Universal Grabbing Commission

Indian Express


Universal Grabbing Commission

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Posted: Feb 23, 2009 at 2249 hrs IST

The routine processes of organisations sometimes shed such startling light on their true character. The draft UGC notification on revision of pay scales and qualification of appointments of teachers shows just how we have taken such a fundamentally wrong turn in higher education. At first look the objectives of this exercise seem innocuous enough, and even desirable. There needs to be greater self-consciousness about these qualifications. There needs to be greater rationalisation of the work load of faculty to ensure that all faculty, in their own ways are contributing to institutions. But the principles on which the performance appraisal system is being designed is more a testament to the perversity of our regulators than a recipe for improvement. First, there is an issue of principle. No one should doubt that there needs to be a debate and some guidelines over just how we judge faculty. But it is absolutely astonishing that we presume that all universities, whatever their character and location, should be governed by the same guidelines. Part of what makes a university a university is the authority its faculty have to give the university a distinct identity. But universities are now increasingly being treated as appendages in a vast centralised and bureaucratic system. It is the height of presumption to think that one centralised agency can design rules appropriate for hundreds of universities. Our regulators are so excessively and over-weeningly concerned about rooting out weeds that they end up killing the flowers as well, leaving a vast barren landscape.

Second, in these guidelines there is an excessive concern with numerical formulas. The most curious one is that to be appointed director of physical education in a university, you need a PhD and 15 books or publications in indexed journals. I would seriously worry about what direction to physical education such an overqualified nerd would give. Why can’t a top-class coach without any of these qualifications be appointed? This is perhaps the most facetious example. But numerical requirements are everywhere. For example, the experience requirements ensure that young scholars cannot be appointed professors; you have to have 12 years of experience. To put it in perspective, in American universities you come up for tenure after six to eight years. Amartya Sen was appointed professor at a relatively young age. It couldn’t happen under these guidelines. You have to have ten publications. What information might this magical number “ten” give you?

It gets even better. In the performance appraisal system you get equal points for publishing in an international journal and for merely participating in a conference. You get more points for participating in refresher courses than for publishing a book. In the weightage assigned, research is given less weight for assistant than full professors. Why should research be less important for young faculty? And you get considerably more points for participating in committees, coordinating extracurricular activities than for research. Perhaps this is the true objective of universities: replace homo academicus with homo commiticus.Then there is the revelation about the ambition we have about India’s academia. If you publish a book or an article in an international journal or press you get double the points than if you publish in India. Admittedly there is a problem in India. In many fields we do not have internationally recognised refereed journals or publishers. Benchmarking to global standards is not always a bad thing. But the trouble is that this is being done indiscriminately. “International” is not being defined at all: why should a fifth-rate Autstralian journal necessarily get more points than an Indian publication? Are we saying that in the long run the only authoritative forms of knowledge we will accept are ones that are validated abroad? We don’t want to be world leaders. Instead of asking the real question, how do we get professional standards up in India, we are simply telling our faculty: don’t care about the production of knowledge in India, it will be valued less. In every other field reform means building India’s strength and brand; in education it means outsourcing to the West.

There are all kinds of bizarre moves that treat faculty like bean counters. You will be awarded points for mobilising research funds. Mobilising research funds is a good idea. But it’s unclear why it should be on par with publications in terms of awarding points. Or why doing reports for Government should be given more than twice the points that publications get? Why should we still insist that your master’s degree should be in the discipline you are going to teach when we are talking about redrawing disciplinary boundaries? The NET exam, one attempt to standardise quality measurement for entry-level university teachers, has had no positive effect on the quality of teachers being recruited. While the guidelines rightly emphasise that there should be a minimum number of teaching days, etc, its main thrust is to kill research in Indian universities. The net teaching obligations on faculty will go up; the number of direct teaching hours being envisaged will ensure that people are not thinking much about what they are teaching.

One can debate how points should be assigned for performance. But the UGC would do well not to supplant itself in the place of universities. These guidelines need to be corrected by more than just tinkering. They are indicative of fundamental pathologies of Indian higher education. The most insidious one is this. Higher education is fundamentally about judgment and the cultivation of reason, not formulaic control. Even more insidious is the enervating of spirit these regulations represent. The UGC now proposes to insist not just that faculty teach, administer, do research, etc. In addition, they spend a designated number of hours on campus. Given the fact that most universities do not even have minimally dignified facilities for teachers, this requirement is a joke. It is more a recipe for invigorating teacher politics than improving education. But it infantilises university professors in ways that will have deleterious effects. One can only hope that the professoriate, a dying breed, will finally wake up and that the UGC is meant to serve the universities, not the other way round; that diversity and freedom are central to good institutions, and that no bureaucratic numerical formulas can substitute for the work of judgment.

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