This article is part of the ‘Let Teachers Teach’ series, discussing the Union human resource development ministry’s decision to not mandate college teachers to conduct research.
Sunalini Kumar teaches political science at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, and blogs at Kafila.
“I would like to thank Huddersfield University for enabling me to have a sabbatical semester to work on this revised edition and for providing such a supportive environment. Thanks to many of the students on my Women, Power and Society module for their hard work and enthusiasm.”
Thus goes the dedication in a book by British scholar and teacher Valerie Bryson – a text I often use when teaching at a college in Delhi University. Evidently, Bryson found her teaching and research lives complementing each other beautifully, as have thousands of university and college teachers who have had the luck to have what she calls a “supportive” professional and academic environment. What are the elements of this support? A sabbatical semester or year every once in a while, ready research facilities within the college premises or nearby and an opportunity to formulate teaching courses that ally with your research focus. With these elements in place, both teaching and research benefit dramatically.
Until recently, college teachers in this country had the first two conditions. They were given in their entire careers – say from the age of 26 or 27 when one normally begins teaching at a college to the age of 65 – three years of paid study leave to pursue or finish their PhDs (with the usual conditions and caveats including a strict bond that they signed with the college promising to return the three years’ pay if the PhD remained incomplete or if they resigned upon return to the institution) and a further two years of (until recently paid, but now invariably unpaid or “extraordinary”) leave to take a break from teaching and pursue a postdoctoral or visiting fellowship at a research institute. The second condition has admittedly been conspicuous by its absence in many colleges, which especially in this era of online journal databases, are stuck in the Jurassic age with regard to IT facilities. However, teachers have continually taken advantage of high-quality public libraries like the Nehru Memorial in Delhi, and of better internet access at home and shared logins to foreign journal databases, not to mention a decent and growing list of open-access journals. As for the third condition, even if college teachers don’t design courses on their own, they do participate in periodic course revision exercises at the university level.
As a result of these conditions, a steady stream of research and publications from within colleges has ensured that many excellent scholars have thrived within the Indian college ecosystem, and moving dedications like the one quoted above are to be found here too. As somebody who has returned from a sabbatical to college teaching, I find that the ‘decompression’ effect of research leave has had a dramatic effect on both my motivation to teach and my ability to formulate lectures, even if the topics I teach are markedly different from what I research. These are palpable, demonstrable cognitive gains.
Fighting the ‘lazy teacher’ argument
Yet the human resource development ministry now proposes to do away with the research component in teaching altogether. To laud HRD minister Prakash Javadekar for this, as Pushkar has done so recently, is to argue that the treatment for a fractured arm is to amputate it. As Renny Thomas has written in a counter, this suggestion is based more on a priori elitist distinction between college and university teaching than on reality or logic. Of course, there have been college teachers who have been content with simply teaching their courses well, sometimes acquiring legendary status across generations of students – you may remember such a teacher from your own college life. At another end, there are some who have thrown themselves into administration or activism within the university – inelegant creatures to the untrained eye, they are nevertheless grudgingly admired by their colleagues for having secured better conditions for teachers in a political environment that has been viscerally anti-academic for at least a few decades.
Undeniably, there are many who have neither exerted themselves in teaching nor in research, and have fulfilled merely the minimum demands of the system, just scraping by in their jobs. However, is this confined to college teachers? Not only is this level of exertion simply the average in any profession except the most cut-throat ones, but, as Pushkar points out, the journal Current Science confirms that “while college teachers are the major contributors to fake journals, researchers from ICAR, CSIR, and ICMR labs, and national institutes such as IITs and NITs too are guilty of doing the same”. Let’s not forget, top university professors and vice chancellors have been guilty of plagiarism in this country and in most cases, not been removed from their posts for it. Faculty at premier government or private institutes like the Defence Research and Development Organisation or Tata Institute of Fundamental Research have long maintained a semi-decadal rate of paper publishing, some of it of dubious quality. And this while they often don’t need to teach a single class in their careers. The legendary “Missile Man of India” A.P.J. Abdul Kalam never published a single paper in his career and was by many accounts more of a technocrat and administrator than your typical library-bound scholar. Yet, it is college teachers who are cast as shirkers.
As teachers who are also academics and administrators, we understand there is a slow rot that has set into the system over the years. Something needs to be done to improve the quality of both teaching and research, increase the compatibility between the two and pull up the standard in Indian universities. The big question here is how. For years, the research component has been progressively stressed as a criterion for appointments and promotions by the higher education establishment. The acme of this trend was the API point system, an unwieldy beast that the higher education bureaucrats themselves seem unable to manage. The faltering, user-unfriendly attempts by the University Grants Commission to draw up lists of approved journals – attempts that led to smudgy, non-search-enabled, non-subject- or discipline-wise pdf files of government notices that would take a few years for an individual to get through – would have been funny if their impact was not so dead serious. It is also true that the API system, combined with the complete stagnation in promotions and new appointments in the past few years, has rendered college teachers desperate and the level of dubious publishing has jumped.
It is tempting to assume, in this dismal higher education scenario with its dizzying policy U-turns, that here at last is an enlightened HRD policy. In other words, that Javadekar had teachers’ and students’ welfare in mind when he proposed scrapping the research component for promotions. After all, he hasn’t said to college teachers “Don’t do research”; he has only said, “You don’t need to have research for a promotion”. Only the most naïve would be unable to see, however, that this is not about teaching or learning, this is about saving the government’s money, and about cementing the rot rather than treating it.
A deepening rot
Already, with the stagnation in appointments and the ad-hocisation of employment in the university, most college teachers have PhDs before their first teaching jobs. Say bye-bye to PhD leave. Now, postdoc leave – formally two years of paid leave in one’s career but I can’t name a single among my 100-plus colleagues in my own college who has been granted this – will also be scrapped. Already, those of us who want to pursue postdocs have taken grants and fellowships from outside the university, proceeding on leave without pay – a scenario that suits the higher education establishment quite well since they save my salary and employ an underpaid contractual teacher in my place. Now even that will be scrapped. To the common person, the five years of paid research leave, as was available in principle in the previous dispensation, may sound like an impossible luxury, but consider that college teachers in India put in 16-18 hours of direct classroom time per week – one of the highest in the world. Add to that the physical conditions we teach in and it means that for the best of us, pursuing research along with teaching and administration requires superhuman levels of mental and physical stamina. By the way, on that note, the API system quantified administrative work as well, which also led to a proliferation of fake committees and positions, but nobody seems to be in the mood to scrap that.
Let’s drop the naïveté a little more. While this article is being read, Delhi University is shortlisting applications for permanent teaching positions. If this process actually reaches fruition, unlike the previous rounds of false alarms, one candidate out of 100 on average will get appointed. Candidates without PhDs don’t stand a chance. Why employ PhDs if teaching is enough? If research will never again be a part of a college teacher’s life, why bother asking the candidate what topic did she research in? Is a PhD now simply to be an elimination condition, like bachelor’s degrees have become for other jobs? Javadekar proposes to replace research points with those for community work. The writing on the wall is clear. Research, critical thinking, autonomous intellectual pursuits can be confined to a few (say 25 university teachers in political science as opposed to 250 college teachers in political science at Delhi University) while college teachers slowly become like their harried counterparts in schools. No time for research, no time for questions, provide textbook service to students and sewa to wider society, and please, for God’s sake, learn to be happy.