What Does it Mean to Have an 'International Faculty' at Indian Universities?

There is a deliberately biased and limited understanding of ‘international’ faculty partly based on the rankings of India’s universities, the best of which are outside the list of world’s top 200 institutions.

A view of the IIT-Kharagpur campus.

A view of the IIT-Kharagpur campus. Credit: IIT-Kgp Facebook page.

The Indian government plans to promote world class universities – or world class institutions (WCIs) in the words of NITI Aayog vice chairman Arvind Panagariya – in the country by selecting 20 universities – ten public and ten private institutions – and granting them near-complete autonomy under a new regulatory framework without the restrictions imposed by the UGC and other organisations. We have to wait and see if this happens at all and if it does, how soon. One cannot be too optimistic in this regard.

Recall that the idea to build WCIs goes back to former prime minister Manmohan Singh who in 2007 first talked about the need to develop universities in India which would achieve “international standards of excellence” so as to be “be rated among the top institutions in the world” and become “the launching pads for our entry into the knowledge economy.” Even earlier, the National Knowledge Commission in its Report to the Nation 2006 had recommended the creation of 50 ‘national universities’ which would “provide education of the highest standard” and serve as “exemplars for the rest of the nation.” Subsequently, the UPA government came up with the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012 to set up 14 world class universities. Nothing happened. Building WCIs has remained planning in process for nearly a decade.

From the very beginning, a new regulatory framework, one which allows greater autonomy to universities, of the kind that they enjoy in countries where public universities have achieved world-class status, has been considered necessary to enable India’s universities to do better than they have in reaching for the top. That is, there has been a consensus among policymakers and advisors to the government – the current one and earlier ones – that the existing regulatory framework is a hindrance to the emergence of world-class universities in the country. However, such a consensus has eluded political leaders.

The government is currently considering a set of proposals and recommendations regarding the setting up of 20 WCIs. The NITI Aayog is in fact expected to be ready with a roadmap in the next couple of months. Among the many recommendations on the table – other than the ‘big’ issue of institutional autonomy – is that the 20 institutions maintain fairly large numbers of international faculty, perhaps in the range of 20-30%. Since these universities are to be given financial autonomy, to determine tuition fees and faculty salaries, they will in theory be able to pay competitive salaries to attract foreign faculty and retain them. The obvious question that pops up is whether maintaining reasonably large numbers of international faculty is important and why. A related issue is how the government will define ‘international’ faculty. As I discuss below, these are not trivial matters.

Advantages of international faculty

Let us be clear that about two things at the outset. First, for a host of different reasons, the institution where someone earns their PhD is a big deal. Second, at the same time, it is possible to obtain a fairly competent PhD degree at lesser institutions, even in India, by compensating for the lack of X or Y at those institutions in different ways. For example, with the widespread use of the internet, there has been a democratisation of information and knowledge to an extent like never before. Therefore, a PhD student at a relatively obscure university can in theory compensate somewhat for poor library resources at her institution. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that education and training at world-class institutions has clear advantages and these advantages cannot be compensated at an individual level at ordinary institutions. It is impossible, for example, to find an adequate-enough replacement for a world-class laboratory. The same deficit applies with respect to the lack of availability of mentors because good scholarship often needs such support.

There are some very big benefits in hiring international faculty, whom the WCIs ought to define as those with PhDs from abroad, typically from the top 100-200 universities in the world and/or with teaching and research experience at the same institutions. Of course, this is a deliberately biased and limited understanding of ‘international’ partly based on the rankings of India’s universities, the best of which are outside the list of world’s top 200 institutions. In purely technical terms, anyone who has trained abroad or taught abroad should count as ‘international’ faculty. However, as I discuss below, that would not serve the larger purpose of hiring international faculty – to improve research output. As is well-known to those familiar with India’s higher education, research output is one of the weaker aspects of our faculty and universities.

It is useful to consider that a large proportion of faculty at the world’s top 200 institutions is drawn from the top 50-100 institutions. Studies show that there is a fair degree of bias involved in this, especially as far as the top 10-20 universities are concerned since they hire faculty trained at the same top 10-20 institutions. However, it is also true that the gap between the top 50-100 institutions and those that are placed lower down, within and across nations, is significant, in terms of resources as well as outcomes. Think of the gap between the older IITs and some of the better engineering colleges which are ranked high by newsmagazines.

The long and short of the matter is that those trained at the top 50-100 institutions are probably better oriented for research and more likely to deliver in terms of research quality and output. Indian universities which are aspiring for the top should perhaps be making an effort to hire its faculty from among those who are trained at the top 100 institutions. I have argued elsewhere that good training does not guarantee good output under Indian conditions. However, in this case, WCIs can provide the necessary institutional framework for faculty trained at the best institutions to deliver rather than delay or decay.

Overall, there are at least five benefits of international faculty.

1. Rigorous PhD programs: Those trained at the world’s top 100-200 institutions go through a far more rigorous and demanding PhD program than those at India’s universities. For example, what passes off as course work at the PhD level at most Indian universities is a joke. Our universities, and only some of them, have borrowed the appearance of coursework and implemented what may generously be described as an ultra-light version of it. Coursework makes a difference, a big difference really, both in terms of teaching and research. And that is just one of the many big differences between the best universities in the world and ours.
The issue is not about Indian PhDs being inherently inferior to PhDs awarded by Western universities; however, it would be quite dishonest to disagree that the quality of an average PhD even from the best Indian institutions is poor. And everybody knows how easily most universities award PhDs or how most students earn that degree.

