The Case for Foreign Faculty to Be Hired to Teach at Indian Universities

The need for foreign faculty is limited to select teaching-cum-research institutions which employ a minuscule number of the total faculty members in the higher education sector.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Human Development Resources (MHRD) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) have on several occasions considered hiring foreign faculty for India’s universities on a short-term and/or contractual basis. Under the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), professors from abroad are already being invited to India’s universities for short stints. However, in addition, there has also been talk of hiring foreign faculty – in the range of 20-30% – for the best Indian institutions on a contractual basis for longer periods.

Some sources recently reported on a UGC proposal which contains a provision for the mandatory hiring of foreign faculty for up to 20% of the total sanctioned posts in Category I universities/ Higher Educational Institutes (HEI). The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) has deemed the provision “unacceptable” because, among other reasons, this will reduce employment opportunities for younger Indian scholars and the higher salaries for foreign faculty will have to be paid by the university, which in turn will transfer the additional burden to students and make tuition more expensive at public institutions.

The larger issue, of course, is whether we need foreign faculty and why. Also, assuming that we need foreign faculty, what exactly do we need them for?

The case for foreign faculty

There are several benefits in hiring foreign faculty provided they are from among those who have obtained their PhDs from one of the top 100-200 institutions in the world and/or have impressive research records. These include:

1. Research training: Those trained at the world’s best institutions go through a far more rigorous and demanding PhD programme than those at India’s universities. For example, the coursework component in the PhD programmes at Indian universities (the idea of coursework itself is borrowed from North American PhD programmes) is usually an abbreviated version and commonly abused by students, teachers and administration alike so that the real worth of coursework is just above nil. The same is true for research work and the PhD thesis, neither of which demands sufficient rigour as a result of which good quality PhDs are scarce. This is not to say that Indian PhDs are inherently inferior to the PhDs awarded by the world’s best universities; however, at the same time, it would be dishonest to disagree that the quality of PhDs from even the best Indian institutions is often average-to-poor.

2. Research productivity: There is some evidence that those trained at the best institutions abroad are more productive in terms of their research output than those trained in India. Since research output is an important indicator in world university rankings, institutions with larger numbers of foreign faculty, especially from the top 100-200 institutions, are likely to do better in terms of research output. A study conducted by this author found that among the IITs, those which have hired more foreign PhDs – IIT-Powai and IIT-Delhi – than the others stand out in world university rankings. However, Indian universities are slowly encouraging and developing a culture of research and perhaps in the years to come the research productivity of faculty and new PhDs, certainly from those at premier institutions, will improve.

3. World university rankings: The number of foreign faculty and students at any given institution are assigned weight in world university rankings. Therefore, those Indian institutions which are looking to compete with the best universities abroad will benefit simply by hiring foreign faculty and students. It is also possible that universities which hire larger numbers of foreign faculty may attract more foreign students which too will help them do better in world university rankings. However, what this also means is that only those institutions which are competitive enough by international standards should really bother about foreign faculty, unless they have other reasons for doing so (such as attracting more foreign students who pay higher tuition fees, thus generating more revenue for the institution).

But do we really need foreign faculty?

All too often, faculty shortages across India’s universities make news. However, it is not at all clear whether these shortages exist because of a lack of sufficient numbers of qualified faculty or some other reason (see here). Here in Goa for example, Goa University – the only state university – has 43% faculty positions vacant. And yet, the university is unable to hire faculty because in 2013, the directorate of higher education introduced a 15-year domicile criterion for applicants in contradiction to UGC rules. Other universities around the country have other reasons for not hiring sufficient numbers of faculty to make up for faculty shortages; a shortage of qualified candidates is not always one of them. The point is that 1) there is more to faculty shortages than simply a shortage of qualified candidates; and 2) foreign faculty is not needed to address faculty shortages per se.

So why do we need foreign faculty?

The UGC as well as those opposed to the hiring of foreign faculty must understand that to the extent that foreign faculty is needed for India’s universities, it is not for teaching positions at undergraduate institutions but primarily for elite institutions, especially central universities. India’s colleges – which is where 79.3% of all students study – need better and more teachers from our higher education system.

Most of our higher education institutions have traditionally been teaching-oriented. While overall academic standards – including teaching – may have declined substantially over the past three decades or so due to the utter neglect and politicisation of the higher education sector, teaching is still the focus and strength of our universities. India’s universities still produce good or good-enough teachers. Their Achilles heel is research. Research has never been a strong point of our universities. In order to build the research capabilities of our universities, it may be quite useful to hire foreign faculty. The benefits of hiring foreign faculty lie only for those institutions which the government is seeking to promote as heavyweight competitors in world university rankings or ambitious private institutions which have the same goal. However, post-graduate departments at other universities may also benefit from foreign faculty.

In a sense, foreign faculty is not really needed but they may be useful in raising academic/research standards. Bringing in foreign faculty will not, of course, solve our higher education woes in general or improve our poor research output overnight.

Whether it is the government or teachers’ unions protesting about foreign faculty, they should be clear that the need for foreign faculty is limited to select teaching-cum-research institutions that employ a minuscule number of the total faculty members in the higher education sector. In other words, the numbers of faculty positions at stake is not high.

Who will count as foreign faculty?

Let us say that the government and everyone else is in agreement that select numbers of foreign faculty may be useful for improving overall academic standards at our universities. Now, who will we consider as ‘foreign’?

There are several ways to categorise ‘foreign’ faculty.

We could categorise as ‘foreign’ those with PhD degrees from the world’s top 100-200 institutions (or even the top 500), including Indian universities, and irrespective of whether they hold Indian passports or not, as ‘foreign’ faculty (or use some other label if needed). While this will be discriminatory against Indians with PhDs from lesser Indian universities (those outside the top 200 or 500), it will at the same time treat Indians with PhDs from abroad or from one of the Indian universities among the top 200 or 500 institutions at par with foreign faculty.

A second option is to include in the ‘foreign’ category all those who are foreign citizens by birth or have acquired foreign passports, irrespective of whether or not they are of Indian origin. This would however be discriminatory against Indian citizens with degrees from the best institutions abroad who decided they took up the profession in India or held on to their Indian passports.

A third option is to categorise as ‘foreign’ only those with foreign passports who never held an Indian passport or are not of Indian origin. In this case, we will discriminate against all Indians and Indian-origin academics because of their ethnicity.

The point is that even if the decision to hire ‘foreign’ faculty goes through, other newer problems will emerge and they will not be easy to address either.

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