Like it or Not, Faculty Shortages in Indian Universities Are Now Permanent

While the easy explanation for shortages is the inadequate supply of qualified faculty, the truth is more complicated.

Two recent reports – one on faculty shortages in new central universities and the other on faculty shortages and the growing numbers of part-time faculty in older central universities – provide a glimpse into the broken state of India’s higher education.

While the new central universities that are being set up since the past decade or so – in Haryana, Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and Bihar – are functioning with around 52% of the sanctioned faculty strength, even some of the older ones, such as Allahabad University and Delhi University, have vacancies of 64.44% and 47.7%, respectively. Overall, the total vacancies in new central universities are nearly 48%; the older universities are better off with 33% vacancies.

These universities manage to barely do just about enough in terms of teaching by using large armies of ad hoc or part-time faculty. Indeed, all government universities make generous use of part-time faculty out of necessity, because they do not have budgets to hire full-time faculty. Faculty positions must first be sanctioned by the state government and since nearly none of the states are keen on improving higher education, the universities cope with depleted numbers of faculty members as older ones continue to retire. Hiring ad hoc faculty – who are poorly paid – is the only affordable option but over time, if not absorbed into the system, they lose all motivation to do the job well. Ad hoc faculty allow the institution to continue offering courses and programmes but it is well-established that institutions with relatively higher numbers of such faculty do a less-than-satisfactory job in classroom instruction. Students suffer as a result.

If things are bad at elite institutions such as central universities and much, much worse at state universities, and given that faculty shortages are just one of the many gaping holes in the higher education sector, it is not hard to imagine just how dire the situation really is. More worryingly, faculty shortages seem to have become a permanent feature of India’s universities.

The book is a rare, necessary, comprehensive and action-oriented book that lists several solutions. Credit: PTI

According to All India Survey of Higher Education reports, the growth in the number of students is up from 27.5 million in 2010 to 35.2 million in 2016. Credit: PTI

The problem of faculty shortages and large numbers of part-time faculty is nothing new. They have been there at least since the 1980s, whether due to financial, legal, technical/administrative or other reasons. However, faculty shortages have certainly become worse over time with the exponential growth – especially since the 2000s – in the number of higher education institutions and the college-going population which successive Indian governments did not adequately anticipate and prepare for. The numbers of institutions increased manifold in the 2000s, by about 1,000 colleges each year since 2003. Of course, several colleges, notably engineering and management institutions close down every year, but in sum, there has been a large increase in the total number of higher education institutions. Regarding the growth in the numbers of students, according to All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) reports, they have gone up from 27.5 million in 2010 to 35.2 million in 2016.

Not surprisingly, these days one reads about faculty shortages more often, usually every few months. And after every such report, government and university officials in particular express great dismay and make worried statements. Ministers and political leaders predictably call for action to hire more faculty. New strategies to find and hire faculty are announced. However, nothing much happens thereafter until the next time faculty shortages make the news and the cycle repeats itself.

With the gross enrolment ratio (GER) expected to increase from 25.2% (2016) to 30% (2020), the country’s colleges and universities will be spilling over more than ever before with students in the coming years. It is highly improbable that there will be sufficient numbers of faculty for these students in the coming future. Online courses and programmes will likely plug in some of the gaps but not by a whole lot, even though government officials and online education experts will claim otherwise.

But problems, such as faculty shortages and growing numbers of part-time faculty, are not merely old problems that have become worse over time; they are also not specific to public institutions. They are commonplace in private universities too, though for different reasons. The two reports mentioned at the beginning of this article do not bring up the problem of faculty shortages (and part-time faculty) at private institutions where a majority – 67% as of 2016 – of students are enrolled. Overall too, it is curious that much less is known and written about faculty shortages at private institutions even though many more students are enrolled there than at public institutions.

A rally by Delhi University Teachers Association in 2016 demanding filling up of vacant posts, among other things. Credit: DUTA website

It also needs to be underscored that there are different kinds or sources of faculty shortages. This is not something which is well understood. The commonly-interpreted meaning of faculty shortages is that it is about an inadequate supply/availability of sufficiently-qualified faculty at the level of the institution, the state, or the higher education sector overall. However, this is only the first kind of faculty shortage; there are four other ways to understand in order to appreciate the extent and scope of the problem. While there are more than occasional references to these other kinds of shortages, they are often collapsed to refer to the same thing.

