From Patna to Panaji, No One's Taking University Faculty Shortages Seriously

Armies of part-time, under-qualified and poorly-paid faculty members are maintained by public and private institutions to get by, unmindful of the fact that education takes a big hit.

Faculty shortages at India’s universities are commonplace. Numbers in the range 30-40% are typically cited for premier institutions such as central universities and they are almost certainly higher at state universities. Such large shortages exist for a number of reasons: actual shortage of qualified faculty, especially in select disciplines; inability of state universities to hire new faculty due to financial constraints; and the unwillingness of departments/universities to hire a new generation of faculty members who are better qualified than them and are perceived as posing a threat to the dominance of the old guard.

At private universities, which now attract nearly 70% of all students, the story is slightly different. Most private institutions likely maintain high faculty shortages on purpose to cut costs and reap bigger profits.

In either case, the result is the same. Armies of part-time, often under-qualified and poorly-paid faculty members are maintained by both public as well as private institutions to get by irrespective of the fact that the quality of education takes a big hit.

However, the issue of faculty shortages attracts at best episodic attention from the government as well as the media. Earlier this year, for example, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development was reportedly “anguished” to find that most Indian universities – whether well-established or new central universities, state or private varsities, IITs or IIMs – were functioning with large faculty shortages. On such awkward occasions, government officials make recommendations for new strategies to hire faculty or highlight the need for streamlining the faculty hiring process. Of course nothing much happens after. The problem of faculty shortages is forgotten in favour of other bigger issues, whether corruption, elections, national security or something else.

According to a recent report, Patna University – the premier state university in Bihar – has been functioning with only about 30% of its sanctioned faculty strength (320 teachers v. 1,000 available positions). Several departments in its colleges have one teacher or none. The state made no regular faculty appointments between 2003 and 2014. In 2014, the Bihar Public Service Commission finally issued an advertisement for the appointment of about 3,400 teachers in different subjects. However, the process has been excruciatingly slow and faculty shortages have persisted, even worsened thanks to older faculty members retiring.

Last year, H.R. College at Amnaur, Bihar, had more than 4,000 students and two subject teachers, one each in botany and economics; the duo also taught other subjects as needed. Similarly, M.D. College in Naubatpur, affiliated to Magadh University, reportedly had 2,000 students and three teachers. It runs honours courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics, botany and zoology but did not have any teacher in the science faculty (a visit to the college website on December 26 indicated that a few faculty members have been hired since then).

Bihar’s faculty shortages can be explained by the state’s economic backwardness. While economic growth in Bihar is high, it remains a poor state and is not well-placed to adequately support higher education. According to the state’s economic survey for 2016, per capita income in Bihar was only 35% of the national average in 2015 (though up from 33% in 2011). More importantly, since there is already a fairly long tradition of young people leaving the state to pursue higher education in other parts of the country, there is less-than-expected pressure on the government.

Meanwhile, in Goa, one of India’s most prosperous and developed states, the situation at the only state university is only marginally better. Goa University may be better placed than Patna University in national rankings (since the latter didn’t even apply), but in 2015, the former was managing with a faculty shortage of 35%. The number has since jumped to 44% and will likely top 50% soon due to retirements and the inability of the university to hire more faculty. Satish Shetye, a former vice-chancellor of the university, has blamed the shortage of faculty on “a complicated maze of administrative regulations that need to be complied with for appointments”.

As some have argued, the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) could be partly to blame. Under the CAS, faculty members are assured of promotions at the institution they are working at. This has dissuaded academics from institutions outside Goa to apply for faculty positions at Goa University – a departure from the past.

Another CAS-linked argument is that, since the scheme allows all faculty members to be promoted, no entry-level positions at the bottom become vacant until professors and associate professors retire at the top. Strangely, the scheme disallows the junior position of assistant professors left vacant by promotions to be filled until the person(s) promoted from the position retire(s).

That is not all, however. A faculty appointment at Goa University is contingent on a 15-year domicile period and knowledge of Konkani. In the past, the university has been permitted by the government to relax the clause to alleviate faculty shortages. This year also, the government permitted the university to relax the domicile and Konkani requirements. But soon after, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that the government was withdrawing its permission because its waiver had been ‘misunderstood’ by the university. He clarified that the university could ask for a waiver to hire non-Goans on a case-to-case basis with the state government only if local, eligible candidates were not available.

Perhaps the domicile and language requirements are not the biggest obstacles to faculty shortages at Goa University; their waiver hasn’t brought much success either. But the government’s decision conveys its unwillingness to prioritise faculty shortages over political considerations.

It is evident that India’s universities, whether in Patna or Panaji – both flagship institutions at the state level – are not dealing with the problem of faculty shortages with the seriousness it deserves. Thus, the higher education sector, already broken by decades of neglect, corruption, politicisation and profiteering, is adrift without any clear direction, and at a time when more young people are attending college.

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