How justified were IIT professors in their recent protest against government proposals for the institution?

On September 24, the strange phenomenon of a “working day fast” was observed in the campuses of the Indian Institutes of Technology by professors protesting against proposals for the IIT system issued by the Ministry of Human Resources Development.

While the stand-off at the IITs has come to an end for now with talks held on Gandhi Jayanthi, the protest led by the All India IIT Faculty Federation (AIIITFF) has induced serious discussion on the importance of faculty and institutional autonomy in the higher education system.

“The teaching faculty is the most important component of the education system,” says former director of IIT-Madras P.V. Indiresan. “It is important to make sure that they are paid adequately and treated fairly.”

Weighing in on the debate on paying IIT professors more than those of other colleges, he says that apart from the research opportunities, there were always perks including research facilities, housing, and other perquisites that made the pay of IIT professors more attractive than that of other professors.

He says that it was unfortunate of IIT faculty to have undertaken the so-called September 24 protest. “If they feel they are good enough, they can always join other institutions. This was unnecessary,” he says.

[This view was also shared in public by Padma Shri awardee and professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT-Madras Ashok Jhunjhunwala. Prof. Jhunjhunwala opined that the matter could have been resolved in-house through negotiations instead of “bringing down the prestige of the IITs.” The AIIITFF has issued a White Paper stating that the “working day fast” did not lower the dignity of IITs. It insisted that the issue was of pay and autonomy, and also that the faculty had worked while being on fast on that day.]

To make the higher education system more efficient, he calls for an open negotiable system of paying professor’s salaries as he says is done in the United States. “If they have the freedom to negotiate with the institution, over time, professors will be paid based on their ‘market value’ fairly,” he opines.

On the issue of autonomy, M. Anandakrishnan, chairman, board of governors, IIT-Kanpur, says that the Ministry has rarely interfered with the working of the IITs. The Ministry’s proposals would have been discussed by the chairmen of the boards of governors and directors of the IITs before they would have taken effect. He says that institutional autonomy is key to the higher education system. “The Goverdhan Mehta Committee made a slew of recommendations both on pay and autonomy. The Committee visited and sought the views of all the IITs, NITs and many other institutions. It also suggested that both Centre and State universities should have similar structures and pay scales.” At the same time, he justifies paying IIT professors more than those at other institutions. “If you go to private engineering colleges, you can see that there is a difference in the quality of the faculty. It is important to recruit the best and also to keep them at that level,” he says.

He says that the difference in quality is also caused by more interference in State universities. A former vice-chancellor of Anna University, Dr. Anandakrishnan says, “In State colleges and universities, there is more political and other interference. In contrast, there is barely any interference by the HRD Ministry in the affairs of the IITs. That is one of the reasons why the IIT system has functioned so well.”