In Search of India’s ‘Missing’ Professors

The following is a guest post by P. Pushkar, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University.

There are reports 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 Ph.D.’s. 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 U.K., there is no dearth of Indians with Ph.D.’s 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.”

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?

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 IIT’s 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.

Salaries have improved significantly since the Indian government approved salary increases in its Sixth Pay Commission in 2006. However, in India’s growing economy, housing costs, private-school tuition, and food prices have increased greatly over the years. More importantly perhaps, the Indian state is a poor provider of public goods and services so that many basic amenities have to be acquired privately.

These are all important considerations for non-resident Indians who may want to return. Sure, even at current salaries, they can afford domestic help. However, public schools are terrible and private schools are expensive. Housing costs are high even in second-tier cities. Health care is poor except in big cities. Food prices are going up all the time.

Faculty shortages at the IITs exist even though they provide subsidized housing and living expenses. A typical IIT campus is nothing like what lies outside. There is 24-hour electricity and water supply. The campuses are safe. If you teach at an IIT, you essentially live in a large gated community at highly subsidized rates.

Location may be a factor as well.

Many new IITs are located in distant parts of the country. One is in the foothills of the Himalayas. Older ones are located in cities that have become unlivable. Visit the city of Kanpur and you will know exactly what I mean.

The IITs want to hire young faculty. But young faculty members are not necessarily single. They have spouses and often young children. What will their spouses do? Where will their children go to school?

While many Indians may have lived in small university towns in North America, they are now looking for a decent life outside the campus. Yesterday’s lab rats want to live life.  Some have even developed a global cultural outlook. There is very little of that outside the IIT campus. When there is, as in New Delhi, salaries are too low for an expensive city.

However, salaries and location are not sufficient reasons why the IITs and the IIMs cannot find instructors. For decades, politicians, bureaucrats, and other Indians have derided the teaching profession. Today, if a 10-year-old tells his parents that he wants to teach, even if at an IIT, he is likely to get a thrashing.

Last year, Jairam Ramesh, an IIT graduate and the minister of environment at the time, created a furor when he remarked that the IITs and the IIMs were excellent because of the quality of the students and not because of the quality of the faculty. Supporting him was the education minister, Kapil Sibal, who noted that Indian institutions need to improve and “don’t figure in the top 150 list” of the world’s universities.

Mr. Ramesh and Mr. Sibal may have done greater service by admitting that, to the extent that the IITs lack world-class teaching and research faculty, it is because Indians consider the profession a second-rate career choice.

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.

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