May 09, 2008

Upgrading Engineering Faculty : Barking up the wrong tree

PanIIT in association with Infosys has embarked on a well meaning programme to get professors from the US come and teach professors in India how to teach effectively. Unfortunately they are missing the wood for the trees, or even if they did find a tree, it would be the wrong one that they would be barking up against ! Because you do not need people from the US to come and teach us how to teach ! There are enough people in India who can teach, and teach well, but the problem lies in getting them to teach.

But why do good people not take to teaching in India ? The answer has been given out ad nauseum but since PanIIT has still not understood it, let me explain once again.

A full professor at IIT, with 10 years of teaching experience, gets Rs 40,000 per month before taxes are deducted. Whereas a student passing out of the B.Tech program in almost any engineering college gets about Rs 20,000+ from day 1. So unless a person (a)has a separate and independent income that makes the IIT salary irrelevant OR (b) is of an ascetic bent of mind who enjoys a frugal lifestyle OR (c) is unfit to work in the corporate sector -- he will never want to be teacher at IIT. The number of people in category (a) and (b) is rather small and so it is the category (c) type -- those who have no option but to teach -- who swell the ranks of faculty in engineering colleges. And notwithstanding anything that PanIIT and Infosys does, it is impossible to improve the quality of teaching delivered by these category (c) people.

Which brings us to the next question .. why are faculty salaries not increased to corporate levels ? Given the acute shortage of good faculty, why is it that the free market does not push up faculty salaries -- just as in the case of, say IT, telecom, retail or insurance ? The answer to this has also been spelt out ad nauseum, but needs to be repeated again anyway ... because, unlike other areas, there is NO FREE MARKET in the education space.

The IITs and IIMs are relics of the PSU age and are steeped in PSU culture. Everyone must be paid at the lowest common denominator -- defined by archaic Pay Commissions in terms of the demands of the legions of Class III and Class IV staff. Even at the faculty level, a professor of Computer Science and a professor of English must be paid at the same level -- even though the market value of the two outside the educational sector is vastly different. We all know this but we cannot do anything about it. Such is hypocrisy in India.

OK, but what about the thousands of private engineering colleges that are sprouting by the dozen ? There could have been some hope of free market policies here but government policy has eradicated almost any hope even here as well. Whether it is under Murali Manohar Joshi or Arjun Singh -- the two persons who have had the intention, the capacity and the track record of having dealt a lethal body blow to education in India -- the government of the day continues to operate a perverse version of the Licence-Permit Raj -- that has been mercifully eliminated from the rest of the economy.

To operate a technical college in India you need a permit from the AICTE : a truly neanderthal entity that ever existed, and no educational institute with any measure of self respect can subject itself to its whimsical ( and occasionally diabolic ) supervision. Incidentally, ISB - the only management school that has been ranked on par with global institutions -- has had to engage in a running battle with this dinosaur to survive. To abide by AICTE regulation you have to begin with a blatant lie : you have to state upfront that you are not-for-profit organisation and you are running an educational institute as a charitable public service. All AICTE approved private colleges are of course for-profit organisations ( and there is nothing wrong in making money ) but they have to repeat this lie and THEN work out complex -- but very well known -- strategies to suck money out of the system to generate a return for the investors. So in principle you cannot run an honest, profitable institution in India.

In short the whole system reeks of corruption, well designed corruption.

So net-net what should PanIIT and Infosys do ? Instead of tilting at windmills it would be better if they could leverage whatever influence they have in India to remove the stranglehold that the Government has on education. The obvious thing is to dismantle the License Permit raj -- restructure the AICTE and UGC by repealing or amending the enabling legislation -- and replace it with a Education Regulatory Authority, similar to SEBI, TRAI or IRDA. If this and only this happens we will get better teachers -- and better teaching standards in engineering colleges in India.

Till then, grin and bear it brother -- you have no choice!!


Anonymous 1:50 am  

I totally agree with this. Till now there are some good teachers who joined during mid 80s. After that it is mostly category C people who do not have any other option. Added to that is the political influence in recruting teachers. If we do not go to open market in engineering education, education system is going to dye.

Anonymous 3:58 am  

Can't really agree. I know you are an IIT-ian, but so am I (and Kanpur too). However, I don't really agree to your "subject divide" that an English professor is to get a lesser pay than a Computer Science professor. Well, to justify my point I can go on and on, but to keep it short, mastering Computer Science is by no means an easy task, but mastering Shakespeare is not a lifetime's task either. And believe me, even today, the majority of the world derives more pleasure out of Wordsworth than a Kerningham Ritchie.

I personally IIT professors teach the same subject again and again and again... year after year after year. Software projects do happen in IITs, if you are aware of. But they can never be compared to the professional attitude that goes behind building a software project in a corporate environment. Yes, IIT professors' pay ARE market-driven. The only difference is that the market is defined as a conglomerate of the corporate output and the university output. If you still can't understand the point I am trying to make, try swapping an IIT professor with a Software Architect from any leading Indian company. Try to observe, the adaptibility of each. You'll get your answer.

Amitava 11:26 pm  

I agree with the article.However, Mr Mukherjee missed one more point. You have to have a PhD degree to teach in IIT. Why? The best brains in industry do not have a PhD degree. They never needed one. If we are to attract such brilliance, qualification may be replaced by entry-test & experience.

control valves 8:42 am  

I believe construction of such projects requires knowledge of engineering and management principles and business procedures, economics, and human behavior.

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