"Pay and autonomy at the IITs", 'Mint', 30 September, 2009.

  Two issues appear to agitate the professors. First, following the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, the salary differential between the IIT faculty and those governed by the UGC has narrowed. Secondly, the IIT faculty claim that accretion of fresh conditions for hiring and promotion amount to an infringement of their autonomy.         We may query the demand for higher pay on two grounds. First, it is not clear that the principle that engineering faculty earn more than the rest in the public educational sector is on balance a sound one. Is it agreed then that as a nation we accept engineering to be superior to philosophy, say? This would be a principle hard to find applied in the learning universities of the world. The privileging of engineering in India is the direct fallout of the plan for the rapid industrialisation of the country in the 1950s when the IITs were formed. In its wake came a special status for science and technology. Engineering education was the natural beneficiary. With hindsight we can say that that it would have been entirely possible to raise the number of engineers without hiving-off the engineering college and paying its faculty more. The chosen strategy on the other hand resulted in a tiering of the public educational system, with the IITs on top. Now the demand by the IIT faculty for a preservation of this salary differential is no longer surprising, but that does not make it justifiable. The claim that they have had to work harder to get there is false. The economists at the Delhi School of Economics in the late 60s combined the best international qualifications with the highest class of research output. It is not at all surprising that A.K. Sen went on to win the Nobel Prize. The history of the Delhi School is not an isolated case. IIT faculty claim a higher salary on the ground that this would mimic the industry standard for engineers. However, market signals are not always available to guide public-sector pricing. Consider defence, which is publicly provided. We can now only guess at what its market value would be, and have to use other means to arrive at a reasonable salary for our jawans.

            The strike at IIT is, however, also an opportunity to set some things right. Through their dismay at the extreme regulation of procedures for hiring and promotion the IIT faculty have conveyed valuable information to government. The details need not detain us here. Suffice it to know the faculty’s view that this takes away flexibility. Take for instance the requirement that a full professor must have ten years’ experience before becoming eligible for promotion to the post of full professor and the requirement that to be faculty at an IIT you need a first Class in your master’s degree. These caveats have no academic merit whatsoever, being only a reflection of our tendency to conflate experience with quality and our childish fascination with examinations. Around the world, the only consideration at the time of entry into a college-level teaching would be the quality of the candidate’s Ph.D. We shy away from judgment calls only to our detriment. Overall the IIT faculty are right to feel having been “micro-managed” silly. 

            The minister Kapil Sibal has expressed dismay at the strike, stating that prospective Nobel Laureates must be hungry for knowledge and not be going on hunger strike. It is entirely right that faculty at India’s premier educational institutions are expected to contribute to the growth of knowledge rather than rest content as its regurgitators. At the same time, the government must seriously address the question of whether it s creating an environment that is conducive to such growth. Autonomy is not the issue. As members of publicly-funded institutions, the faculty of the IITs cannot expect to determine their employment conditions. However, the government’s rules must be credible. If not, we only get over-regulation with under-governance, the bane of education in India.