Higher education: Promotion policies at the centre of declining standards
The Indian higher education system appears to be in a crisis: a huge number of its graduates are considered unemployable, and it does not seem to be producing high quality research. This does not apply to the IITs and similar elite institutions, especially with regards to the quality of their graduates. However, there are grave concerns about the vast majority of government and private universities.
There are numerous reasons for this. One of them being the promotion policies for teachers. Teachers are the main agents who execute the agenda of a university and teacher promotion policies are indicative of how the priorities of the university get implemented. The current policies typically consider the research done by the teachers as the main factor in giving a promotion (say between levels such as lecturer, reader, assistant professor, associate professor and professor). In addition, the administrative work done is often substantially considered. This typically includes the day to day administrative work as well as work involved in organising conferences etc. Teaching is often given less importance, especially when compared to the amount of time spent on it. Most teachers in the non-elite universities are expected to spend 15-20 hours per week teaching in the classroom and in the laboratories. Probably around 5 hours are spent every week on evaluating homework and examinations.
There is also about 5-10 hours of administrative work every week. Thus out of a work week of about 40-45 hours, about 15 hours remain at the discretionary disposal of the teacher. These can be spent in preparing for lectures or research. If research is to be the main determining factor in promotions, it is clear that most of the 15 discretionary hours will be spent on research. Individuals will attempt to maximise their gain and they cannot be faulted for that. It is the job of the society at large and the policy makers to ensure that the incentives nudge individuals in a socially useful direction.
Effect on teaching
It is indeed possible to teach for 15-20 hours each week without much preparation. Simply have a set of notes and read from them year after year. This paradigm is often called “rote learning”, where the teacher provides the information which the students are expected to memorise. Teachers may find this paradigm convenient: it minimises their effort and demands little expertise; you do not even need to understand too well the information you pass out. However, students do not have a voice regarding this. Further, rote learning has its benefits in the short run – you do not have to really bother to understand anything. You can relax for most of the year and do a marathon memorisation session before the examination and dump out whatever gets asked in the examinations.
Effect on research
The reality of research in our universities offers scope for a serious review. Conferences and journals have sprouted up all over the country, ready to publish work with the payment of appropriate charges. There may be little reviewing. And then there is plagiarism. It is possible to attribute this to declining morality. A more down to earth explanation is: if you demand research from someone who does not have the means to do it, there is a danger that something called research will be supplied. If promotion needs a Ph.D., there is a danger that Ph.D. shops will open up. The real question is: is the demand of research, and of earning Ph.D.s, a reasonable demand in the first place? To obtain a good perspective on this, it is worth comparing the functioning of teachers in elite and non-elite institutions. The teachers in the elite institutions typically teach 5-6 hours per week. They expect more than rote learning from their students; but for this they must spend at least an additional 5-10 hours in preparation, across the entire range of activities from keeping track of the recent advances in the subject and the pedagogy, designing interesting assignments and examinations, and attempting to reach out to the students.
Elite institutions often provide teaching assistants to help out with tasks such as grading homeworks and examinations, and generally help the learners. Such institutions might also have more administrative staff, which takes up considerable administrative load. They also get good quality PhD students who assist the professors in their research. Finally, they are better funded and thus have access to better equipment and facilities. So on the whole, teachers in non-elite institutions are extremely ill-positioned for doing research. But the current policies force them to produce research for promotions or even survival.
The way ahead
Can there be other ways of promoting teachers? A simple answer is: give teaching its due importance in promotion. A natural idea is: the promotion process should give weightage to teaching, research and administration in proportion to the amount of time the teacher is expected to spend on these three activities. For the non-elite universities, the hours we would like to be spent per week seem to be roughly 30, 7.5, 7.5 respectively. If so, the weightage given to teaching, research and administrative work should be 4:1:1, or 66 per cent, 16.5 per cent, 16.5 per cent respectively. If teachers really spend 30 hours per week acquiring mastery in their subject and in understanding pedagogy, it will be an enormous service to their students. It will also improve their research, because often the best way to develop deep expertise in a subject is to teach it to inquisitive young minds.
That brings us to the tricky question of how to measure teaching performance. In most foreign universities, anonymous student feedback is used as the main indicator of how well a teacher has taught. Typically, at the end of the academic year or semester, the students fill out a questionnaire indicating how they were helped by the teaching of each of their teachers. There are some concerns whether student opinion on teachers can be considered accurate, but many studies have found it to be so. Indeed, such feedback forms almost the exclusive assessment of teaching ability in many American and European universities, and also in many elite institutions in India.
Teaching quality index
It could also be said that the quality of an institution be measured more by the quality of its teaching, than the quality of its building construction and the playgrounds. For this as well teaching needs to be given its due importance, in a scientific, measurement based manner. Universities could be required to publicise a teaching quality index. This would be an average over all teachers of the score obtained through feedback from students (or other appropriate mechanisms). This could be used to decide whether to give grants to the universities. Aspiring students would also find such an index useful.