A Pubic Service Advertisement, published by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) on January 26, besides citing the construction of lakhs of school buildings and sanctions of tens of thousands of schools, goes on to describe achievements and projections for Institutes of Higher Learning: “8 new IITs, 7 new IIMs, 10 new NITs, 20 IIITs and 2new SPAs."
This should be heartening news for aspirants to these hallowed portals of learning and augur well for the future of Higher Education in the country. However the ground reality reveals a totally different picture: these Centrally Funded Technical Institutions (CFTIs) purportedly regarded globally as centres of excellence and as India’s ‘Ivy League’ all have, out of a plethora of ills dogging them for decades, one problem that seems insurmountable even after constant attempts at redressal: a chronic shortage of teachers with one out of three posts lying vacant in all CFTI’s, a total of 2,576 vacancies.
It does not matter much that the eight new IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) will be set up at a colossal cost of 6,000 crores, if the teachers are not there. Superlative knowledge Institutions are not built on just money, but by highly talented and dedicated faculty. Financial inputs can easily be sanctioned and utilized. However, building human capital, and that too of the calibre required to service premier institutions like IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) requires decades to cultivate, under the right conditions, remuneration and perks. There are no such things as Instant IITs or IIMs.
Some time back a highly regarded Professor at IIT Delhi, in an interaction with graduating students, asked, “How many of you would be willing to come back as a teacher to this place?” Not one hand went up and there was total silence in the room. Not surprising given that a fresh graduate from IIT earns in multiples of what his teachers are given. Comparatively, a US Business school graduate earns 0.4 to 0.6 times what the faculty earns. In India this ratio is approximately 2.5:1.
A Committee chaired by P Rama Rao from Hyderabad gives the alarming statistics that, in 2011, the shortage of teachers for higher education will increase to 231,000, and about 90 percent of this shortage will be in the sectors that have driven India’s growth in the last decade: information technology, computer sciences and engineering.
HRD Minister Kabil Sibal, at a convocation ceremony at IIT Delhi, said, “Not enough qualified teachers are a ‘missing link’ in the growth story.” They are, in fact, not ‘a’ missing link; they are ‘the’ missing link. Why does this missing link persist in what are commonly believed to be centres of excellence? The malady is threefold and is the same that afflicts education at all levels in the country: political interference, incompetence, and shamefully low salaries, which lead to a general lack of respect for the noblest profession in not only the public mind, but also among students at large.
Richard P. Adler observes “The Indian education system is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. The government regulates who you can teach, what you can teach them and what you can charge them.” In addition, multiple government agencies complicate the regulatory picture. Involved are the ministries of human resource development, labour, and Information and Technology. Each with its own priorities, pulling in preferred directions, has severely stymied the growth of education. The demand and need for quality education sees approximately 160,000 Indians seeking further education abroad, creating a multi-billion dollar industry for the host countries and resulting in a loss of billions to the education set up in India.
These factors, combined with the lack of quality teachers, has the International Herald Tribune voice this bleak assessment: “most of the 11 million students in the 18,000 Colleges and Universities across India receive starkly inferior training, heavy on obeisance and light on marketable skills… only a handful of graduates are considered employable by top global and local companies.”
India enrols the third largest number of students for higher education, second only to China and the United States. However, India has the largest number of higher education institutions in the world: 348 Universities and 17,625 Colleges. However, the country produces only 6,000 PhDs compared to the 25,000 granted by the United States in 2003. According to the Times Higher Education [THE] League table, the top 21 positions in the world are held by the universities in the west. Asian Universities are fighting to break the top twenty slots, with Japan in the frontline at 22nd place, and with the largest number (11) of Universities in the top 200 list. Also in the 200 list are China (with 6), Hong Kong (with 5), South Korea (with 4), Singapore and India (with 2 each). India’s premier IITs Delhi and Mumbai are placed nearly at the end of the list at 163rd and 181st respectively, down from 154th and 174th in 2008. Israel, with a population 1/160th of India’s, has five Universities in the top 200 list.
On the stifling role played by various ministries over the institutions, in 1940, Bertrand Russell wrote: “No matter what the form of government, the preservation of freedom demands the existence of bodies of men having an independence of the state, and among such bodies it is important that Universities should be included.”
When the faculty of India’s institutions of higher learning demanded greater autonomy, HRD Minister Sibal responded: “Produce Nobel Laureates before seeking freedom.”
Nobel laureates, groomed by the best minds in the world in an atmosphere conducive to the flowering of genius, are mainly produced in the West, where the student to teacher ratio is 1:4 to a maximum of 1:6. In India’s premier institutions, due to the acute shortage of teachers, the ratio is typically 1:12 and in certain situations 1:16. That is why most Indians who have won the Nobel Prize have all studied in the excellent conditions provided by the top Universities in the West. There, the requirement for the faculty to undertake research in their subject to keep up to date is mandatory, is welcome by the teachers, and is amply compensated.
The age-old Mantra for a successful business enterprise is, “Location, Location, Location”. For Institutions of Learning, it is “Teachers, Teachers, Teachers.” Unless India realizes this, its educational centres have no future; and nor has the country.
Gautam Sahni is Director, Mindsprings, an NGO that outreaches educational support to underprivileged children.