Should India’s Elite Universities Be Partial to Foreign PhDs in Faculty Hires?

India on your mind? At the University of Fraser Valley's convocation ceremony, 2015. Credit: ufv/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

India on your mind? Credit: ufv/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A survey of faculty across select new and old IITs shows that two of them, Delhi and Powai, hired over 75% of their new faculty across three departments – EEE, CS and ME – with foreign PhDs. The other IITs have either been less interested or less successful in doing so. However, other than the IITs, many Indian universities and other higher education institutions, especially those that are well-established and/or located in liveable cities, have attracted and hired a significant number of foreign PhDs. For example, a vast majority of new and old faculty at IIIT-Delhi earned their PhDs abroad.

At a time when brain-drain is still a far greater reality than brain-gain for countries like India, it is heartening that at least some Indian institutions are successful at attracting, recruiting and retaining faculty who have earned their PhDs abroad.

Brain-gain is much needed

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students leave India’s shores for higher studies abroad. A record 132,888 left for the US alone in 2014-2015. Many of them will never return to work in India, especially in academia. It is now common knowledge that “Relative to its size, India has very few scientists; many Indian-born researchers leave for positions abroad and very few foreign scientists settle in India.”

According to one study, 40% of India-born researchers were working abroad in 2011, the largest such diaspora among 16 countries included in the survey. While Indian names can be found in the faculty listings of nearly all departments at major and minor universities in the US and in many other countries, Indian universities face a faculty crunch to the extent that even elite institutions seem unable to find sufficient numbers of suitably-qualified faculty.

Given the scenario noted above, brain gain at IIT-B, IIT-D, IIIT-D and other such institutions may be considered a good thing. But is it – especially when those with PhDs from abroad are favoured over others who obtain their degrees from Indian universities? Should hiring committees at Indian universities be partial towards foreign PhDs? And are US- or UK-educated candidates for faculty positions better trained for the job of teaching and research than those educated in India?

As discussed below, these questions are important for several reasons, particularly for elite institutions such as central universities, the IITs and the IIMs which are being called upon and expected to compete with the best in the world in terms of world university rankings. In a recent address to the delegates of the Times Higher Education “BRICS and Emerging Economies’ Universities” Summit in New Delhi, President Pranab Mukherjee urged (not for the first time) that India’s higher education sector “must align itself with the global education sector” and its universities should strive to improve their performance in world university rankings.

Desi vs foreign PhDs

A prevailing view in India’s academic corridors is that foreign PhDs are superior to desi (Indian) PhDs. Of course there are those who disagree and question whether this is true, openly or privately. If we take the former as true, then it is perfectly reasonable for elite institutions to favour foreign PhDs. However, an extreme adherence to the notion that ‘foreign PhDs are better’ lends to discrimination against good quality Indian PhDs. Indeed, many of those who question whether foreign PhDs are superior do so because they are mindful of cases where potential faculty with impeccable credentials were discriminated against simply because they earned their doctorate in India. There are also many instances where faculty with foreign PhDs literally abandon teaching and research, whether out of frustration with working conditions or by design, usually after achieving celebrity status merely by virtue of having obtained a foreign PhD, whereas those with desi PhDs continue to slog away without getting due recognition.

As a rule, however, a potential faculty with a PhD earned from a top-100 (or even top-300) university in the world is likely to be a better fit at elite institutions, which demand not just competent teaching and mentoring but also high quality research, than one from an Indian university. This is because PhDs obtained from Indian institutions, even some of the better ones, tend to fall well short of the standards set by the leading universities in the world especially in terms of research training.

The limitations of a desi PhD stem from the fact that most institutions are lacking in not just sufficient numbers of competent and committed faculty members as well as an academic culture that can help develop, nurture and sustain excellence and innovation. On paper, their PhD programmes have over time imitated those of North American or European universities so that they now appear to be quite similar in terms of required coursework or training in research methods and research ethics.

In practice, however, there is little in common between them. At most places, the actual PhD level course work is casual and in many cases very nearly a sham. So are PhD exams. Even worse, it is not uncommon to see something closely resembling a master-servant relationship between the PhD supervisor and the student. A larger culture of subservience does nothing but do damage to academic institutions. Overall, there is little that is deserving of praise at most PhDs programmes across Indian universities.