It is true that the problem of faculty shortages overall is due to poor supply. Over the decades, the academic profession has been run into the ground by politicians, bureaucrats, academics themselves and the common people too. As a result, few hardworking and bright people take to academia and they are quite right in doing so. Most Indian universities are in such a broken state that they inspire young people to run away from them as soon as they are done with their education.

The second kind of faculty shortages come about due to the inability of many institutions to hire new faculty. This is common to government institutions. Public institutions – and particularly state universities and their constituent colleges which enrol the largest number of students among government institutions – do not hire new faculty because they are not adequately funded by the government. These universities commonly replace retirees – and there are growing numbers of them – with ad hoc faculty. Furthermore, salaries at these institutions remain below that recommended by the Sixth Pay Commission, and even then, in some states, teachers are only occasionally paid on time. Such conditions also drive away students who might have considered teaching as a career, thus adding to the first kind of shortage.

The third kind of shortages are those brought about by the unwillingness of institutions to hire faculty. This is common to private institutions whose strategy is to manage with less in order to maximise profits. Most private institutions prefer to hire larger numbers of ad hoc faculty as a matter of choice and complain about the shortage of suitably qualified faculty across all disciplines. There are genuine challenges in finding well-qualified faculty in some disciplines because of the high demand for them in industry and services, but the problem is specific to and more acute in some disciplines – such as computer science and business management –than in all. The shortages are made up in varying degrees or even exaggerated in order to save costs.

In some cases, public institutions too do not hire faculty willingly, even when they can. According to Vijay Kumar (not his real name), a retired bureaucrat and former secretary of education, several central universities advertise for faculty positions and do not hire faculty even when selection committees find qualified people with the reasoning that “X is far too qualified to join us” or “even if X joins us, she will leave us for greener pastures.” This lays down the groundwork for hiring less qualified people with the justification that they will accept the job and stay on. Kumar claimed that it is quite often the case that faculty positions at central universities are re-advertised in order to hire ‘one’s own’, whether fellow ethnics or those with Ph.Ds from the same institutions as key members of selection committees.

The fourth kind of shortage is one which comes about due to legal and related reasons. For example, faculty appointments are currently on hold at several higher education institutions in the wake of the decision by the Allahabad high court to strike down a prior University Grants Commission (UGC) circular prescribing institution-wise reservations to fill vacant faculty positions. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. The government has sought a review of this decision. Universities are waiting for the matter to be sorted out by the Supreme Court on July 2, before they go ahead with the process of making new appointments. Whatever comes of this issue, such legal hurdles have also contributed to the making of faculty shortages.

Finally, faculty shortages also occur due to the unwillingness or reluctance of faculty to work at select institutions due to their location or poor infrastructure. The shortages at many of the new central universities or the new IITs is because of their location. Universities in urban locations are less likely to suffer from such problems. Among other factors, spouses find is easier to find work in cities than in smaller urban centres. In one of the reports cited earlier, the vice-chancellor of a new university is quoted as follows:

“Location of the university is a problem, which is why we have a problem in getting faculty members. Who would want to come to such a remote location with their family?”

Remote locations lack employment opportunities for spouses, half-decent schools for children, and good medical care and are not attractive options for potential faculty.

It is fair to conclude that while the easy explanation for faculty shortages is the inadequate supply of qualified faculty, the truth is more complicated. But, irrespective of the kind of shortages in question, the time has come to accept that faculty shortages are now a permanent feature of India’s higher education sector. Just as we accept water and power shortages as routine and ubiquitous, we must accept that serious faculty shortages of one kind or the other will exist at Indian universities.

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

*Also see “The Faculty Shortages in Universities is More Than a Quantitative Problem,” August 28, 2016; and “From Patna to Panaji, No One’s Taking University Faculty Shortages Seriously,” December 26, 2017.