“Radically reforming higher education”, ‘The Hindu’, June 2, 2014
The higher education sector in India cries out for reform. The public have flagged issues ranging from the politicisation of public institutions, a perceived lack of regulation of faculty and the desirability of creating knowledge as opposed to disseminating it. Some of these issues fall within the domain of governance; others under the ambit of regulation. As the institutions concerned vary in terms of scope and intent, it would make little sense to specify one governance structure and mechanism for all. However, there is only one regulatory body for India’s universities, the University Grants Commission (UGC). This makes it relevant to make proposals that can be implemented via this body.
Actually, a form of regulation of the faculty does exist: college lecturers are required to teach for around 16 hours a week. This must amount to at least three times the global average. It is anybody’s guess what the quality of these lectures is, given that young teachers have no time to prepare for them. Note that the suggestion of a cap on lecture hours is not motivated out of sympathy for lecturers as much as out of the concern that this mode of content delivery encourages passive attendance by students. To address this concern, tutorials should be instituted to complement lectures. This is not just to ensure that students have a second chance to comprehend difficult ideas, but to encourage them to actually communicate what they have learnt. Spoon-feeding spells the death of imagination, leaving young Indians far behind in the global race to creativity.
Much has been said about the lack of faculty accountability, especially in relation to high salaries following adoption of the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission. The surest way of inculcating it would be to institute student evaluation of courses. Globally, this practice is not only routine but its results are available in the public domain. There is no case for postponing its immediate implementation in India. It is important, however, that these evaluations are treated in the right spirit. They are not meant to control the lecturer as much as instil confidence in students. They are also meant to act as an incentive to better performance. Student evaluation of courses publicly displayed is the surest way of instilling accountability among faculty. It should also be taken into account when a lecturer comes up for promotion. All this would substantially take care of the problem flagged not only of teacher absenteeism but also of the poor quality of instruction. At the same time, once teachers have taught what was expected of them, made themselves available to meet students at pre-specified times, and participated in departmental duties, they must be left to their own devices. It is not clear what public interest is served by expecting lecturers to be present all day in buildings that have no individual offices, up-to-date libraries and computers or even decent toilets.
The purpose of a university is the creation of knowledge. As Indians are generally Anglophone, they have immediate access to a very large body of knowledge, which is not the case with those located in some other parts of the global south. However, in the republic of knowledge, we are largely consumers rather than producers. This is related to our approach to knowledge creation. A few years ago, the UGC instituted a form of research evaluation based on a points system. This approach to governing knowledge creation is subsumed under the metric Academic Performance Indicator (API), a quantitative summary of a lecturer’s output. Research itself is scored on the basis of a ranking of journals in which it is published. In practice, one of two approaches appears to have been followed. In one, the faculty adopts a scheme on its own. This runs the risk of majoritarianism or of compromise, neither of which are in public interest. A second approach is based on the ranking of journals according to their “impact factor.” Impact is calculated as the number of citations of articles in a journal in relation to the number of articles published in it. It was originally created as a tool to help librarians identify journals to purchase, not as a measure of the scientific quality of research in an article. In July 2013, a group of scientists and publishers issued a statement called the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). While identifying peer-reviewed papers as central to an evaluation of research output, they argued for eliminating the use of journal-based metrics, such as the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) in funding, appointment and promotion considerations. It was recommended that research ought to be assessed on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which it was published. It is significant that among the original signatories of DORA was the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We need to heed this call. Quantitative scoring based on JIF may wear the garb of objectivity, and cardinality may even bring with it the comfort of transparency to some, but it cannot be a substitute for assessing knowledge creation. The long-standing practice in India had been to have research peer-reviewed and these reports considered by a committee of experts. There should be a return to this practice as it is superior to the points-based system which prejudges content and quality. Finally, in issuing a guideline for assessing research, the UGC must focus exclusively on the researcher’s contribution to knowledge and cease privileging “foreign” publications over “Indian” ones and “international” conferences over “national” ones.
As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, a recent experience is worth recounting. An internationally decorated Indian academic was recently invited by Delhi University to participate in a selection interview for lecturers. His heart sank as he observed the abilities of the first set of interviewees. However, as the day wore on, his spirits lifted, for the quality of candidates steadily improved, and a suitable candidate finally emerged. Upon enquiry, our academic was told that the candidates had been presented to the selection committee in descending order of their API! The nation looks to the UGC to address the pathetic state of its higher education sector.