I wrote in the The Wire last June that the University Grants Commission (UGC) should eliminate the research component (or make it optional) in the academic performance indicator (API) for undergraduate faculty teaching at colleges. At that time, the UGC had sent out a letter to all vice-chancellors asking for their views and suggestions on the API.
What is the API? The UGC introduced the API in 2010. It required all faculty members at central universities and in 100-odd colleges directly funded by the central government to do research in order to benefit from the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS), other than teach and carry out administrative duties. While state universities and colleges were not obliged to adopt the API, more than a few have done so. Incidentally, the UGC scrapped the API in 2013 but reintroduced it a few months later during the same year. The API has been opposed all through by many teachers’ associations.
The reason behind making the suggestion – that college teachers should not be required to carry out research (and publish) – was that a large number of college teachers, perhaps a majority, lack the basic training for research; most are overburdened with teaching, administrative and other responsibilities; and many work at institutions with woeful infrastructure and in an academic environment inimical to substantive research. Under these conditions, it has been commonplace for college teachers to plagiarise and to publish in fake journals in order to benefit from the career advancement scheme (CAS).
Fast forward to May 2016.
The teaching component
It was recently reported that the UGC will be modifying the API to bring the onus back on teaching. I am unsure about the ‘how’ part in the absence of details but this change will be particularly relevant for teachers at undergraduate institutions. I had earlier reasoned that faculty members dedicated to teaching should not to be “distracted by the goal of earning API points via third-rate or fake research.” Good teaching is possible without research, usually by keeping track of new writings in one’s teaching areas/subjects.
Admittedly, even this is sometimes not possible at India’s colleges (or not done by teachers) which are unable to subscribe to important journals (However, teachers should know that there are websites through which one can access new research, though illegally). If the changes in the teaching component of API for college teachers go as far as eliminating research entirely or reducing it to no more than 5-10% in measuring faculty performance, it may not be a bad thing.
Student feedback has also been introduced as a measure of teaching quality. While it is a good idea, it may not be very useful, at least initially. This is because students, teachers and university/college/higher education officials will likely not be mindful of the limitations of such feedback. Indeed, writing for The Guardian, an anonymous academic said: “Student feedback, now a feature of most university courses, can be useful – but more often it’s downright biased, sexist or simply unrealistic.” Also, under Indian conditions, the feedback mechanism will operate under suboptimal conditions and all stakeholders will try to game it for their own perceived or real benefit. In other words, it is possible that the student feedback mechanism will lead to new sets of problems in properly assessing the quality of teaching.
The research component
Sensible changes are also being made in the research component of API. It is reported that the research criterion will be made more flexible by scrapping the provision that made it mandatory for a teacher to contribute to research in the following manner: Publishing papers in journals (55% weightage); research projects (20%); attending conferences and seminars (15%); and guiding PhD and undergraduate dissertations (10%). Now, a teacher can focus on any one or more of the above in a manner that she finds suitable for herself in the context of her discipline and other factors. While this is an improvement, the fact remains that journal, research publications and books are easily the most valued component of research output – and they are denied their due in the new scheme of things.
Now, in theory, a faculty member can accumulate a high score by making presentations via a bunch of substandard seminars/conferences, many of which are organised by profiteers seeking to maximise profits from the seminar/conferences component of such faculty evaluations.
The UGC is to be congratulated for deciding to take a position against substandard research and shady journals. It has decided to release a list of recommended peer-reviewed national and international journals where papers can be published (although this method too has some big limitations which I will write about at another time).
The UGC should also be communicating to universities/colleges that there are simple ways to stay away from publishing in fake journals. While many faculty members choose to publish in fake journals, at least some may do it unknowingly. Jeffrey Beall (a librarian at Auraria Library, University of Colorado, Denver) maintains an amazing and updated list of fake publishers, journals and conference organisers and his website (or even he) can be consulted when necessary.
There are two views on the API. The first calls for rejecting it altogether. Indeed, immediately after new changes were reported, the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) protested outside the UGC. The second perspective (including mine) proposes important modifications that are attentive to, among other things, fundamental differences between the nature of work at undergraduate and graduate level, and across different disciplines.
The rejigged API is an improvement from its previous version but there are still some very big lacunae in how it will measure faculty performance. The flexible research component will likely be abused by faculty. There is also no mention of what the UGC plans to do about publications in fake journals or plagiarism.
Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.