Home / Politics / Wage woes | Teach at IITs--just for the joy of it

New Delhi: If 32-year-old Shouri Chatterjee were not teaching at the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, one of the 13 such schools in the country, he may have been making millions at a US company, may be Halliburton Co., the world’s second biggest oil-field services firm.

In 2000, the Indian arm of the Houston-based company did offer him a job after he graduated from IIT Madras, but he declined the offer to enrol in a research programme at Columbia University. Several years later, he quit a million-dollar job with a US computer design firm to return to India to teach at IIT Delhi.

Attracting talent: (clockwise, from top) IIT Delhi Faculty Association chairman S.S. Murthy in a laboratory at the institute’s campus; assistant professor Shouri Chatterjee; and the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

The protest has since been addressed, with the Union ministry of human resource development (HRD), which oversees the functioning of the IITs, and the faculty reaching a compromise of sorts. The ministry said the rules they opposed were only policy guidelines that weren’t cast in stone, and the professors agreed to call off their protest.

Still, the faculty campaign has served to highlight basic issues related to teaching at the IITs: the poor salaries that instructors are paid, almost as if teaching at an IIT involved a trade-off between handling a class of India’s best and brightest and getting paid well for doing so; and the ability to attract young teachers such as Chatterjee.

The government’s proposal to introduce contractual teaching jobs at the entry level in the IITs and restrict the appointment of fresh PhDs to the faculty are other issues.

Three years ago, when Chatterjee joined IIT Delhi after a brief stint at a Silicon Valley chip design firm he had signed up with after his PhD, the IITs were aggressively looking for young teachers.

Now, as then, the schools need to urgently find young teachers. And the policy that has now been recast as a guideline—it is only when they start hiring that the IITs will find out just how much the government is going to insist on guiding them—compromises their ability to do that, said Chatterjee.

That’s because while the hiring policy at the time Chatterjee was recruited envisaged taking on these young PhDs at level III (in terms of pays and perks), the new guideline says they will be hired on contract and move to level III after three years.

In contrast, Chatterjee, who was hired on level III, was moved to level IV recently. That would mean a salary of between Rs37,400 and Rs67,000 a month.

Many instructors at the IITs see their low salaries as a measure of how much their positions are valued or respected. “Obviously, you got to give those who teach some respect and at least as much as their students start with," said Chatterjee, an assistant professor.

Gaps all around

The salaries could be one reason why, even with their old recruiting policies, the IITs haven’t managed to find all the instructors they need.

Figures at the seven older IITs disclose an estimated cumulative shortage of at least 900 faculty members.

IIT Bombay, for instance, has 111 vacant teaching positions, IIT Madras 60 and IIT Guwahati 57. Even at IIT Delhi, where Chatterjee was one of 38 PhDs hired three years ago, at least 10% of the faculty positions are open.

It’s not that the IITs aren’t hiring. It’s just that there aren’t enough young, qualified and experienced candidates.

The government, in a 16 September notification, redesignated the post of lecturers-cum-post-doctoral-fellows as assistant professors and made entry into teaching positions at the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) more stringent. It set a doctoral degree with a first class in the preceding degree as the required qualification for assistant professors, associate professors and professors.

It also said professors should have a minimum 10 years’ experience with four years as assistant professors at institutes of excellence such as the IITs, IIMs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). IIT faculty members protested that the enhanced eligibility criteria interfered with the institutes’ autonomy in hiring and promoting their own teachers.

“Statistically speaking, roughly 90% hirings have been of faculty who have 0-2 years of post-PhD experience. But we do need more teachers and hence the recruitments happen all the year round," said Gautam Barua, director, IIT Guwahati.

At IIT Bombay, 500 faculty members teach 5,500 students. By 2014, when the institute expands its intake to implement a 27% reservation in admissions for students from the so-called other backward classes, it would need 800 teachers for 8,500 students.

IIT Madras will have 8,000 students on campus by 2014, and will need at least 200 more teachers by then, said Singa Perumal, dean (administration) at the institute.

A report prepared by the IIT Delhi Alumni Association in 2004 estimated that at least 20% of its most experienced faculty members would retire in the next seven years.

