In India’s barrelling economy, teachers are the weakest link

In India’s barrelling economy, teachers are the weakest link

New Delhi: The recruiter was supposed to be judging the students, but on that specific day, he had his eyes on the professor.

Prof Sujoy Chakravarty, 35, would make a prize catch for an investment bank. With a PhD in economics from Purdue University in Indiana in eastern US and years of teaching experience at the University of Texas and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Ahmedabad, Chakravarty could easily negotiate a fat salary for himself at places such as Morgan Stanley or JPMorgan Chase, spending his days analysing balance sheets and making investments.

Instead, he wanted to teach, Chakravarty told the recruiter. In fact, the life of an educator—intellectual pursuits, fixed working hours, months of vacation—appealed to him so much that he wasn’t tempted by a salary many, many times what he was making as a college professor.

But Chakravarty is a dying breed. As salaries for professors stagnate and funding for research evaporate, colleges across the nation have seen their ranks of teachers diminish. Positions remain vacant, with advertisements yielding a few dismal candidates. Students are taught by professors close to their retirement age, by postgraduate students or not at all. In the 1,475 colleges that teach engineering and technology across all the states, over 40,000 teachers are needed, according to a 2006 study by the All India Council of Technical Education.

“What we need are the front-runners, great teachers who are able to do research," says D.K. Pandya, the head of department for Physics at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who for two years worked on a faculty forum focused on recruitment. “But often, the best people don’t even apply."

But what is more alarming is this statistic: by 2011—just four years from now—that shortage of teachers will swell to 2,31,000. Almost 90% of this shortage is in areas that have driven? India’s? recent? growth: computer science, information technology and electrical engineering, according to the study, which was written by a committee chaired by P. Rama Rao, a professor in Hyderabad who has been warning about this impending crisis.

At IIT Delhi, one of the most elite universities in India, at least 133 positions remain vacant, out of a total sanctioned faculty strength of 583, according to an official in the registrar’s office, who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “We get some response when we place an advertisement," he said. “But of course, salaries are a huge issue."

The salaries at the seven IITs are set by the Union government and an assistant professor—like Chakravarty, who chose teaching at IIT, Delhi over investment banking—earns Rs31,880 a month. For a 30% pay cut, the assistant professor could get free housing on campus. But with a PhD and great research experience, that same professor could work in the country’s IT sector for salaries up to six times that amount. Overseas, or even in investment banking here in India, salaries for equally qualified candidates start at $80,000 a year and could easily cross $100,000 annually, according to employees at Morgan Stanley, Motorola and Birla Software.

Last week, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, at a conference attended by Arjun Singh, the Union minister for human resources development, described the average Indian college: “Shabby classrooms, barely equipped laboratories, and poorly maintained libraries," all the results of a resource crunch that has “most affected the creation of faculty positions."

“Higher education unfortunately has been the sick child of education, either by design or default," Singh conceded at the conference. “It is no longer serving the cause of the young people, and we have to get out of this."

Nearly one-third of India’s colleges and universities are currently operating with fewer than 80% of the teaching staff they need, and at two-thirds of the colleges, barely 10% of the professors have PhDs, according to a survey by Mariamma A. Varghese, a senior consultant for the accreditation council.

In engineering colleges, there is an immediate shortage of 30,000 PhDs and by 2011, that shortage will rise to 70,000. (Usually, a professor should have a PhD, and an assistant or associate professor should at least have a masters’.)

In spite of these challenges, many of these colleges have long produced the engineers who have been the bulwark of India’s new-found economic prosperity, working at companies such as Infosys Technologies Ltd, Wipro Ltd, and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd to drive the software industry. Others have joined infrastructure firms, or taken up other technical jobs that have helped them rise into the middle class. Now, after nearly 10 years of 8% economic growth, one thing has become clear: India’s educational institutes have too few teachers to churn out the number of graduates the country needs to enjoy another 10 years of such growth.

“This is now beginning to impact india economically. We need an enormous pool of highly educated, skilled people to make us grow at that rate," said T.V. Mohandas Pai, who after 10 years of being the chief financial officer of Infosys took up what he said was a bigger challenge: director of human resources at Infosys.

“But there are not enough teachers, not enough graduates, and this shortage will wipe out 2-3% of growth a year unless something is done immediately."

This is not a problem that is unique to India. Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corp. has consistently lobbied the US government to expand investment on higher education. The US spends 1.40% of its much bigger GDP on higher education, while India spends just 0.37%.

At just those 1,475 institutes that teach engineering, Rama Rao estimated that at least Rs2,000 crore would be needed to meet the shortage of teachers, but the government has made firm commitments to just about half that amount.

Some of that money will go towards establishing three new IITs and one new IIM at a cost of about Rs86 crore. Another 20 National Institutes of Technology, which were previously called regional engineering colleges run either by the state or the Union government, will see their budget increase to about Rs893 crore. Still, that investment is a 156% increase in the government’s previous budget for higher and technical education.

At the same time, these measures don’t address a problem that is endemic to most of engineering colleges: the low standards of teaching. In Tamil Nadu, 150 engineering colleges (out of 274) had a failure rate of 65%, (which means 65% of the students failed).

The National Association of Software and Service Companies, which represents blue-chip companies that have led India’s growth in the last few years, says less than one in four of India’s engineering graduates are employable—a direct result, critics say, of the lack of qualified teachers in India’s colleges. The remaining 75% can barely speak English, don’t work in groups or have the requisite technical skills.

“We are getting a badly educated and badly trained workforce," said Pai, the human resources director for Infosys.

Almost all of Infosys’s new hires go through a 16-week educational course that costs the company about $5,000, or Rs2,00,000 to educate each student. Most of that time is spent teaching fundamentals that the students should have learnt in college, said Pai.

“This is the biggest challenge for growth in the next 10 years; not power, not infrastructure, because at least in those sectors we have a national policy," he said.