Teaching v. Research: Don’t Let a Flawed Experiment Kill a Good Idea

By instituting a top-down assessment scheme without concomitant support on the ground, the UGC conducted an experiment that was doomed to fail – and now threatens to take a good idea down with it.

Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar. Credit: PTI

Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar. Credit: PTI

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.

Mukund Thattai is a scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.

‘Mission creep’ refers to a situation in which the objectives of a project are not clearly defined, and therefore continually vary over time. Mission creep makes planning ahead difficult, and moreover makes it impossible to say whether a project has succeeded at all. To avoid this, one must constantly recall the original goals of any undertaking. In this light, let us examine Human Resource Development (HRD) minister Prakash Javadekar’s announcement of July 30, 2017: that research would no longer be a promotion criterion for college teachers.

In 2010 the University Grants Commission (UGC) instituted Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) as a way to assess the research and teaching output of college teachers and university lecturers. This meant that teachers were required to conduct research, guide students and publish in academic journals in order to be eligible for jobs and promotions. This led to unintended, though entirely foreseeable, consequences, kicking off an arms race between academics and the UGC. Shoddy research and academic misconduct spiked, while predatory pay-to-publish journals proliferated. The UGC pushed back by notifying a whitelist of “approved” journals. Shockingly, this whitelist contained over 38,000 journals, of which at least 82 were known predatory journals.

Now, the predatory journals are using the UGC’s stamp of approval to lure beleaguered teachers to publish with them (for example, the International Journal of Engineering Sciences and Research Technology, a known predatory journal, prominently highlights the UGC logo on its website). To see the long-term consequences of these policies, we might look to Pakistan, which in 2002 imposed a research mandate on its lecturers and now struggles to contain a shady “research mafia”. The HRD minister’s announcement is an admission that the status quo is untenable, that something needs to be done.

What was the UGC trying to achieve with APIs in the first place? Surely the primary goal must have been to improve the standards of teaching in colleges. There is a widespread belief that teaching and research benefit from one another and that research ought to be an ingredient of any academic environment. Talk to any scientist and she will tell you a story of a great teacher who motivated her and the first research project that inspired her. Teachers who do research are better aware of new developments and better able to inculcate the scientific temper among their students. Conversely, many scientists (including this author) will tell you how teaching duties have influenced their own research in entirely positive ways.

Flawed implementation

However, critics of the API scheme point out that research does not happen in a vacuum: it requires a fertile academic environment, access to literature and laboratory infrastructure, of course, and adequate funding. Moreover, it is only a minority of college students who envision a future in academia; most do not greatly benefit from being exposed to a research setting. Finally, the actual outcomes of forcing college teachers to do research under difficult conditions are the diametric opposite of the desired goal: increased research fraud and misconduct and poorer teaching outcomes from overburdened teachers. Therefore, it appears that the HRD minister’s decision was the right one: the push to APIs and mandated research in colleges has failed.

Let us address each of the criticisms in turn.

First: If lack of infrastructure and funding are obstacles, we should fix these issues rather than abandon our original goals. By instituting a top-down assessment scheme without concomitant support on the ground, the UGC conducted an experiment that was doomed to fail. Sadly, many will interpret this to mean that the goal of integrating teaching and research was itself flawed. It might therefore be a long time before such an experiment is tried again. If it ever is, we must ensure that inputs from teachers themselves are incorporated at the earliest stages. This is the key to success.

Second: It is true that most college students do not go on to have academic careers. But there is a virtuous cycle in which students with a talent for research later become teachers who impart the values of research. We should take great care not to break that cycle. The undergraduate programmes of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) demonstrate the calibre of students trained in a research-focused curriculum, whether they go on to become academics, engineers or entrepreneurs. By giving up on research exposure at the undergraduate level, over time we risk devaluing research at all levels.

Third: There are many examples of teachers at undergraduate colleges who successfully balance teaching and research. Researchers in the humanities and social sciences often support themselves by taking up teaching-heavy jobs. Even in the natural sciences, where there is a sharper separation between teaching-centric colleges and research-centric universities and institutes, many will start their careers in colleges and later shift to universities. For this to be possible, teachers must maintain a research programme from the very beginning of their careers. By constantly shifting the duties of teachers and researchers, first by instituting the API system and later by rescinding it, the UGC has made these types of career progressions difficult to manage.

So, it is possible to support the cause of research in colleges while being critical of the manner in which the APIs were implemented. This is a classic case of mission creep: making sudden top-down changes rather than organically working towards a set of clear, well-defined goals.

Listening to teachers

Finally, we must not forget the point of view of the teachers themselves. In this discussion, there is hardly any acknowledgement that teachers are people too, who go through personal struggles and make sacrifices. We must strive to attract the very best people into this most important of professions to keep them motivated and to support them as they work in unforgiving environments.

