The Faculty Shortages in Universities is More Than a Quantitative Problem

The MHRD needs to pay attention to the quality of faculty depending on whether a specific institution is oriented towards research or teaching or both.

The Delhi University Teachers' Association protesting earlier this year, against UGC regulations that they believed would lead to job cuts and drastically reduce student-teacher ratios. Credit: Abha Dev Habib/Facebook

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association protesting earlier this year, against UGC regulations that they believed would lead to job cuts and drastically reduce student-teacher ratios. Credit: Abha Dev Habib/Facebook

The IIT council, headed by the human resource development (HRD) minister, Prakash Javadekar, has taken the decision to increase student intake at the IITs by approximately 40%, to about 100,000 over the next three years. At the same time though, India’s universities, including the IITs, are facing an acute shortage of qualified faculty. Though the IIT council and the government mean well, increasing student intake requires hiring more faculty and will certainly exacerbate already-existing faculty shortages.

Javadekar does seem to be sincere about addressing faculty shortages, especially at elite institutions such as the IITs. Since he has taken charge, there has been talk about launching a new fellowship scheme for high-performing B.Tech students to directly enroll for PhD programs with a monthly fellowship of Rs. 60,000. The assumption is that students will go on to teach at the IITs or other institutions. The government also has plans for ‘Teach in IITs‘ fairs abroad to recruit international faculty, including Indians who are completing their PhDs there. However, sincerity and good intentions are poor substitutes for good policies.

The task at hand is not easy. At the very least, it will take more than a few years before even the best Indian institutions can boast of sufficient numbers of qualified faculty.

Fast growth in enrollment

There are several challenges that the government and the universities face in addressing the problem of faculty shortages. Perhaps the biggest one is the rapid growth in the higher education sector, with a growing number of young people choosing to attend college. According to the 2014-2015 All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) provisional report, the gross enrollment ratio stands at 23.6% and is expected to continue to increase over the coming years before it stabilises at around 30%. More than 33 million Indians already study at higher education institutions of various kinds.

It has proved difficult for the government to keep building new institutions and/or expand older ones. It has also been especially problematic to persuade larger number of students to take up teaching and research when the same government—the current one and earlier ones—continues to participate in degrading the profession and its practitioners.

The private sector has, to its joy, found a growing space for itself. Over 63% of students now attend private institutions. However, most such institutions offer only undergraduate degrees and have no interest in training the next generation of academics. With a few exceptions, private institutions will play no role whatsoever in improving the supply of qualified faculty.

Poor understanding of faculty shortages

The rapid growth in higher education apart, the nature of faculty shortages is poorly understood. It is implied in most reports, or even commonly believed, that there is only one kind of shortage – that of an overall shortage in the availability of qualified faculty. However, at least four broad types of shortages can be identified: an overall shortage of qualified faculty across disciplines and institutions; shortages brought about by the inability of many institutions to hire new faculty; shortages brought about by the unwillingness of many institutions to hire faculty; and shortages due to the unwillingness or reluctance of faculty to work at select institutions, whether due to their location or for other reasons.

It is only when MHRD officials recognise that faculty shortages are not all of the same kind that they will be able to devise suitable solutions, which must be tailored towards addressing the specific type of shortage in question. The government must also recognise that it needs university administrators to be on the same page if the problem of shortages is to be dealt with any degree of success. After all, the actual task of hiring faculty (and retaining them) is done by the university and not the government.

The government also must have access to reliable, detailed and specific data on the extent of shortages in order to address the problem. Unfortunately, much of the available and approximately-reliable data is of elite institutions, whether central universities, IITs or IIMs; there is little available or dependable data on faculty shortages at state universities or private institutions. As such, it is impossible to formulate a viable set of strategies to address the problem of faculty shortages for the higher education sector overall.

Types of higher education institutions

In thinking about faculty shortages and how to reduce or even eliminate them, another important factor to consider is the type of higher education institution in question. Different types of higher education institutions have different needs. Undergraduate colleges primarily require teaching faculty; central universities or post-graduate departments at most universities need faculty with both teaching and research capabilities. The needs of these different types of higher education institutions cannot be met by the same type of faculty.