The research gap

One of the big reasons why India’s universities have fared poorly in world university rankings is because of their low research output. Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings Editor Phil Baty, who was recently in New Delhi for a summit, noted that the weakness of Indian universities is that “they do not invest enough in research.” Prior governments and the current one have pledged to increase support for research and development but it remains below 1% of GDP.

The results show in India’s research output. In 2010, the country accounted for 3.5% of the global research output. It was recently reported that this number had increased to 4.36% in 2013, leading Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani to boast in Parliament that India stood sixth in terms of the number of total annual research papers published (of course, this increase also had nothing to do with the current government). She also quoted from an old Thomson Reuters report, ‘India: Research and Collaboration in the New Geography of Science’ (2009), that “India’s productivity will be on a par with most G8 nations within 7-8 years and overtake them between 2015-2020.”

What the minister neglected to mention was the same report also drew attention to the “nagging problem” of “current lack of human resources: the availability of qualified researchers.” More recently, an editorial in Nature noted: “India has a puny scientific workforce, relatively few high-quality universities, an anaemic manufacturing sector and an epidemic of red tape. The result is that many Indian scientists head to other countries for training and jobs.”

What all this implies is that we can’t take for granted that India will continue to improve its research performance at the same pace over the long-term. Furthermore, while the numbers cited above do show an improvement from the past, they do not tell us how India has done in comparison to other nations. Since 2000, while India has quadrupled its scholarly output, both China and Brazil have surpassed that performance. Over the years, India has actually fallen far behind China in terms of scientific and engineering research output.

To address the problem, any problem really, policy makers need to recognise that research performance is one such. Instead, Irani has over the past month, and at least on two occasions, argued that:

A lot of hue and cry is raised about our higher education institutes not figuring in global ranking. The reason is not lack of high quality research work but the fact that in India, a large section of research work is done in vernacular languages, whereas global rankings only consider research in English.

Surely, the minister should be aware that most if perhaps not all scientific research of any importance in India is published in English.

India’s poor research performance does not extend to all disciplines or to all institutions. It is certainly incorrect to describe our performance as a complete failure. However, there are only a few islands of research excellence. As Shiraz Naval Minwalla (TIFR), the winner of New Horizons in Physics Prize for 2013, noted: “The striking weakness of research in India is that research happens by and large only in a few elite institutions.” Institutions such as the IISc and select IITs (those at Powai, Delhi, Kharagpur and Kanpur among them) are certainly not laggards in terms of quality research. What is interesting about these institutions is that they have among their faculty a good number of foreign PhDs. This seems to matter a great deal for research output and the quality of research.

Why be partial to foreign PhDs?

Higher education institutions in India and elsewhere can be broadly categorised as follows: teaching-focused institutions (colleges and other kinds of undergraduate institutions); research-focused institutions (research centres and institutes, many of which run PhD programmes); and those which are responsible for both teaching and research (central universities, IITs and the IIMs). The world’s leading universities in terms of world university rankings fit into the third category. However, they are all research-focused even though most also run successful undergraduate programmes. It is in this category of institutions that research-capable and research-oriented faculty members who can also teach with competence are badly needed in India. And it is this kind of faculty that is in short supply.

Few Indian universities make it to the charts of world university rankings because of their low research output. To change that, to align themselves with the global education sector, elite Indian institutions need to hire larger numbers of research-capable and research-focused faculty. This is where hiring foreign PhDs seems important.

An unpublished study by Biresh K. Sahoo, Ramadhar Singh and others found that on average, faculty with foreign PhDs are twice as productive as those with PhDs from Indian institutions (the paper can be obtained from the authors). Though the findings are drawn from business and management schools, it would be surprising if similar results are not obtained from other disciplines as well.

It is not a coincidence that some of the leading Indian institutions today—whether IISc or some of the IITs—in world university rankings are those which attract, hire and retain fairly large numbers of foreign PhDs. Other leading institutions tend to be those located in liveable cities, which too are attractive for Indians returning from abroad with PhD degrees.

