Crafting the joyless university

Pulapre Balakrishnan


One phase of a long-standing stand-off between the University Grants Commission (UGC) and a section of our university teachers appears to have ended on June 16.As reported in the press, on that day the government of India announced that it was acceding to all but one of their demands on the rules governing their functioning. Some peace would have been bought no doubt but it cannot really further the principle that at the end of the day, after everyone’s rights and responsibilities have been granted and codified, the experience of the university must be a joyful one for our youth. There is some reason to believe that it is not always so in India today, and this is a pity.

            There are three components to the UGC’s package governing the faculty. Of these, mostly two have proved to be bones of contention between the two parties. These have to do with the mandated workload for teachers and student evaluation of courses, including of the lecturer herself. But it is the third component that needs to be scrutinised for its suitability. This is the assessment of teacher performance on a range of activities ideally centred on research, or what laypersons would recognise as the contribution made to the stock of our knowledge. As a measure of faculty performance the UGC has devised the Academic Performance Indicator (API) which is the score the teacher has attained in all activities combined. 

            On the workload, having attempted to increase it by 25 percent via a notification issued on May 10, the UGC has now climbed down and restored status quo whereby a teacher has to undertake 16 Direct Teaching Hours a week. This may not appear particularly strenuous to the public, who are used to a 40 hour week! However, they may not be taking in to account that every hour of lecturing, or even discussion, requires several hours of reading and preparation, these two being distinct tasks. So how are we to arrive at what is a reasonable workload for our university teachers? I would have thought that it is obvious that in this globalised world of knowledge production one approach would be to seek to approximate the global norm. Were we to do that we would notice immediately that India’s college teachers have to teach far too much. They teach more hours per week and for more weeks in the year than their counterparts, at least in the anglophone world. I shall explain how I arrive at this conclusion but first draw attention to the fact that with so much of teaching to do they are left with little time to read for their classes, which directly impinges upon the quality of the lectures students receive. This is as far as the dissemination of knowledge is concerned. We are yet to address the creation of knowledge. It is not only that a heavy load of teaching crowds out the time left for research, but too much of teaching deadens the intellect which requires leisure and solitude to flourish. So while the UGC’s decision not to increase the workload may appear conciliatory it must not lead us to overlook the possibility that the existing work norm itself may be unacceptably high. A constructive suggestion is made here. Instead of approaching the problem from the perspective of a mandatory number of teaching hours it could be viewed within a framework that starts out by setting the number of courses a teacher must teach in an year. The global benchmark is four courses, two being taught in each of the two semesters. Nevertheless, this would yet leave open the issue of the number of hours of lecture per course. Again, globally, the norm would be no more that 40 hours per course. I understand that in some universities in India it is as much as 60 hours per course, no doubt determined by the number of hours lecturers must teach per year. This approach has the consequence that students are now forced to attend far too many lectures. As with teachers so to for the students, too many lecture hours can be a disaster. Passive participation kills all creativity as there is no responsibility imposed on the student to engage. The student’s misery is compounded when the quality of lecturing is poor. The answer to both overworked teachers and deadened students is to drastically reduce the lecture hours. Back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the proposal that a teacher does four courses of forty hours each in an year shows that India’s teachers, under present UGC norms, are teaching approximately a hundred percent more than their peers. The consequence of this for the quality of our universities can be imagined.

            The second of the bones of contention between the UGC and the teachers concerns student evaluation of courses. Surely students must be given the opportunity to assess the instruction they receive, in particular the quality of lectures? While there is scope for immaturity here, the answer to this is to take the evaluations with a pinch of salt, not to scrap them. The university needs to know how the courses that it offers are perceived so that course correction is possible. There is no substitute for student evaluation here. Teachers must learn to treat this as part of give and take. There is no professional or ethical ground on which they can refuse to stand up and be evaluated by their students. The UGC is right to recommend student evaluation of courses, even though we may argue over the metrics.

            Finally, the third aspect of governance of our universities by the UGC. The government’s statement of June 16 makes no mention of it, though it is most controversial component. Represented by the API, this prescribes minimum scores to be attained before a teacher can be considered for promotion. Mainly two elements are involved. One is the specification of a mandatory number of years to be spent in each category, ben Assistant and full Professor, and the other is the assessment of research. Both are problematic. There is absolutely no reason why the number of years of experience in a post should be a consideration in assessing a teacher’s intellectual progress. Things had been done differently in India in the last century. C.V. Raman came into the university from government and Amartya Sen had been made a full professor when he was all of twenty three years. They went on to win Nobel Prizes for India. The least credible part of the API is the scoring of research. Scores are to be given to publications according to the journal in which they have been published, based on a schedule to be notified by the UGC. I had written in these pages soon as the present government was installed why this is problematic and shall not repeat myself but state the reasoning proposed then. Evaluating articles by the journals in which they are published pre-judges their intrinsic worth by privileging the prestige of the journal over the quality of the article. Even though it is a reasonable conjecture that prestigious journals use high standards when publishing articles, it is not always the case that less prestigious journals do not contain very good work. The same goes for the UGC’s privileging of ‘international’ over the merely ‘national’ journals. Finally, the API awards marks for projects undertaken, correlated with the money value of the grant amount. It encourages a form of academic entrepreneurship divorced from the pursuit of knowledge. All in all, the UGC’s “rule by numbers”, as the anthropologist U. Kalpagam has characterised governmentality in colonial India, has turned the university into a space in which teachers chase numerical targets to survive. The resulting neurosis cannot but spill over to the students.        

            For a full half-century India’s hapless public have faced a continuing deterioration of our higher education system. The blame must be laid squarely at the door of the UGC which has all along enjoyed unbridled power in the regulation of the universities with scant accountability. Its small-mindedness have succeeded in turning the Indian university into a wasteland, and it has got away with it. The irony is that while the Commission pressurises the universities to maintain standards by submitting themselves to rating, were its own record as regulator to be assessed it is unlikely to cover itself in glory. A public audit of the functioning of the UGC is required before it can do further damage.


The author teaches economics at Ashoka University. He is currently Visiting Professor, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.