Columns Journey of a YI

In-service training for young investigators in Indian universities

Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan

In this invited piece, Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan writes about the pressing need for more effective training systems in pedagogy and research for new lecturers in the Indian University system, drawn from his own experience as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biotechnology, Gauhati University.

Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan
Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan  

A young faculty member in a traditional university, however much he/​she has excelled research-wise, is a greenhorn in teaching. To establish himself/​herself as a personality to be looked up to, creating new knowledge and simultaneous effective dissemination of knowledge are a must. However, is there any effective training mechanism in place to help tackle the challenges that crop up in doing so? 

The present human resource development centres (HRDC) under the UGC evolved from the past academic staff colleges, which, as per XI Plan guidelines, emphasizes teachers as agents of socio-economic change and national development and underlines the need to make them skill – oriented teachers”. Since the only teaching job in our country that does not require a professional degree/​diploma or training in education/​pedagogy is assistant professorship, the national policy on education (NPE, 1986) paved the way for in-service training for assistant professors. 

It is mandatory for an assistant professor to undergo an orientation programme (OP) in the first two years and two refresher courses (RCs) in the subsequent four years. Many a time, the programme and course syllabi do not serve the purpose because of the following reasons. 

  • Insufficient funds to engage resource persons from across the country 
  • Lack of experts in and around the host institution 
  • Absence of lectures by industrialists/​entrepreneurs/​environmental warriors/​politicians of repute and high academic quality and integrity, 
  • Heterogeneity of the candidates’ backgrounds (e.g. on one hand, orientation programmes are open to one and all in their first two years of joining the job. On the other hand, refresher courses on life sciences, more often than not, turn out to have more of one particular subject, such as classical taxonomy/​botany or zoology-oriented lectures/​activities, while the participants are from botany, zoology, biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, and other backgrounds), 
  • Mixing of degree college and university teachers in the training, though the latter deal with only post-graduate and doctoral students, 
  • Questionable academic quality of the experts, some of whom are retired and not tech-savvy enough to deal with the Google-era participants, and some of whom themselves did not undergo such training. 

Because of these circumstances, orientation programmes end up disorienting the participants and refresher courses serve to normalise the levels of motivation and knowledge, instead of improving the same. Still, we are obligated to attend these trainings’ out of learned helplessness. 

Many serious participants expect to get some quick tips for balancing research, teaching and administrative work, in that order. However, that does not happen because for many of the resource persons, during their initial stage of teaching at a university some decades ago, eligibility criteria for the job were different, and, therefore, there was not much push for research. For example, they could become university teachers with just a Master’s degree, and, hence, there was no expectation of research from them. Therefore, there was also no need for a proper funding mechanism for research. 

Till date, there are a few instructors, for whom the research programmes are considered an academic formality for the respective degrees, while the postgraduate teaching programmes in universities top the priority list. This is so deeply ingrained in their mind that they have separated research into industrial and academic. Further, they believe that only the research institutes/​laboratories under the DBT, the ICMR, the DST and others should do hard-core research, not the universities. 

As a consequence of this mindset, research infrastructure is weak with erratic power and water supply, insufficient supporting staff, insensitively allocated budget for repairing equipment, non-existent auctioning mechanism for the junk materials, and so on. To compound the matter further, there are issues like the lack of environmental management systems and proper disposal of waste (chemicals, plasticware, glassware, metal scraps, solvents and biologicals). These issues could be addressed by installing an incinerator on the campus and by constructing a well-planned drainage system without involving much labour and hence, financial cost and time. 

The absence of a dedicated section for research/project-related accounting leads to a step-motherly treatment and inappreciable status of research, even though these universities (including many central and state universities) award degrees like MPhil and PhD regularly. This situation is a consequence of irregularly-updated policies framed by people who were themselves never exposed to research labs of international repute, and some of whom are from non-experimental science backgrounds. In a traditional liberal arts university where the core strength is the social science or languages, it is impossible to exclude people from non-experimental science backgrounds while framing certain policies for the university as a whole, which may not take into account the needs of experimental scientists. 

In the beginning, orientation programmes and refresher courses did not have any mention of helping in research-related matters as an integral part of the training. Subject-specific refresher courses were introduced much later. This means that batches of trained teachers have not attended subject-specific refresher courses, wherein research and development come into the picture. 

The sorry state of research in universities is because of the missing emphasis on it. The problem with doing research in a traditional university largely arises out of misplaced priority of the administrators or the founding fathers. A separate research cell should be set up and adequate attention should be paid to the researchers in terms of supporting their needs. There is enough funding nowadays, even though its effective utilisation is an unrealised dream. Administrative checks alone cannot ensure the efficient and effective utilisation of funds if the policies governing the utilisation are not redesigned to be research-oriented from its current administration-friendly design. For example, under the overhead budget, there is limited flexibility to utilise the funds [1]. The solution to this could be brought about through both top-down and institutional interventions. 

A young faculty member who has not managed to get his/​her professional balancing act right even after attending the mandatory in-service training has to face non-technical problems as well, including financial and administrative hurdles. Among them, the problem of cramped space hits him/​her hard in the very beginning as he/​she fails to get himself/​herself even a room to call office’. Ironically, the apparent reason for this is that these traditional universities were not built to create space, but to occupy space, as they are spread over a large area with less built-up floor area because of which there is limited space to utilise for research or to work in. 

The next hurdle is the merry-go-round in the administrative offices that could be perfectly exemplified by the saying if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain’. Left with no option, young faculty members learn financial and administrative matters on-the-job, though the orientation programme could be made more comprehensive by incorporating them in the syllabus. 

Pedagogical/​educational training (orientation programmes and refresher courses) for in-service faculty members could also be done more effectively. I have heard of the old practice of learning the art of teaching from senior teachers still being practised in a few universities wherein the new faculty members are allowed to attend the lectures of the senior professors in the first six months of their career without being assigned any class themselves. This practice can be quite effective in orienting new recruits towards teaching, but in conjunction with orientation programmes and refresher courses. Of course, it should be optional for those with prior teaching experience. 

Considering that new recruits are usually motivated and prepared to take up the professional responsibilities, one can presume that they will not slide into the Scully effect [2], rather they will develop their own effective style of teaching. A robust real-time cross-feedback mechanism involving teaching, administration and finance should be introduced to assess the performance of young faculty members so that they get opportunities to improve on their weak points. The institutional quality assurance cell (IQAC) should be vibrant enough to provide the right guidance and recommendations to those who are in need of these. 

A holistic approach to train assistant professors on pedagogy, administration and finance can minimise the time taken by them to fit into the role. 

Notes

  1. Overhead charges/​budget is a part of the overall budget of a research project allocated for meeting the costs incurred by the project implementing institute on account of administrative and infrastructural supports. The infrastructural support is narrowly defined under this budget head as physical infrastructures, such as computers, ACs, furnitures, etc. Minor equipment and gas cylinders, for example, are excluded undermining the project’s requirements. 
  2. Scully effect is the phenomenon of viewers getting unmindfully inspired by the fictional characters in TV shows or movies resulting in copying the choices and ideology of the characters.

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