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Sunday, October 17, 2021

You can’t shop for teachers

Massive recruitment of teachers in Delhi University and focus on world rankings are myopic moves that are symptomatic of a larger crisis in higher education

Written by Shobhit Mahajan |
Updated: September 26, 2019 11:04:18 am
You can’t shop for teachers The vast majority of positions in the colleges are already being staffed by teachers who are oddly termed as ad-hoc, though they teach as much, and sometimes, more than the regular faculty. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The University of Delhi is reportedly set to finish recruitment of more than 5,000 teachers very soon. And no, that astonishing number is not a typographical error. There are about 4,500 vacant positions in the 80 odd colleges under the University and around 850 positions in the faculties of the University. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, for reasons best known to them, had ordered the University to fill these positions within six months.

There are several reasons for such an astonishing number of vacancies. First, there have been almost no appointments in the last decade or so for reasons which are not entirely academic. In the interim, many teachers have superannuated and their positions have fallen vacant. In addition, the expansion of the enrolment because of OBC reservation increased the number of positions by almost half. Recently, the EWS reservation has added to this pool. Given that the appointment of such a huge number of people will have a profound effect on the teaching and research environment of the colleges, and the faculties, it is important to delve into several aspects of the current lightning drive to recruit.

The vast majority of positions in the colleges are already being staffed by teachers who are oddly termed as ad-hoc, though they teach as much, and sometimes, more than the regular faculty. These teachers have all the requisite qualifications for a permanent position but are given appointments from semester to semester. And, for some of them, this has been going on for a decade. The devastating psychological toll that this arrangement takes on the teachers can only be imagined. The situation in the faculties of the University is different — here, by and large, there are no ad-hoc appointments.

The critical issue in this whole exercise is the recruitment process itself. The recruitment is decentralised for the colleges and so in principle, one can conceive that such a huge number of appointments would be done concurrently and thereby could take place in a reasonable amount of time. Further, since most vacant positions already have ad-hoc teachers teaching against them, and these have been deemed to be competent (or else, they would not have been reappointed year after year) and qualified, one can imagine that the colleges would be able to fill the positions.

For the university faculties on the other hand, the recruitment is centralised. The process is as follows: The number of candidates to be called for the interview per vacant post is determined by the UGC and a shortlisting of the applicants is done according to an academically suspect formula which is given by, well, the UGC. Whatever happened to university autonomy is another matter. The selection committee which interviews the candidates and selects them, consists of external experts as well as the Vice Chancellor and the Visitor’s nominee, apart from the head of the concerned department.

This might seem like a reasonable process ordinarily — but these are hardly ordinary times. Filling up 850 positions involves interviewing around 10,000 candidates at the minimum, as per the UGC guidelines. Assuming even a perfunctory interview lasting 30 minutes, that means a staggering 5,000 hours of interviews. Since these committee meetings cannot be held concurrently, they would have to work for almost a year without a break! One can only imagine the quality of the candidates chosen by overworked and overburdened selection committees.

This elementary mathematical anomaly aside, which seems to have escaped the MHRD, there is a more serious aspect to this farce: No academic institution worth its name ever goes in for such mass recruitments of its teaching faculty. The reason is simple — it is almost impossible that one would be able to find such large numbers of teachers and researchers of excellence at any given instant of time. In addition, in any discipline, new sub-disciplines might emerge in the future which would need specialists. Academically, it makes a lot more sense to stagger appointments over a long period of time, something which institutions like the IITs and IIMs have been doing. The bureaucrats at the MHRD were, obviously, blissfully unaware of the academic consequences of their diktat before issuing it.

The selection itself is done primarily on the basis of the research capabilities of the applicant without any reference to her/his teaching capabilities or inclinations. Generating new knowledge is obviously an integral and important part of the University’s function in society. However, only focusing on research is to take a myopic view — good teachers are essential to motivate and train future researchers, and teachers. Thus, one should factor in the applicant’s ability to teach as well.

Of course, it would be difficult and impractical for a selection committee to gauge such capabilities in a short interview. However, this could easily be done by the concerned departments where the candidates could be asked to host a seminar or teach a class, and their peers could rate them on their teaching skills. This assessment could be shared with the selection committee which could then give it due weightage before selecting. Once again, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this process — the IITs and IIMs have been doing this for years.

For the past few years, we have been witnessing an almost maniacal obsession with the global university rankings amongst our educational policy-making establishment. Sanctioning money for infrastructure, research and human resources are all for the goal of improving our position in these rankings. Unfortunately, what our policy makers and administrators do not realise is that research and teaching are done by humans. Buildings and laboratories are crucial but they are superfluous in the absence of high quality teachers and researchers. The Tuglaqi firmaans to hire on a massive scale in an impossibly short time period might be fine for some other mass sectors, perhaps. But building world-class academic institutions needs patience, some familiarity with how academia works and a willingness to modify straightjacketed processes. If we ignore these self-evident facts, a majority of our institutions will stagnate at best and decay into oblivion at worst.

The writer is professor of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi

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