Debate: 'Let Teachers Teach' Makes Most Sense for Teachers Outside India's Big Cities

Why should we expect teachers at colleges with second-class facilities – if that – to perform research and publish so that they can be good teachers?

This article is part of the ‘Let Teachers Teach’ series, discussing the Union human resource development ministry’s decision to not mandate college teachers to conduct research.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula. The views expressed are personal.

Writing in response to my article (‘Kudos to Javadekar for Letting College Teachers Teach‘ The Wire, August 1), Renny Thomas [who teaches at the Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi –ed.] expresses concern that my views about letting college teachers teach is a ‘dangerous’ idea (‘Debate: Javadekar’s Move to ‘Let College Teachers Teach’ is Halfhearted and Dangerous‘, The Wire, August 4).

Forcing college teachers to carry out research, irrespective of whether they are interested in or capable of it, and especially when most work at institutions which are severely lacking half-decent libraries and laboratories, does not further the cause of India’s higher education. Colleges are designed and meant to be teaching-focused institutions and whose teachers must focus on teaching first. The rest – including research – should come second, or after. Finally, college teachers should have a choice between doing research and doing something else that serves the objectives of the colleges they work at, including teaching more courses as needed, or even ‘community work’, as indicated by Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar.

However, I do have concerns about the minister’s proposal on ‘community work’ as an option to research because I am wary of many of the government’s initiatives, not just the current one but also previous ones. I am particularly concerned about how ‘community work’ will be defined and how it may be abused both by teachers and the government.

I would have shared some of Thomas’s concerns if the government had insisted that research will no longer count in the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) for college teachers. That does not seem to be the case. College teachers will continue to get credit for the research work they do. I am therefore surprised why Thomas seems to believe that I am in favour of denying college teachers the freedom to do research. My interpretation of the changes indicated by Javadekar (if they eventually do take place) is that college teachers – especially those who are research-capable and/or research-oriented and interested – are still free to pursue research.

But let me turn to the three main assertions that Thomas makes in his criticism of my support for letting college teachers teach.

First: Thomas insists that research is almost essential for good teaching. He writes: “And how can one be a good teacher if one is not a good researcher?” I believe in the opposite – one can be a good teacher by keeping abreast of new research.

Academic research on the subject – the importance of research for teaching – is not conclusive. As I noted in my article, several studies in fact claim that the there isn’t any positive and reciprocal relationship between research and teaching as is commonly believed..

Good researchers are scarce in India’s colleges. There is no evidence suggesting otherwise. According to Thomas’ definition of a good teacher, that would make most college teachers lesser educators because they do not do research. But why do we even expect our college teachers to be doing research given the difficult conditions they work in?

Thomas sidesteps the Indian reality by simply stating that “one cannot generalise based on one’s privileged experience as a faculty member of a Delhi University college. But… college teachers in various parts of India … continue to try to do research in their own ways.”

According to the sixth report of the All India Survey on Higher Education report (2015-2016), there are in all 39,071 colleges, of which 40% run only single programmes; 60% are in rural areas; and 78% are privately managed. Further, 22% of the colleges have fewer than 100 students (and only 4.3% have more than 3,000 enrolments). There is no reason to believe that teachers at these colleges – especially at private colleges (78%) and even at colleges in rural areas (60%) – are trying or are able to ‘to do research in their own ways’.

If we consider the National Assessment and Accreditation Council’s ratings of our colleges or investigate the kind of infrastructural and other deficits – whether libraries or laboratories – that actually exist at most colleges, private or public, one would be befuddled by any suggestion that research can be carried out at these institutions.

As a side note, I am inclined to believe that teaching is of great help to those who are doing research but I am uncertain about how good teaching requires more than keeping abreast of new research, as distinct from doing research. I think the distinction is an important one.

Second: Thomas is of the view that a separation between college and university teachers – with the former responsible largely for teaching and the latter for research – is undesirable. I agree that the separation of college and university teachers creates two different ‘sub-castes’. But the fact is that there are different kinds of higher education institutions and they have different objectives. The objective of colleges, and this is true across the world, is to impart undergraduate level education for which they typically look for good teachers. Post-graduate departments are involved with both teaching and research, and the faculty is hired for the purpose of carrying out research, mentoring the next generation of faculty and for teaching. These separations are not my creation. They exist, and they are not going away simply by arguing that they are wrong or right.

Third: Thomas notes that there are some excellent researchers based out of colleges. I agree. There are some very good researchers based at colleges in Delhi, Bengaluru and other cities. Most are based in colleges in the largest cities. However, one must remember that such colleges make up a small fraction of the total number of colleges in the country. And the number of researchers among college teachers based in these large cities too is also fairly small.

There are several reasons why the researchers among college teachers continue to work at colleges. There are some among them who prefer to teach at the undergraduate level but, as a rule, most research-oriented faculty would prefer to transfer to post-graduate departments, if it is at a university in the same city, or to research centres, though again in the same city. When that option is not available, they continue to teach at the same college.

Other research-oriented college teachers continue to teach in city colleges despite a heavier work load because larger cities offer better opportunities for their spouses, better education for their children, better health care, etc.

So, should we let the current system continue, whereby teachers across India are forced to do research whether or not they are capable of it or interested in? I am talking about

  • College teachers in far-flung parts of the country, where everything is practically broken at their institutions, from bathrooms to classrooms;
  • Colleges and universities where teachers do not get paid on time, sometimes for long periods;
  • Teachers who are still working on salaries fixed by the Fifth Pay Commission;
  • Colleges where teachers do not teach in the college classroom but maintain classrooms at their homes;
  • Colleges where English and Hindi teachers do not write or speak correct English and Hindi;
  • Colleges where students prepare for exams from guess papers and model answers alone; and
  • Colleges in states where successive governments have broken the back and every bone of higher education many times over.

Why would we expect or even want teachers at these colleges to do research and publish so that they can be good teachers?