universities, may have harassment built into it. 

Teachers must garner a certain number of points  per annum in a variety of academic and “extracurricular” activities, and compile enormous folios of “proof” of all this over time, sometimes retrospectively, for every single promotion. These folios they must submit, in numerous copies each, to the powers that be. The latter then adjudicate on what is indeed admissible and what is not—a deficit of trust that becomes inevitable when achievements are assessed mechanically. 

Yet, despite putting in the long years demanded (perhaps the longest anywhere in the world) and meeting, even exceeding the API required, there is no guarantee of getting your promotion, given arbitrary interpretations of the rules and unaccounted-for delays (15 years in a leading central university recently) by largely unsympathetic or helpless institutional bureaucracies. 

Many feel the system may be, ironically, ranged against the genuine scholar-teacher, who could take five years to research and produce a great book but will be awarded a mere 8–12 points for all that (according to the 2018 rules) even as their colleague, publishing an expedient article in one of dozens of journals that have mushroomed overnight to cater to the API industry, can lap up 10–30 points per piece. Similarly, a host of administrative duties, membership of committees and financial grants are essential if you have to meet the required points, whether or not they do anything to make you a better teacher or scholar. 

Promotions apart, there is also pressure on faculty to spend longer and longer hours in ‘office’ and teach larger and larger numbers of students. Oftentimes, pressed to fill seats, professors are required to supervise PhDs that have no connection to their own expertise. This is to the detriment of students and the discipline alike. 

Moreover, their reading and writing is something that many conscientious teachers end up having to do on their own time as a result—after they return from the workplace, during weekends, holidays and ever-shrinking vacations, as if research were their personal affair and irrelevant to teaching. Scarce sources of funding, especially in the humanities, and impossible sabbatical rules—in striking contrast to best Western practices to which we otherwise aspire—exacerbate the situation. Most academics simply give up. 

Any wonder then that the average standard of scholarly output has dropped here? Or that our course curricula are languishing and many students regard admission to Indian degree programmes as “time pass”, or stepping stones to institutions abroad, rather than rigorous and creative opportunities to excel in their own country? This is the real crisis of higher education in the public sector.

At the other end of the spectrum are commercial monopolies, redressing which would be another pipe dream. Consider the profiteering private-run educational institutes across the country. They cater only to students who can pay their exorbitant fees, and often poach on public universities for their teaching staff—people who, much like government doctors, flee to private pastures for fat pay cheques and different degrees of glamour. 

Left to their fate in the process are the lakhs of students who cannot afford these expensive teaching shops and have no alternative but to go to subsidised—and, sadly, stagnating—government academies. 

This is not to say that all private universities that have come up in the last 20 years or so are not propelled by noble impulses or do not have a worthy vision of ameliorating the ills of higher learning. Some would appear to. But what is worth pondering over is that if these are to remain privileged islands in the sea of Indian humanity thirsting for and deserving of quality education, can they do justice to their own cause? 

Not just places of learning, scholarly knowledge in general seems subject to commercial controls of access today, what with the steep price of academic books and journals and prohibitive copyright fees. The bulk of these profits by far goes to the publishing houses, not the author, who may have little say or share in the matter. 

Surely what is needed today are more equitable structures of both knowledge production and dissemination. 

The internet and social media have certainly opened up new avenues but they also bring with them fake news, unsubstantiated narratives and disinformation. 

It is mainstream Indian academics itself that must reform if authentic versions of truth and knowledge are to be widely available. In the next column, we will see what direction such internal, qualitative change may need to take. 

(To be continued)

Shonaleeka Kaul
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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