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Bureaucratic blindness will cripple India’s premier educational institutes

By M Balakrishnan

Illustration: Anand Naorem

SEVERAL MEDIA reports say protests by IIT faculty are just a demand for higher pay. This is nothing but trivialising the issue. Our concerns are far more serious – the new pay order has drastic long-term implications. After one year of pay revisions for the rest of the Government, the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has rejected the recommendations of its own Goverdhan Mehta committee and has announced a package that impacts the very core functioning of IITs, functions that set IITs apart. It is no mean achievement that — especially when investment in IITs are so low by global standards — at least two IITs appear repeatedly in surveys of the top 50 technical universities in the world.

Key factors for IITs’ success are merit as the sole criteria for student and faculty selection and advancement; and a flexible cadre structure, meaning no limits on faculty positions of any designation. IITs are among the few institutions in India where posts for every step of career progression are thrown open to candidates from around the world.

There are two provisions in the new pay order that cripple the IITs’ flexible cadre structure. First, the rule that at least 10 percent of all faculty be Assistant Professors on Contract. Since a career at IIT commonly exceeds three decades, this would imply that virtually all recruitment from now on would have to be at this junior three-year contract level. This would be unattractive to most bright PhD graduates. Second, the 40 percent cap on the number of people who can be promoted from a junior Professor’s position to a senior Professor’s position effectively creates another inflexible cadre structure. Currently, no IIT professor has to wait for a vacancy in order to be promoted. If they are good, they will be promoted. Typically, a performing faculty member holds a Professor’s position in IITs for about 22 years. With the new rule, very competent people junior to him would get demotivated just because no vacancies open up above them.

Instead of the successful flexible cadre structure of the IITs being exported to the university system, the MHRD has decided to import the unsuccessful model of the university system to the IITs. And how exactly was the cap of 40 percent decided? Did any assessment find that 60 percent of all junior IIT professors are non-performing? Globally, no research university, sets such caps. Career progression is based on individual merit. Technology is advancing so rapidly that it is increasingly important for younger faculty to assume research leadership in the laboratories. A fixed cadre structure is a big hurdle towards achieving this.

No research university worldwide limits the number of faculty that can be promoted to senior positions

Not only have eight new IITs been created, the existing seven plan to expand by over 50 percent in the next three years. Very conservatively, this means 1,800 faculty will be required in the next six years. If we are to maintain quality while expanding so much, it is important that entry level positions are made attractive; critical that fresh PhDs graduates who are considering careers in industry or in universities in other countries are tempted, instead, by the IITs. The IITs are part of the global marketplace for faculty. Of the 22 faculty who joined IIT Delhi last year, 90 percent have either a PhD from abroad or post-doctoral experience abroad. While this ensures state-of-the-art research, it automatically implies that selected candidates have global alternatives. It is also in this context of growth and retention that Performance-Based Incentive Schemes as formulated by organisations like ISRO are being demanded. We thought a few years back that we were now unchained and can now dream of conquering the world. But this order will cripple our capacity to compete. And did you hear that foreign institutions with no such bureaucratic fetters are waiting round the corner? Easy pickings.

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