Govt's Search for Middle Ground in College Teacher Promotions Could Backfire

Either way, the approximately uniform API for both college and university teachers was a big mistake and the government has done the right thing by scrapping it.

This article is the first in a three-part series.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is on a roll. On June 13, minister Prakash Javadekar announced new rules and regulations for college and university teachers regarding their hiring, promotion and related matters. Two weeks later, the minister sought feedback from educationists, stakeholders and others for the New Higher Education Commission Act 2018, which would repeal the UGC Act 1956. Then, on July 9, the government finally announced six Institutions of Eminence – three public and three private – that would be given near-complete autonomy and government support to break into the list of world’s top 100 universities.

This article – on the reforms introduced by the government for faculty hiring and promotions in colleges and universities – and the next two will critically examine each of the three initiatives or reforms brought about by the current government. They are all aimed at elevating the current state of higher education in the country, which everyone knows is dismal or even broken. However, good intent is never sufficient for reform measures to succeed.

Hiring and promotion of teachers

Three of the more important set of reforms introduced by the government apropos hiring and promotion of faculty are as follows:

  1. The performance-based appraisal system (PBAS), in turn based on the academic performance indicators (API), has been removed. Instead, there will be a new simplified teacher evaluation grading system with research score added for faculty at universities and at post-graduate departments
  2. Promotion criteria under the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) for university teachers has been made more research-oriented and, for college teachers, more focused on teaching
  3. A PhD has been made mandatory for promotion to assistant professor (selection grade) in colleges from July 1, 2021. PhDs will be mandatory for direct recruitment to assistant professorship in universities with effect from the same date

The University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the API in 2010, requiring all faculty members at central universities and about 100-odd colleges directly funded by the Centre to carry out research and publish in order to benefit from the CAS, apart from also teaching and executing administrative duties. State universities and colleges were not obligated to adopt the API but many did so. The API was briefly scrapped in 2013 but reintroduced again the same year.

API had good intentions painted all over it. Its aim was to boost the quantity and quality of research at Indian universities and colleges. However, it did not account for ‘Indian’ conditions – whereby most college teachers are poorly trained and lack the basic training for research; that they were already overburdened with teaching, administrative and other responsibilities because of faculty shortages and financial problems facing state universities; and that most of them worked at institutions with woeful infrastructure and in an academic environment inimical to substantive research. Further, colleges are teaching-focused institutions and it was unfair to demand research from college teachers for career advancement.

What API effectively did was drive college teachers to publish in fake journals to advance their careers. And it was just not those who were incapable of research or unable to carry out research due to lack of infrastructure or funding who started to publish in fake journals but others as well, including university teachers based at post-graduate departments, since the UGC and the universities themselves were unable to properly monitor who was publishing what and where. In sum, the introduction of an approximately uniform API for both college and university teachers was a big mistake and the government has done the right thing by scrapping it.

What the government is now doing is introducing a simplified teacher evaluation grading system for promotion under the CAS. For university/post-graduate teachers, the evaluations will be more research-oriented and for college teachers, more focused on teaching. This sounds like a good plan on paper. For university teachers in particular, something like a 50:50 weightage to teaching and research at a typical post-graduate department may be considered. For central universities and other elite institutions, the emphasis on research could even be higher. For college teachers, something like 80:20 in favour of teaching could be a good option.

College teachers and research

While a simplified teacher evaluation grading system, which is more teaching-focused for college teachers, sounds reasonable, Javadekar had proposed something else to college teachers in July 2017. Addressing college teachers at Deen Dayal Upadhyay College, Dwarka, he had said, “We won’t burden you with the responsibility of research, we’ll make it optional.” He had also mentioned that college teachers would be assessed mainly on teaching and their engagement with “community work”.

The simplified teacher evaluation grading system does not make research optional for college teachers – nor does it introduce community work. College teachers will continue to be evaluated on their research performance, though perhaps to a lesser degree than earlier. For now, however, it is not known how much weightage will be assigned to teaching and research for college and university teachers respectively. ‘More focused on teaching’ or ‘more focused on research’ is rather vague. Still, there are clear indications that the government remains tied to the old idea that producing research – as distinct from keeping up with research – improves teaching. This is evident from the fact that a PhD has been made compulsory for the promotion of college teachers. Clearly, the government is trying to take a middle road, and that may or may not be a good-enough solution.

In the ‘more focused on teaching’ plus PhD for promotion model, college teachers will continue to engage in poor-quality research for the same reasons as before. The government remains incapable of adequately monitoring the quality of research. The UGC’s master list of legit journals is full of all kinds of errors, with scores of credible journals omitted and hundreds of fake journals included. PhD programmes at most Indian universities, including some considered among the best, are in a shambles. Plagiarism is widespread both in journals and PhD dissertations, detection rates are low and punishment rare.

Under these conditions, the middle road is not the answer. A better solution would have been to make research optional for college teachers, something which Javadekar had proposed in 2017. However, in all fairness, even in that scenario, it is possible that many college teachers with no interest or capability in research will still choose the research option since they will be able to continue publishing in fake journals and gain promotions.

The challenge for the current set of reforms is whether they will help override the deep legacies of the past decades – with respect to faculty hiring, recognition of teaching and research performance and promotions, all of which have often been discriminatory and unfair in practice – and actually improve the kind of faculty India’s universities and colleges hire and retain. If the recent past, including and especially the API experience, is any indication, nothing much is likely to change with the new rules for faculty hiring and promotions.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.