India gives teachers a big raise

NEW DELHI — A couple of years ago, third-year students at a college in the state of West Bengal went on a hunger strike saying they were unprepared for semester exams because no classes had been held for six months.

These students were supposed to have 20 full-time professors. They had one. Administrators tried to recruit more faculty from other institutions but realized that many of those schools didn’t have enough professors to meet their own needs.

This problem isn't restricted to one institution. India’s universities are reeling, with some of them unable to fill as many as 50 percent of professorial positions, and the problem is about to get worse as a massive higher education expansion plan is underway.

Last December, in a bid to combat this problem, the government approved a hefty pay raise for the 500,000 academics who teach in the public university system. The increases, which average 70 percent, could end up nearly tripling some faculty members’ salaries and will be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2006. Professors will see minimum monthly salaries increase from 16,400 rupees ($344) to 37,400 rupees ($786).

“One of the critical factors affecting the quality of universities and institutions imparting higher education is our inability to attract and retain young and talented persons to the teaching profession,” D. Purandeswari, the junior minister in charge of higher education told parliament while announcing the salary hike. In the last decade, fewer and fewer college graduates have entered academia as India’s galloping economy created a variety of more lucrative job opportunities in fields such as the media, entertainment and travel.

Yet, without any workable plan to deal with faculty shortages Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — who publicly called India's higher-education system "dysfunctional" — has in the last couple of years announced the establishment of as many as 80 new universities, engineering schools, management schools and research institutes, along with more than 350 undergraduate colleges. Singh is no doubt concerned about the low rate of India’s 18- to 24-year-olds entering higher education — it currently stands at 9 to 11 percent, which is half the average for Asian countries.

Academics say it will be a challenge to staff these new institutions given the current level of faculty shortages in existing institutions. “The house of higher education is not in good shape, at the moment,” a recent report by the University Grants Commission, the country’s university regulator, says.

The Commission is putting it mildly. The faculty shortage has increased professors' teaching loads, making it difficult for them to keep up with their research. A decline in research has, in turn, made academic careers, even at the top universities, increasingly unappealing. As a result, many universities are settling for poorly trained professors. A recent government report found that 57 percent of teachers in India's colleges lack either an M.Phil., the bridge degree in India to a doctorate, or a Ph.D.

Despite the recent economic downturn and the faculty hike, private sector salaries are still higher than professors' salaries and research opportunities at multinational corporations that have set up research labs here are luring away more and more of the country’s top graduates. Even today, a top professor at the premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) cannot earn more than a maximum salary — not including perks – of $15,000 a year, while an engineering graduate can make at least twice as much as that in just a few years of joining a company in the private sector. Apart from the salary hike, the only moves the government has made so far to ease the shortage has been to raise the retirement age for faculty members and allow some of the elite institutes to recruit foreign professors. But given that many Indians interested in academic careers tend to leave the country for better-paying jobs, it is unclear that this latter plan will be much help.

The University Grants Commission, India's higher-education regulator, has recently proposed increasing fellowship grants for doctoral students to deal with the faculty shortage. The IITs have allowed professors to keep a slightly higher percentage of the fees they charge as corporate consultants. In addition, various corporations and alumni have stepped in to create special chairs at the IITs to foster research and make academia a more exciting option for its graduates.

But the IITs are unusual in this regard: Federal and state universities face cuts in their grants if they raise funds on their own. “If I raise money from industry and alumni, say, 100,000 rupees," said Deepak Pental, vice chancellor of the University of Delhi, the government "will cut some amount from my university's grant-in-aid." This issue, he said, points back to the larger bureaucratic problems holding back India's universities: "We are not so destitute of money. A lot of times it is our own inertia."