Columns Indian Scenario

How to improve the quality of teaching and research in Indian universities?

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

There is no question that the academic health of life science departments in most universities in India is not in a good shape as reflected by the general lack of enthusiasm and passion for teaching/​learning or research in the faculty as well as the students. The multiple vicious circles that have entangled the education system in the country need to be understood and resolved sooner than later. Several earlier blogs on this site have already highlighted damage being inflicted by the poorly designed courses in so-called modern biology” (biotechnology, bioinformatics and all their avatars”) and the memory-based learning that the students are exposed to. However, more serious causes that are responsible for the current messy situation seem to primarily lie in the institutional governance system, the quality of faculty members and the social structure. Prof. Ron Vale visited the Banaras Hindu University earlier this month and we had several rounds of discussions on how to improve this situation at times when biology seems to be so exciting on all fronts. These discussions prompt me to write this blog.

The first and foremost requirement is to attract enthusiastic and competent young persons to faculty positions in universities. Fulfilling this requirement, however, faces problems from both sides. The typical process of selection in nearly all the central and state universities in the country is so archaic, bureaucratic and often biased because of one or the other factor, that hiring a competent person becomes a low probability event. On the other side, the prospective faculty members do not even want, as their priority choices, to join a university because they often have the impression that teaching robs them of their research time and that the environment in the university/​department is not conducive to their growth. Consequently, the university system gets increasingly loaded with dead wood” and hapless generations of students have to suffer the lack of inspiring teachers and thus do not even have the opportunity to feel the spark that they carry within them. In order to change, the universities must radically modify their recruitment procedure so that aspiring candidates can apply any time of the year and the concerned departments can have the opportunity to discuss in person with those candidates whose CV looks appropriate for the positions that the department wishes to fill. Formal selection committee meetings should make the final selections only following the feed-back after such direct and intensive interactions. The university must also provide adequate start-up” facilities to the new faculty and at the same time, ensure that the new faculty is not loaded with enormous teaching responsibilities from day one. During the first one or two years of first-time appointment, the Assistant Professor should be given a little more time to set up the laboratory and prepare oneself for teaching.

The young prospective faculty as well as those responsible for appointments carry a general bias that those who have spent several years as post-doctoral fellow outside India are better than those who do not have such experience. This impression, which may not always be correct, has deprived the country of a thriving post-doctoral culture, and at the same time, it also has, in my view, adversely affected the quality of teaching in our universities. It is a general experience that most of those who had a productive post-doctoral experience abroad become reluctant to involve in teaching. This reluctance stems from the fact that they have been away from formal teaching/​learning process for several years (time taken for Ph.D. plus the years as post-doctoral fellow) and thus hesitate taking up the responsibility of teaching. In addition, being in a university in India generally implies significantly poor infrastructure compared to that in research institutions. In the absence of good” applicants, the universities have to hire faculty out of whatever is available, which, in view of the above, is unlikely to be the best or better! More often, it may be in agreement with the addict those who can, do and those who cannot, teach!”.

I think the university system should not be biased against young and fresh talent and should support them adequately in their teaching as well as research efforts. Someone with a liking for teaching and starting as faculty at a younger age is likely to better succeed in mastering the art of teaching than late-starters.

Interest in teaching also suffers because of the fact that the career advancement (promotions, awards/​recognitions) are almost entirely based on research productivity with quality of teaching having little consideration. Although the students’ evaluation of teachers is in principle a necessary requirement (at least in departments/​universities recognized by UGC-recognized under the SAP or UPE programs or those accredited by the NAAC), this very constructive activity is rarely undertaken and even if undertaken for record sake, the students’ assessment of teachers is very rarely actually utilized for faculty assessment. Unfortunately, the current UGC guidelines for teachers’ eligibility for promotions etc also do not provide any incentive for teaching! The UGC and the university governance system must rectify this serious lacuna.

I personally believe that teaching does not really hamper research, rather it helps generate newer ideas/​questions. Teaching requires much wider reading and interactions with a large number of creatively active students. Both these provide opportunities to think of one’s own research in seemingly different backgrounds, which may be expected to foster better integration. Thus if good facilities and congenial environment is created in the universities, the faculty members would have the double advantage of good research and satisfaction/​pleasure of teaching.

The vicious circle of poor infrastructure leading to poor faculty which invites poorer applications for new appointments can be broken on one hand by proactively improving/​radically changing the governance system about the recruitment procedures and by creating congenial atmosphere. The other actors who can dramatically break this vicious circle are the younger aspirants themselves. It would be too much to expect the existing non-doers to transform into doers, but those who take the challenge afresh should and indeed can help improve the system by their own positive efforts: once several such individual efforts in any department/​university begin to occur in concert, the system would readily improve and become self-sustaining. A good encouraging silver lining is that the governmental investments in the education sector, especially science teaching/​learning, are increasing and this trend is expected to increase as the country moves into the 12th 5‑year plan. The young potential faculty members must take advantage of this welcome development.

To emerge a truly knowledge society in the globalized world today, India needs to have quality education at all levels and in all fields. This requires proactive roles from all the stake-holders. The challenge for the present young generation and aspiring faculty is to provide far better education system to their next generation than they themselves experienced. Some sacrifice at this stage would pay rich dividends for future generations. That remains the best reward/​satisfaction for a teacher.