“Attrition is another factor why we (the IITs) lose out on faculty," said Perumal.

The student-faculty ratio at the older IITs is already around 12:1 against the 9:1 that’s considered optimal. The seven older IITs—in Kharagpur, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur, Delhi, Guwahati and Roorkee—have been sharing their academic resources with the six newer ones in Hyderabad, Ropar, Gandhinagar, Patna, Bhubaneswar and Rajasthan.

“This is something we have to do. Several professors from the institute continue to take classes at the IIT we are mentoring," said Chatterjee, whose institute is mentoring the IIT in Ropar.

Hard sell

The IITs have no option but to expand the faculty. There are advertisements on websites, alumni abroad and incoming faculty members are being asked to advertise positions and the institutes are even searching the Web for potential candidates.

“We try and catch them young. We make offers even before they have submitted their PhD theses, offering them a senior lecturer’s position on contract as soon as they have submitted their theses. Many a time, we also offer automatic transition to assistant professor when they defend their PhD thesis," said Barua.

Contrary to the trend in the 1980s and 1990s when most IITians headed overseas to pursue their dollar dreams, the youth-friendly recruitment drive has brought to IITs, in recent years, the likes of Chatterjee and Vinay Joseph Ribeiro, also an assistant professor at IIT Delhi’s department of computer engineering, who took up teaching after a year of research assistantship at Rice University in Houston. His brother Rahul Ribeiro did the same.

This was also the time when advertisements for the faculty positions on the IIT websites were hard selling teaching jobs, down to the tiniest of perks. “Our ads even said how the institute could help them get a gas connection if they were coming from other cities or overseas," said a faculty member in charge of recruitment at one of the older IITs.

Once the government notification is implemented, many at the IITs say attracting faculty at starting levels would be tough.

“In fact, anyone who has had a career track like mine would think twice before joining," said Chatterjee, who has been pursuing his friends with teaching jobs in the US to join the IITs.

In simple terms, a fresh recruit for entry level teaching positions at the IITs would now, once the notification is implemented, join on a three-year-contract, after which one would move to grade III, which ensures a teaching assistantship on probation, a grade Chatterjee joined at.

“This means six years to reach PB (pay band) IV. Now, we won’t be able to offer anyone joining us on contract the job of an assistant professor on PB III and more than Rs22,000-23,000 as starting salary," Barua explained.

Quality debate

Ministry officials argue that this has been done to ensure quality in recruitments. “Even in universities abroad, one needs at least five-six years to become a regular faculty. As for salaries, one can always want more. There is no end to it," higher education secretary R.P. Agarwal told Mint.

A meeting between ministry officials and faculty members from the IITs on 2 October didn’t yield much for the institutes, except that HRD minister Kapil Sibal assured them that they could be “flexible" with some of the appointment norms in case of “exceptional" applicants.

“One can’t join the IITs without being exceptional. This very clause is uncalled for," said an IIT director, requesting anonymity.

Narayana Prasad Santhanam, an alumnus of IIT Madras and currently an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii in the US, agreed with the quality debate, but said it is not the number of years of work experience, but the quality of research of an applicant that should matter. “There are guidelines on research and its quality. In US universities, post-doctoral experience is hardly a necessity for recruitment in teaching positions. In my case, I have been doing post-doctoral research at the university I am teaching at."

Santhanam said he also knows of several friends, still doing their PhDs, who have been informally interviewed for teaching positions at the IITs back home. “I also know a few of my friends who want to apply. For them, this (the government order) will be an issue."

Ananth Krishnan, chairman of the board of governors at IIT Kanpur, who also taught at the institute for more than a decade, argues that most who join IITs to teach aren’t guided by money. “There is a certain joy to teaching at the IITs. People come from everywhere to teach their brightest of students and for their love of research," he said.

The faculty isn’t seeking corporate salaries, said S.S. Murthy, chairman of the IIT Delhi Faculty Association. “It’s true that many people do overlook salaries to join the IITs, but then I know of many cases where a faculty (member) has lesser salary than that of his student who has just passed out (of an IIT) and landed a job! At least we can pay the teachers that much."

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