Higher education: Promotion policies at the centre of declining standards

The promotion process should give weightage to teaching, research and administration in proportion to the amount of time the teacher is expected to spend on these three activities.

Written by Abhiram Ranade | Published: January 5, 2016 3:12 am
du admission 2015, du admissions 2015, delhi university admissions, du 2015 admissions, delhi admissions 2015, education news, delhi news, city news, Indian Express Elite institutions often provide teaching assistants to help out with tasks such as grading homeworks and examinations, and generally help the learners.

The Indian higher education system appears to be in a crisis: a huge number of its graduates are considered unemployable, and it does not seem to be producing high quality research. This does not apply to the IITs and similar elite institutions, especially with regards to the quality of their graduates. However, there are grave concerns about the vast majority of government and private universities.

There are numerous reasons for this. One of them being the promotion policies for teachers. Teachers are the main agents who execute the agenda of a university and teacher promotion policies are indicative of how the priorities of the university get implemented. The current policies typically consider the research done by the teachers as the main factor in giving a promotion (say between levels such as lecturer, reader, assistant professor, associate professor and professor). In addition, the administrative work done is often substantially considered. This typically includes the day to day administrative work as well as work involved in organising conferences etc. Teaching is often given less importance, especially when compared to the amount of time spent on it. Most teachers in the non-elite universities are expected to spend 15-20 hours per week teaching in the classroom and in the laboratories. Probably around 5 hours are spent every week on evaluating homework and examinations.

There is also about 5-10 hours of administrative work every week. Thus out of a work week of about 40-45 hours, about 15 hours remain at the discretionary disposal of the teacher. These can be spent in preparing for lectures or research. If research is to be the main determining factor in promotions, it is clear that most of the 15 discretionary hours will be spent on research. Individuals will attempt to maximise their gain and they cannot be faulted for that. It is the job of the society at large and the policy makers to ensure that the incentives nudge individuals in a socially useful direction.

Effect on teaching

It is indeed possible to teach for 15-20 hours each week without much preparation. Simply have a set of notes and read from them year after year. This paradigm is often called “rote learning”, where the teacher provides the information which the students are expected to memorise. Teachers may find this paradigm convenient: it minimises their effort and demands little expertise; you do not even need to understand too well the information you pass out. However, students do not have a voice regarding this. Further, rote learning has its benefits in the short run – you do not have to really bother to understand anything. You can relax for most of the year and do a marathon memorisation session before the examination and dump out whatever gets asked in the examinations.

Effect on research

The reality of research in our universities offers scope for a serious review. Conferences and journals have sprouted up all over the country, ready to publish work with the payment of appropriate charges. There may be little reviewing. And then there is plagiarism. It is possible to attribute this to declining morality. A more down to earth explanation is: if you demand research from someone who does not have the means to do it, there is a danger that something called research will be supplied. If promotion needs a Ph.D., there is a danger that Ph.D. shops will open up. The real question is: is the demand of research, and of earning Ph.D.s, a reasonable demand in the first place? To obtain a good perspective on this, it is worth comparing the functioning of teachers in elite and non-elite institutions. The teachers in the elite institutions typically teach 5-6 hours per week. They expect more than rote learning from their students; but for this they must spend at least an additional 5-10 hours in preparation, across the entire range of activities from keeping track of the recent advances in the subject and the pedagogy, designing interesting assignments and examinations, and attempting to reach out to the students.

Elite institutions often provide teaching assistants to help out with tasks such as grading homeworks and examinations, and generally help the learners. Such institutions might also have more administrative staff, which takes up considerable administrative load. They also get good quality PhD students who assist the professors in their research. Finally, they are better funded and thus have access to better equipment and facilities. So on the whole, teachers in non-elite institutions are extremely ill-positioned for doing research. But the current policies force them to produce research for promotions or even survival.

The way ahead

Can there be other ways of promoting teachers? A simple answer is: give teaching its due importance in promotion. A natural idea is: the promotion process should give weightage to teaching, research and administration in proportion to the amount of time the teacher is expected to spend on these three activities. For the non-elite universities, the hours we would like to be spent per week seem to be roughly 30, 7.5, 7.5 respectively. If so, the weightage given to teaching, research and administrative work should be 4:1:1, or 66 per cent, 16.5 per cent, 16.5 per cent respectively. If teachers really spend 30 hours per week acquiring mastery in their subject and in understanding pedagogy, it will be an enormous service to their students. It will also improve their research, because often the best way to develop deep expertise in a subject is to teach it to inquisitive young minds.

