Finding Faculty: More than just a question of numbers

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The Indian Institutes of Technology are synonymous with excellence and the national academic frontier. But, the IITs’ ability to live up to these expectations in terms of research output and the quality of education is contingent on its faculty. However, of late, the shortage of faculty members in the IITs has been under the spotlight.

What is the extent of shortage? The sanctioned faculty strength is calculated according to the target faculty student ratio of 1:10. The sanctioned strength for 2015-16 stood at 776, whereas the number of academic staff stands at 537 today, which corresponds to a ratio of roughly 1:16. So where does the institute stand on this count, when compared to its Indian and global counterparts?[1]

Differing circumstances also affect the ratio: private research oriented US universities often have smaller undergraduate than graduate student populations and have low student per faculty ratios. The Indian Institute of Science, too, started its Bachelor’s program in 2011 and has an undergraduate population of only 536, around a sixth of ours. That being said, from 1998 to 2015, while the number of students in IIT Delhi nearly tripled, the number of faculty members increased only marginally. With IIT Delhi’s stature, one would presume that an academic position here would be highly coveted. This begs the question: why do we still have a shortage of around 30%, even as, several studies point toward the saturation of academic positions vis `a vis candidates in the West?

An important angle is procedure for hiring faculty. The recruitment process involves three levels of scrutiny, with applicants sometimes waiting upto 2 years before getting appointed.

  • An initial shortlisting of candidates is done on the basis of essential requirements (PhD and at least three years of post-doctoral work), in addition to other criteria which vary from department to department, such as a minimum number of publications and the quality of journals they were published in
  • The shortlisted candidates, deliver a seminar which is used to assess the relevance of their research initiatives, along with the candidate’s ability to deliver knowledge properly
  • Those who qualify are interviewed by the Selection Committee, a panel consisting of experts in relevant fields and chaired by the Director, which selects the final list of people to be hired

In addition to potentially causing candidates to accept competing offers or not turn up (for instance, in one such hiring cycle in the Physics Department, out of the 80 candidates selected for the second level, only 32 appeared), the tardiness can also hurt the candidate’s impression of the institute. Several IITs, including IIT Delhi have thus moved to the rolling advertisement system which has improved response time. An applicant may apply anytime throughout the year for a faculty position in the department of choice. While some departments offer the flexibility of delivering the seminar remotely, candidates often prefer to visit, owing to the comfort of physical presence while delivering a seminar and the ability to interact with faculty and get a ‘feel’ of the institution.

Albeit lengthy, the rigor is meant to ensure that faculty is up to the mark. Moreover, hiring in the IITs entails significantly higher stakes than in industry: the choice is not merely who to hire, but who is suitable enough to remain a part of the department for quite possibly, the next four decades. Another factor is the applicant’s area of specialization as departments often look to recruit candidates working on new fields to enhance the diversity and versatility of its research.
The significance of this investment makes the quantity and quality of the pool of candidates a crucial factor. Candidates’ demographics have transformed over the last decade, from mainly IIT alumni with PhDs from reputed universities in the US to PhDs from Indian universities who obtained their postdoctoral training from the US, and who, according to Professor Sen, are often found wanting in the face of the high standards of teaching expected from potential faculty. This change can, in part be attributed to the declining numbers of IIT students with academic aspirations. 

So what are the reasons that draw and deter prospective faculty from joining the IITs? Academia in the West, which largely follows the tenure track system, is often viewed as extremely competitive. In this system, new recruits need to demonstrate exceptional research ability and produce outstanding work over 5-7 years, after which only an excellent performance would allow faculty to obtain a tenured position, involving indefinite employment.
As an institution following employment terms similar to government jobs, IIT Delhi doesn’t have a tenure track system. The system of permanent employment means that post a 1 year probationary period, following which almost everyone is confirmed, a faculty member won’t just be terminated in the name of ‘underperformance’. This imparts a sense of academic freedom and flexibility by eliminating the ‘publish or perish’ pressure, which is regarded as a common feature of academia in the West.

However, apprehensions regarding funds, infrastructure and the scope for projects and industrial collaborations still serve as deterrents to returning to India. Concerns regarding one’s research being adversely affected, owing to a relatively less developed research community also abound. “The Indian peer research community is smaller by orders of magnitude compared to that of the US or Europe”, said Professor Sen, “Unless your work is appreciated by a large peer community it is difficult to sustain the toil of research.” Some areas of research also lend themselves better to this move–while infrastructural limitations might stymie research involving large experimental collaborations to a greater extent, faculty engaged in working on social and developmental problems might find India a more apt setting for their research.

The reasons working specifically in IIT Delhi’s favor include its legacy as a premier institution in the country and its metropolitan setting–certainly a factor where settling down in the long term is concerned. That being said, the burgeoning of institutions like the IISERs and the newer IITs have increased competition between institutions for the same candidate pool, especially when considering that many prefer positions with lower teaching commitments in institutions like IISc or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which bereft of an undergraduate program, has a student faculty ratio of 2.2[1].

What is the way ahead? There have been moves to attract more candidates, such as the faculty recruitment drive in the US, and monetary incentives like the Young Faculty Incentive Fellowship Scheme. However, hiring is not the only bottleneck involved: parallel development in infrastructure is necessary to accommodate the research needs of incoming faculty. And while there have been steps in this direction—the construction of the LHC freed up a lot of space in the old academic area to be converted into labs and offices—attempting to reach the sanctioned strength of 776 would require the existing academic space to be nearly doubled.
Other proposals have been made toward improving the system to address concerns relating to the quality of research in IITs. The 2011 MHRD appointed Kakodkar Committee report, proposed a rigorous mechanism of appraisals and a remuneration system partly dependent on the faculty member’s ‘performance’ as gauged by awards and consultancy projects. Interestingly, one of the other suggestions was the introduction of the tenure track in IITs.

While this relies on the premise that the initial tenure track period would enhance research productivity, there are several impediments to this. The tenure track is often accused of coercing professors to opt for research pursuits which have a better chance of yielding more publications in the short term, at the cost of the freedom to pursue more long term, uncertain questions. Compounded with the fact that the absence of the tenure track and greater job security is one of the attractions that IITs have to offer, it is possible that this move would in fact discourage people from returning.

Overall, how would increased faculty numbers translate into tangible changes in the academic system? The Faculty Student ratio is often regarded as an easily quantifiable and objective metric of teaching quality. A higher ratio could mean smaller class sizes, greater individual attention for students and, for faculty–the boon of increased mobility and the ability to devote more resources to research commitments. At present, in several departments, the same professors are known to take their courses every year. With more faculty members specializing in the same area, the need for a single person to take the same course annually would be resolved, and the time that one can devote to research or attending conferences, without periodic interruptions or missing classes, would increase. Practical benefits aside, as the icing on the cake–greater faculty numbers would bring us a step closer to realizing our longstanding dreams of featuring in the cream of the university rankings–the faculty student ratio alone accounts for 20% of the metric used for the QS World Rankings.

[1]: Ratios have been calculated using total student strength, Figures sourced from Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2017 & official university websites
[2]: Data sourced from Convocation Booklets and Annual Reports

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