One reason India’s universities perform poorly in world university rankings is because they lag behind the best institutions worldwide in research and publishing. Ashwin Fernandes, who heads the organisation that publishes one of these rankings, recently stressed this point, and said, “One might have good teaching environment and better infrastructure but … research is of utmost importance.”
The Government of India has nudged universities and teachers towards research. In 2010, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs), which required teachers in all higher education institutions to publish research, in addition to their teaching and administrative responsibilities, to qualify themselves for promotions and other benefits. But the move backfired in many places because of its indifference to context.
Ironically, the first casualty of the UGC’s insistence on research has been research itself. Teachers at teaching-focused institutions such as colleges, those lacking the necessary infrastructure for research at their institutions and those without adequate research training had no choice but to publish. The more unscrupulous among them published in fake journals.
According to one study, papers authored by people at Indian universities made up 27% of all papers in predatory journals in biomedical sciences.
However, apart from some modifications, the UGC has retained APIs as-is while also trying to finalise a whitelist of legitimate journals.
The second casualty: APIs have effectively done downgraded teaching – the raison d’être of most Indian academic institutions. Teaching has become less desirable while research has accrued prestige. Teachers have become less interested in teaching because promotions are not based on how well they teach but whether they publish. And it’s surprising that this is happening when 37 million students in the country need more good teachers.
In light of these issues, the government must make research optional for teachers at undergraduate institutions. It should also penalise research fraud of all kinds – whether plagiarism (which it has done) or publishing in fake journals.
There is also a larger issue. India’s best universities, or those aspiring to count amongst them, must encourage teaching as much as they do research.
As rankings become more popular, India’s universities demand more research from their faculty members. They also wish to hire more researchers, especially people who can publish in reputed journals or who already have a ‘healthy’ publishing record. And the cost of this preference is exacted from the teachers.
Research-oriented faculty members of this era typically frown upon teaching and see it as a roadblock to research. This is true at times, such as when they are asked to teach courses that have little to do with their research interests. At the same time, universities that have hired too many research-oriented scholars have effectively left their students in the hands of reluctant, and subpar, teachers.
As a way out, universities could strike a balance between the two options by hiring based on the total number of courses a department offers. To improve their research output, universities must require its researchers to teach fewer courses and call upon its teachers to teach more. This way, the teachers are freed from a compulsion to conduct research, researchers don’t have to teach more than they need to, and the students are in good hands.
At least one institution has already adopted this strategy. Last year, the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Delhi, advertised for faculty positions thus:
To promote excellence in teaching, IIIT-Delhi has created a few teaching-track faculty positions, … primarily targeted towards attracting outstanding teachers into the institute, and to whom both students and faculty may look up as role-models for teaching. Teaching-track faculty members are regular faculty members … but with a different emphasis between teaching and research. They will have a higher teaching load, will be expected to engage in high-quality teaching, and … will be expected to have a modest level of engagement in research. The criterion for tenure and promotion also has a higher expectation in quality teaching than research.
The same strategy must be followed by other institutions devoted to both teaching and research.
Pushkar has a PhD in political science (McGill University) and is currently director of The International Centre Goa. The views expressed here are personal.