That brings us to the tricky question of how to measure teaching performance. In most foreign universities, anonymous student feedback is used as the main indicator of how well a teacher has taught. Typically, at the end of the academic year or semester, the students fill out a questionnaire indicating how they were helped by the teaching of each of their teachers. There are some concerns whether student opinion on teachers can be considered accurate, but many studies have found it to be so. Indeed, such feedback forms almost the exclusive assessment of teaching ability in many American and European universities, and also in many elite institutions in India.

Teaching quality index

It could also be said that the quality of an institution be measured more by the quality of its teaching, than the quality of its building construction and the playgrounds. For this as well teaching needs to be given its due importance, in a scientific, measurement based manner. Universities could be required to publicise a teaching quality index. This would be an average over all teachers of the score obtained through feedback from students (or other appropriate mechanisms). This could be used to decide whether to give grants to the universities. Aspiring students would also find such an index useful.

The writer is professor at Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

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  1. K
    Kamal singh
    Jan 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm
    dear sir you have rightly pointed out the policies. I am at NIT Bhopal. The MHRD has recently instructed all NITs to follow 4-tier rules for faculty recruitment and upgradation. the major drawback of this policy is that it has given importance to the post Ph.D. experience alongwith research and publications. for any research- resources, funds and good quality students are necessary but here in NITs we are lacking of these resources. Also there must be weightage of teaching experience. Post Ph.D. experience alone can not be justified as an indicator of quality. Now the teachers are not interested in teaching, but they are finding the ways of publishing papers anyhow, organising conferences/courses and wasting public money. the result of this is that the students are also not interested in attending the cles, they appreciate those teachers who are not taking the cles but setting very simple question papers and giving good marks to every student. however strict teachers are not liked by the students and even these teachers get poor remarks in student feedbacks. now the question is whether a teacher should be more interested in teaching or he should avoid teaching and just try to manite the things to generate false research results. Policy makers should think of promotion policy in NITs in right spirit.
    1. M
      Jan 6, 2016 at 4:53 pm
      Excellent article Abhiram! One of the problems, as you know, in the higher education system is that faculty members who are excellent at teaching focus more on teaching (sometimes too much) than research, and faculty members who are excellent researchers but lousy or totally disinterested in teaching. Both situations in extreme are unacceptable in my opinion, in an academic insution, the purpose of which is (or should be) generation of new knowledge through research and educating the new generation. I have thought about and even proposed in a casual setting a promotion system in which the promotion track is decided/chosen by the faculty member a priori. In other words, the split between teaching/research/administration/outreach should be predetermined and the faculty member should be evaluated based this split. A similar system does exist in all land-grant state schools such as Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, etc., in the U.S.. However the split is usually between Research and Outreach (extension) only. Teaching is not specifically mentioned or given the least weightage. Of course there should be a way to allow a faculty member to change the tracks with proper justification, may be once or twice in their career (subject to approval). Another important fact that is often ignored is that teaching encompes much more than just cl room teaching. Mentoring and guiding UG students, M.S. and Ph.D. students, and even post-docs is a kind of teaching and can taken substantial time, energy, and effort of a faculty member. Regards, Mukund
      1. P
        Jan 7, 2016 at 10:56 am
        Superb Article
        1. E
          Jan 5, 2016 at 1:31 am
          Dear sir What you have mentioned is partially correct. Let me consider the pathetic situation of the engineering students in Tamil Nadu. Since you are from IIT, Bombay, let me point out this. Most of the engineering colleges are result oriented. They want centum result. The lecturers, professors are advised to coach the students rather than teaching. If a lecturer gets a poor result (Note that not the students) say less than 70% ( In many colleges 90% is the bench mark) they have to give the reasons for the poor result in writing. Many head of the insutions are advising their faculties to make their students to get mere a p. The staff members are advised not to bother about whether the students understand it or not. If not memo will be issued. Even many staff members will be dismissed abruptly. Most of the private colleges are forcing the staff members to do the personal work of their management. Most of the staff members make their students to memorize and are conducting slip test, weekly test, unit test, monthly test, etc., What worried me a lot is, if a question is changed a little bit,( not twisted) most of the students found it difficult to answer and even they have omitted those questions. Staff members are focusing on the result, they need not teach, they have to coach. If this is the situation, then how will they find time for research?
          1. A
            Abhiram Ranade
            Jan 9, 2016 at 7:04 am
            The "terrible teachers" you mention have no incentive to improve because teaching is not considered important. As you say they will fare poorly in teaching evaluation. This would produce the motivation to teach better. If you have other solutions to this problem, please do write.
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