2. Research productivity: There is some evidence from India that those trained at institutions abroad are more productive in terms of their research output than those trained in India. Since research output is an important indicator used in world university rankings to measure the worth of universities, institutions with larger numbers of international faculty, especially from the top 50-100 institutions, are likely to do better in terms of research.

3. World university rankings: The number of international faculty and international students are assigned weight in world university rankings. Therefore, Indian universities stand to benefit in rankings simply by hiring international faculty – those with foreign passports – and international students. While there is data available on the number of international students in India, I have not come across any such data on international faculty. While the government has done precious little to attract larger numbers of foreign students to India, if universities hire larger numbers of foreign faculty, it may help somewhat in attracting more foreign students to institutions and make a favourable impact on their ranking.

4. Research collaborations: These days, a lot of research is collaborative, and universities with international faculty are more likely to facilitate such collaborations, whether with faculty at their alma mater or with colleagues and friends with whom they attended graduate school and who are now placed at other institutions. It is true that the government too plays an important role in this regard but many university-level collaborations in the form of MoUs that the government has enabled are superficial and do not involve anything more than signed documents and photo-ops. On the other hand, faculty-to-faculty collaborations across institutions in India and abroad, when based on common research interests and old ties and trust, are usually more successful.

5. Benefits for students: There is no doubt that international faculty would benefit students and other faculty as well. With the launching of the Global Initiative of Academic Networks, students are getting better exposure to international faculty than before but most such exposure will be short-term. There is really no substitute for hiring regular international faculty who can play mentorship roles over a fairly long period. Already, institutions such as the Jindal Global University and Ashoka University are showing the way in hiring larger numbers of faculty who are trained at some of the best universities in the world. The international faculty at these institutions has already made an impact by introducing the best practices that they learnt at their alma mater, of course, with the support of university administrators.

Defining international faculty

Most things ‘foreign’ or ‘international’ are generally favoured in Indian academia as much as outside it because we consider foreign as superior except when the ‘national’ needs to be defended. So, for example, a few weeks ago, Smriti Irani, the human resource development minister at that time, announced that foreign experts had been approached to upgrade course content at our universities as if that was something that could not be done by our faculty many of whom have attended the best universities in the world.

The issue of defining ‘international’ or ‘foreign’ faculty is extremely important as the NITI Aayog prepares its roadmap for WCIs because of the benefits associated with international faculty; and the higher salaries that such faculty is likely to be paid. However, the task of defining ‘international’, as I discussed in a 2014 essay on how Indian academics define an ‘international’ journal, lends to all kinds of problems and disagreements. In the case of international journals, believe it or not, for some academics the ‘international’ in a journal’s title is sufficient for that journal to be considered an international journal. For others, the country of origin is important. However, many prefer to exclude journals published in low-income/third world countries as ‘international’ and include only those which are published in ‘advanced’ countries. Therefore, the NITI Aayog would be well advised to not leave the matter of defining international faculty to the universities themselves.

As noted earlier, one of the major benefits of international faculty is or ought to be research output. By that measure, all potential faculty with PhD degrees from the top 100-200 institutions (or even the top 500 universities) may be categorised, irrespective of whether they hold Indian passports or not, as ‘international’ faculty. However, for most of us, ‘international’ or ‘foreign’ means non-Indian in ethnic/racial terms. Therefore, the categorisation of ‘international’ faculty as those with foreign degrees and/or international work experience is not likely to be easily accepted.

A second possibility is to exclude from the ‘international’ category all those who hold Indian passports but include those who have acquired foreign citizenship or are foreign citizens by birth. This would be discriminatory even against Indians with degrees from the best institutions simply because they took up the profession in India or held on to their Indian passports. Such a categorisation of ‘international’ is also problematic because the professional expectations from both Indian passport holders and those with foreign passports are approximately the same.

A third possibility and one which is most likely to be used to categorise ‘foreign’ faculty is skin colour. This is because most of us, including bureaucrats and academics, think of the superior ‘foreign’ as white and will be unwilling to extend the privilege of ‘foreign’ category to darker folks like ourselves. In this case, we will discriminate against all Indians and Indian-origin academics simply because of their ethnicity.

An old friend, currently based at a reputed private university, recently brought my attention to exactly this kind of discrimination. Her department boasted in its annual report that it had hired its first international faculty – a white British academic – even though there were already two other foreign passport holders, both overseas citizens in India, in the same department. If that was not enough, the early career British academic was given an academic rank and pay (for no fault of his) well above his qualifications and experience, one supposes, for being white!

Whatever the NITI Aayog does (or not), it must absolutely avoid this third method of categorisation of ‘international’ faculty which is blatantly racist or leave the task of categorising ‘international’ faculty to the universities themselves.

The way ahead

India’s WCIs, including their students, can benefit immensely by hiring more faculty members trained at the best institutions in the world. In their current dismal state, most universities are poorly prepared to benefit from or take advantage of well-qualified faculty. On the other hand, the WCIs route if well-planned and executed can permit better use of such faculty.

One of the issues that the NITI Aayog must address with respect to WCIs, and this is an issue it must not avoid under any circumstances, is the categorisation of ‘international’ or ‘foreign’ faculty. We could go the way of universities in the Middle East which pay substantially higher salaries to North American or European academics to bring them to the region. Taking this option will mean discriminating against Indian academics many of whom are as qualified and productive as foreign academics. As discussed above, the second and third options are both unfair to our academics. NITI Aayog can do better by categorising ‘international’ faculty as those who have earned their PhDs from the world’s top 100-200 institutions because that would be the least discriminatory of the three options discussed here. Or perhaps it can come up with a better way to define ‘international’ faculty.

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