Those who are not well-trained for research typically find it extremely difficult to adapt to the needs of an institution where research is expected; on the other hand, those with competency in research can usually teach with some degree of competence. However, the latter are often unwilling to take up positions at teaching-focused institutions.

It is therefore possible to have a surplus of teaching faculty but a deficit of research-capable faculty; the opposite is unlikely. It is therefore crucial to know the extent to which shortages are primarily with respect to teaching faculty or research-capable faculty in order to devise appropriate strategies to resolve the problem.

India’s higher education institutions can be broadly categorised as teaching-focused institutions; teaching-cum-research institutions; and research-focused institutions.

Most institutions are teaching-focused undergraduate colleges or universities and the large majority of students attend such institutions. According to the AISHE’s 2014-2015 provisional report, 80% of all students are enrolled in undergraduate programs. This is where the shortage of well-qualified faculty is most acute. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the least attention is given to undergraduate institutions in terms of their faculty needs.

Central universities and other such elite institutions, including the IITs and the IIMs, are teaching-cum-research institutions and require their faculty to be able to carry out both with some degree of competence. The same is true for post-graduate departments at state universities.

Finally, there are a quite a few research-focused centers and institutes, some of which offer post-graduate degrees, where the primary task of the faculty is research, including supervision of PhD students. These too count as elite institutions, especially those that are funded by the central government.

As noted earlier, the kind of faculty that is required at teaching-cum-research and research-focused institutions is different from that required at teaching-focused institutions in that the faculty at the former are expected to be capable of good quality research and publications (The UGC made a big mistake by requiring college teachers to carry out research and publish but that will hopefully be corrected).

Types of faculty

Given that there are three main types of higher education institutions in the country, one would expect three different kinds of faculty – those who are teaching-focused, others who carry out both teaching and research and finally, researchers. However, we find four kinds of faculty at India’s institutions.

Let me begin with the smallest group – active researchers. They are mostly located at elite institutions though some can be found at state universities and other less prestigious institutions. Their total number is very small. Before the country’s research deficit was acknowledged and became a matter of great concern, the government and their own institutions did not care much about them. They are better off today in terms of availability of research grants and institutional support than in the past but they still need greater support from the government as well as from the private sector for their research.

Second, there are research-capable faculty members. They are well-trained for research or have trained themselves on the job, but have abandoned research because they are demoralised by the erosion of academic culture at their institutions and/or the lack of recognition and support for their work. Some of them continue to teach well and remain an asset for India’s higher education. Their numbers are greater than those of active researchers.

The third group is a large one, and consists of teachers who are research-deficient and usually uninterested in research.  Some or perhaps many of them are sincere and/or good teachers. They can be found mostly at undergraduate institutions but many are also employed at elite institutions where they teach and occasionally pretend to carry out research.

Finally, there are the non-performers, another large group, certainly as large as the previous one or perhaps even the largest, consisting of those who neither teach nor carry out research. Most of them are barely qualified for teaching or research but there are others who have given up on one or both to pursue other pleasures.

It is necessary to make a distinction between the different types of faculty because, in addressing the problem of faculty shortages, the government must also create better and more effective mechanisms than those that exist now to drastically reduce the numbers of faculty who fit in the last category of non-performers. The presence of large numbers of non-performing faculty effectively magnifies faculty shortages; hiring similar faculty will only help sustain the shortage. In other words, the challenge is not just to find and hire faculty to fill up vacant positions but to hire sufficient numbers of qualified people who will do their job well.

Concluding remarks

Faculty shortages at Indian universities are likely to persist in the coming years due to the gap between the growth in the numbers of students attending college and the relatively small numbers of young people opting for an academic profession. However, the government and universities can still find ways to meet the deficit. To do that with some degree of success, however, they need to have a clear understanding of the nature and scope of shortages and access to fairly reliable data. The government also needs to develop better and more effective mechanisms to ensure that current and future faculty members do their jobs well.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is a regular contributor on higher education.