The education sector can not be shielded from reforms — the chairman of the University Grants Commission, Arun Nigvekar, said recently. After all, the sector must be prepared for the challenges it will face when it opens up to foreigners, post-April 2004. Some reforms have already been instituted. For example, premier institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology have begun demanding huge fees from students.
It is the turn of the teachers to face the music now as the UGC proposes to hire teaching staff for colleges and universities on contract. The UGC chairman tried to justify such appointments saying this was a regular practice in the West. Indeed, every time Indians talk of reforms, they look to the West. They forget that what they want to do is substitute one set of systems copied from the West, with another set of systems practised by some other Western countries at some other point of time.
Contracts may be common in the West, but neither are they a new concept in India. Shortage of funds has compelled many colleges and universities to appoint part-time teachers, who often carry on for years. But possibly, what Nigvekar wants are full-time contractual appointments. These too are not new. Ad hoc appointments of teachers are often made against leave, or even permanent vacancies. These appointments are supposed to be for short periods but often stretch for years. Such part-time teachers are paid a minimum salary, without perks or even job security. In some cases, the judiciary has intervened to regularize their service.
Such appointments are a regular feature in West Bengal. What Nigvekar probably has in mind are five-year contracts which may be renewed if the teacher is popular and shows considerable academic work. These conditions may appear very reasonable — after all, a bright academic record does not guarantee teaching abilities and students are the best judge. But some teachers may well curry favour with the students’ wing of political parties in order to become popular. Thus, unless the political system is changed, the report card of teachers may well be written in party offices.
Two, many students are just not meritorious enough to be in institutions of higher education — they are there because they have no other alternative. Is it fair to let such students evaluate the performance of a teacher'
As for academic work, publish or perish was the slogan in Western academia until recently. Much insignificant and even bogus research was produced as a result. Recently, the vice-chancellor of an Indian university was found guilty of plagiarism. Also, given the poor quality of libraries and laboratories in the country, researchers have to frequently give college the miss and visit libraries and laboratories elsewhere.
West is best
Teachers in the West are given far better salaries and other facilities than their Indian colleagues. A teacher in a Western university may be retrenched if he fails to deliver, but he can fall back on social security if and when he is.
The UGC chairman wants the competence levels of Indian teachers to match that of foreigners. Many Indian universities have attained standards of international excellence. But there are many others which lack even the most minimum infrastructure. Very little planning went into the establishment of educational institutions in the country. The question of standardiza- tion was also never seriously considered.
Contracts will not improve matters unless the general educational environment is reformed. And for this, money is needed. Saving on salaries thus cannot be the only idea behind the new proposal. Some teachers’ bodies have protested against the UGC’s move, but the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Association seems indifferent, at least for now. And why not — its patron, the left government in West Bengal, won’t allow it to bare its teeth, for obvious reasons.