Pay and autonomy at IITs

Pay and autonomy at IITs

Two issues appeared to agitate the striking professors of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). First, following the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, the salary differential between the IIT faculty and those governed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) has narrowed. Secondly, the IIT faculty claim that the recent accretion of fresh conditions for hiring and promotion amounts to an infringement on their autonomy.

We may query the demand for higher pay on two grounds. First, it is not clear that the principle that engineering faculty should earn more than the rest in the public educational sector is a sound one. Is it commonly agreed upon in India that engineering is superior to philosophy? As a principle this would be hard to find applied in the great universities of the world.

The privileging of engineering in India is the direct legacy of the plan for rapid industrialization of the country in the 1950s when the IITs were formed. Engineering education was the natural beneficiary. With hindsight, we can say that it would have been entirely possible at that stage to increase the number of engineers without hiving off the engineering college and paying its faculty more. Instead, India chose a strategy which resulted in a tiering of its public educational system, placing the IITs on top. Therefore, the demand by the IIT faculty for preserving this salary differential is not surprising, but that does not make it justifiable.

The claim that they have had to work harder to get there is untenable. The faculty of the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1960s combined the finest international qualifications with the highest class of research. Amartya Sen went on to win a Nobel Prize for work initiated there. Secondly, IIT faculty representatives have claimed 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.

Though their demand for higher pay may not meet with much sympathy, the faculty of the IITs have a point when they say they are being micromanaged. Through their dismay at the extreme regulation of hiring and promotion in their institution, they have conveyed specifically valuable information to the government. The details need not detain us here. But it is sufficient to know that the faculty argue that this takes away flexibility. Take, for instance, the requirement that a professor must have 10 years of experience before becoming eligible for promotion to the post of full professor, or 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. Around the world, the main consideration at the time of entry into college-level teaching is the quality of the candidate’s PhD. We shy away from judgement calls when we make appointments in India only to our detriment.

Minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal has expressed dismay at the strike, stating that prospective Nobel laureates must be hungry for knowledge and ought not to be going on a hunger strike. Faculty at India’s premier institutions should 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 is 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 higher education in India. The strike at the IITs may well be an opportunity to set some things right.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is senior fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Comment at