In 2007, the government of India decided to establish eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) across the country. The move was met with apprehension by IIT faculty and alumni that these new institutions may not succeed as expected, given that the existing IITs themselves had challenges with hiring and retaining faculty—a resource that is at the heart of any academic enterprise and, so, very scarce. With top teachers and researchers difficult to come by, they felt the “IIT” brand would take a beating. And yet, the decision to establish more IITs was long overdue, given that the IIT system, left to itself, had grown at about 2% per annum over a 50-year period, a period with high demand for IIT graduates and increasing educational aspirations of young men and women. The IITs, along with BITS Pilani, were perhaps the only institutions that could grow without compromising on quality. Others did not have the ecosystem or the governance structures to do so.
Benefiting from hindsight, however, the manner in which the new IITs were established must be faulted. The eight new IITs were established in the same year (and at a time when the existing seven IITs were struggling to expand student strength in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes by 54% on account of OBC quota), forcing them to compete among themselves and with the existing IITs for the same pool of available faculty.
Another major challenge was the decision to locate these new IITs in cities or towns where available infrastructure is weak. Today, potential faculty members opt to work at an institution but only if they have ready access to high quality infrastructure, including employment opportunities for spouses, good schools for children, medical facilities and connectivity to the rest of the world.
Of these eight IITs, at best three are on track to succeed largely because of location and partly because of the leadership in these institutions. It would have been better if, for instance, a new IIT was set up every two or three years, and in locations adjacent to major metropolitan cities. This would have allowed the new IITs to invite superannuated professors from existing IITs to kick-start their programmes.
There are still ways for these new IITs to improve. While attracting and retaining faculty will remain a challenge, they should adapt practices that similar institutions in India or abroad have found to be fruitful in recruiting and retaining faculty.
First, consider sourcing faculty from the world over, including the Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America—the powerhouses for producing good PhDs in science and engineering. Reaching out to PhD graduates and post-docs using visits abroad, meaningful presence on the internet, and advertising in places that matter is needed. What is also needed is using technology to engage with potential faculty and taking decisions quickly—essentially letting them know how much their talent is valued by making them offers that they cannot refuse. This could include a personal pay that recognises their potential for excellence as also research-initiation grants that help kick-start their research careers. Above all, each new IIT must create a supportive environment that is conducive for faculty members to excel in teaching and research, and grow within their professional community.
Other innovations might be worth exploring. For example, creating a separate track for faculty members that are expected to specialise in teaching. Such “Professors of Practice” could receive necessary training in subjects they are expected to teach as also in pedagogy that includes handouts, practice sessions and teaching/learning materials specific to the courses. The latter may include selective use of content developed for courses offered as MOOCs. And blend the same with hands-on practice sessions in classrooms with fewer students. This approach will also be relevant particularly in a network of colleges that follow the same curricula.
As we expand opportunities for more students to study science or engineering, we need to find innovative ways to train faculty that is otherwise not geared to pursue a career in research. The one issue that academic leaders and university administrators have shied away from addressing has to do with revising wholesale the compensation structure for faculty, at least in good institutions in India. Unless we take that up head-on, we will continue to debate and struggle to discover ways to address faculty shortages, while the best talent is lured away seeking careers elsewhere, including multinational research labs in India or universities abroad.
Bijendra Nath Jain
The author is vice-chancellor, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani. Views are personal.