Nandita Jayaraj, a science journalist, reached out to college teachers across the country for their opinions. Many support the move to do away with APIs. Surya Harikrishnan (assistant professor, Manipal University) feels the API system “was putting extra load on the teachers and distracting them from their primary duty, which is teaching.” Asha Abraham (a biotechnologist at a college in Mangalore) said, “Research is something that should come up on its own and not be imposed. I have seen the harmful effects of mandatory research all around.” Aruna Naorem (assistant professor, University of Delhi) is more emphatic: “They should never have introduced this grading system in the first place. It’s ruining the whole academic atmosphere, either teaching or research.”

However, others despair that Javadekar’s announcement sends a signal that research is not valued. According to Smitha Hegde (professor, Nitte University Centre for Science Education and Research, Mangalore), “Just when we are thinking that the government is interested in quality education by bringing in pedagogy-based research, [the minister’s announcement] comes as a rude shock … The ‘burden’ of research will be relieved by increasing the number of quality teachers and not by lowering the standards.”

Abraham added, “I know several college teachers who do research because it’s their passion. … These teachers carry out research as additional work, after carrying out their normal teaching workload.”

Bikram Phookun, a faculty member of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and currently teaching at Ashoka University, Sonepat, agrees: “I don’t think it is reasonable, given the teaching load, the facilities and the environment in most Indian undergraduate institutions, to require research of teachers working in them. On the other hand, in spite of the obstacles, some exceptionally motivated undergraduate teachers do manage to engage in fruitful research; … it would be a pity if their drive and resourcefulness were not acknowledged.”

Teachers who were genuinely interested and engaged in academic research are ostensibly not affected by the new system since they are not prevented from doing research. “It’s their choice,” as Javadekar has said. Indeed, it is not clear such teachers were in fact better off in the old system. Previously, the level of research was typically low, fraud was common and true research was not overtly valued. Pervez Hoodbhoy, writing in Dawn, states the equivalent under Pakistan’s research-mandated system: “Many young [academics] lose heart when incompetent colleagues race ahead in promotions, receive wads of cash for publishing junk papers, rise to top administrative positions, and be nominated for national awards and prizes.”

As soon as you make a checklist, you have created a system that can be gamed. Then again, the issue has to do with the top-down nature of the API system – whereas a more local and organic system may well have succeeded.

All kinds to make an institution

So how can we preserve the important benefits of mixing teaching and research in colleges? Phookun feels that “change is certainly possible: it may well be reasonable at some time in the future to expect the typical undergraduate teacher to engage fruitfully in research – but only if the appropriate circumstances are created.”

Two steps come to mind:

1. Promote teaching, research and outreach at an institutional level rather than at an individual level. Institutions have diverse faculty, some of whom are interested in teaching, some in research and some in outreach or science communication. Forcing all faculty in a research-centric institution to teach produces poor teachers. Forcing all scientists to do science outreach produces boring outreach efforts. And we have already seen what happens if all faculty of a teaching-centric institution are forced to do research. But there are plenty of ways for faculty to get involved in these distinct functions – perhaps by providing administrative support, developing curricula, raising funds, so on. Explicitly promoting teaching, research and outreach sends a strong message that such efforts are valued.

2. The second step is to provide funding and procedural support for those college teachers who wish to pursue research. The MD/PhD programmes make for good models to emulate. Though physician training primarily deals with the practice of medicine, many doctors are interested in and motivated by fundamental research. Such individuals apply for prestigious research grants. These grants provide funding and allow physicians to negotiate with their host institutions for protected research time. This not only says that research is abstractly valued but also provides the resources to support good research.

The biologist E. O. Wilson wrote in his book Letters to a Young Scientist (2013):

University faculties consist of both ‘inside professors,’ who enjoy work that involves close social interactions with other faculty members and take justifiable pride in their service to the institution, and ‘outside professors,’ whose social interactions are primarily with fellow researchers. Outside professors are light on committee work but earn their keep another way: they bring in a flow of new ideas and talent and they add prestige and income proportionate to the amount and quality of their discoveries.

In other words: it takes all kinds to sustain an institution. Teaching, research and outreach all make positive contributions, and each individual must contribute in her own way.

Note: This essay is an outcome of a discussion on Twitter involving Shuba Desikan (science journalist, The Hindu), Vikram Gopal (journalist, Hindustan Times), Nandita Jayaraj (science journalist), Vasudevan Mukunth (science editor, The Wire), Pushkar (director, The International Centre Goa), Rahul Siddharthan (scientist, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai) and the author. Thanks to Nandita Jayaraj for her critical inputs and to all the teachers who agreed to be quoted. This article and all quotations therein reflect the personal opinions of the author and of the quoted individuals. They do not necessarily express the views of the institutions to which they are affiliated.