Influencing performance

Not all higher education institutions are (or ought to be) required to perform the same tasks. Faculty at teaching institutions must primarily focus on teaching and those at research institutions on research. Teaching-cum-research institutions, especially central universities and other leading institutions in India, however, have the burden of doing both. They must demand from their faculty members a high degree of commitment to research in addition to the more ‘routine’ task of teaching.

Currently, most teaching-cum-research institutions in the country, especially central universities but also the IITs and the IIMs, carry a lot of dead weight – faculty members who do not care much about research. Not much can be done about those who are already there; however, now is the time to hire a new generation of faculty members who are capable of and interested in doing research.  

Anecdotal evidence suggests that institutions with a larger share of faculty with PhDs from abroad outperform others. At least one study found that foreign PhDs are productive than those with degrees from Indian institutions. Therefore, one way to improve the research productivity of Indian institutions, and in time their quality as well, would be to hire more faculty with foreign PhDs, without, of course, discriminating against the best from Indian universities.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.

  • Rahul Ghosh

    Er. why should we be surprised that india lacks any decent scholars ?? Enough cases of plagiarism have surfaced to say the least. Is there one Professor of repute running any of our non IIT/IIM research institutes today? Look at JNU, my old alma mater, its in such a pathetic state. I just went there last week to locate a copy of my own thesis and NOBODY at the Library HAD A CLUE. Nothing has been digitized except for the last 2 years on some archive that is UNREAL called Shodganga..cannot find anything on this past 2011.???There were a bunch of NEW & OLD theses, just thrown around in one room and on the floor, piled on the dirty rows of STEEL shelves, I was SHOCKED and AWED that such a renowned university could have fallen to such a state. When I went to meet the Librarian, he was of course not in his office and not even interested when I called and emailed in my query. Most surprisingly, the Chief Librarian’s office was past a row of bathrooms and stank of (what else) India’s favorite cologne- URINE..NOT SURPRISED he does not come to work.. WHO WOULD- the place STINKS?? JNU was such a well-maintained university in the 1990s, how can universities in India DECLINE?? where are the funds going?? Shocked to find the library which was a wonderful building with so much space for students and books, is now in shambles. JNU’s library is like a dirty, government building with the smell of urine and one lift not working. How can students study in such a place? Shocked at the state of affairs and not at all shocked that brain drain continues to occur as India’s so called research institutions continue to hire motivated and learned well paid scholars from outside the country.Please investigate this university and expose the corrupt management.

    • Pushkar

      I am sure what you are saying is true. It is the same story everywhere. But as it is, most Indian universities/institutions fail what may be called the “toilet test.”

  • Alisha

    I think the issue of salaries also needs to be discussed here. Irrespective of where one has studied, if one is producing work of the best-quality, at some time one expects to be able to earn enough to be able to pursue that research single-mindedly. Remuneration of that kind, especially in the humanities, is rarely available in Indian universities. And there is also the fact that Indians with the kind of money power to endow chairs or provide commensurate salaries to researchers prefer to donate their money to famous universities abroad. So it is a difficult cycle to break without extensive government support.

    • Shobhit Todi

      extensive govt support to fund humanities? why should poor pay taxes for this

      • Scout

        The poor don’t pay income tax- and people who can should because the humanities are actually what equip you to be successful in the world today. I will leave learning out because you obviously don’t think that’s important in any case. If you’d had a decent humanities education you would have known why it is important not to have a society of unemployable engineers but instead invest in citizens who can read, write and think critically about their place in the world. Since you didn’t, suffice it to say that the humanities is what makes the ‘soft skills’ and creative thinking that even corporate managers look for today.

    • Pushkar

      Well, higher ed is in some kind of crisis everywhere. Humanities is esp in trouble.

  • Pushkar

    Agreed. But the mess today goes back at least 2-3 decades.

  • Pushkar

    Thanks. Noted.

  • I hold a PhD from an American university which is within the top 200 in the Times List and the Shanghai list and have been teaching History is a University in South India.After a lifetime of teaching in India and traning abroad I can now say that our Universities are mere teaching shops where caste politics,regional prejudices and corruption rule supreme. I regret the dedecision taken. But then nearly three decades back the situation was different.