Higher education in the country, particularly engineering education, is facing a crisis. It is pulling on with half the teacher strength it requires. The government pressed a red button the other day when it was revealed in Parliament that the country faced a shortage of more than 3,00,000 teachers in its institutions of higher learning. In engineering education alone, the shortage is more than 1,50,000.
This finding revealed in the most recent government assessment of faculty shortage across the country has come as a shock. What is more shocking is the increase in the faculty shortage to 54 per cent from the 40 per cent a few years ago. The government has swung into action by allowing institutions to hire expatriate Indians to make up for the shortage. The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development has permitted the 15 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), premier engineering institutes in the country, to appoint non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIOs) as permanent faculty as part of measures to tide over the teacher shortage. Foreign nationals, however, are not allowed permanent appointment.
But is this move a solution? Experts call it inadequate.
The Lok Sabha was told last week that 1,693 teachers were required immediately for the 15 IITs and 1,522 for the 30 National Institutes of Technology (NITs). But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
From 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the teaching posts are lying vacant in the country’s top engineering institutions. The situation is worse in hundreds of private self-financing colleges.
A recent assessment made by an eight-member committee appointed by the Kerala government revealed that hardly one-fifth of the engineering institutions in the State met the stipulations made by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Of the 24 engineering colleges the committee inspected at random, only five were found to have met most requirements stipulated by the AICTE.
The AICTE currently stipulates a 1:14 teacher-student ratio for engineering institutions. “That itself is very high from a healthy academic perspective,” said a senior professor of NIT, Calicut. Plans are afoot to bring down the teacher-student ratio in engineering institutions to 1:12. The ideal teacher-student ratio, expert say, is 1:10, which is the international standard.
The Central engineering institutions, including the NITs and the IITs, started facing the faculty shortage with a 27 per cent increase in number of seats for other backward classes (OBCs) over three years from 2008 to 2010. This increase resulted in a cumulative increase of 54 per cent in faculty requirement, which remains unfilled for various reasons.
The lack of recruitment of supporting or non-teaching staff in recent years has compounded the problem. The ratio of teaching and supporting staff is 1:1.1 in Central engineering institutions. When the student intake doubled in recent years with the increase in seats and courses, not a single appointment of supporting staff was made in the past nine years at NIT, Calicut. The result is that the faculty is being forced to spend part of their time for clerical work, leading to a dilution in academic activities. And the ultimate loser is the student.
The shortage of faculty affects the students in many ways. When there are not enough teachers, more students are often assigned to a single project, leading to a lack of attention from teachers and an eventual dilution in quality. Besides, the choices before the students for their elective subjects are considerably reduced.
T.K. Suresh Babu, Professor and Head of Training and Placement at NIT, Calicut, says recruiters from core engineering industry often give due weight to students who have done good projects for employment. The faculty shortage has a direct bearing on the quality of projects on all engineering college campuses.
Ashalatha Thampuran, Principal of Mohandas College of Engineering and Technology, Nedumangad, says the faculty shortage was felt more in the middle-level cadre. The AICTE stipulates a faculty cadre ratio of 1:2:4 for professors, associate professors, and assistant professors.
“There are no problems at the top-level posts of professors and principals as we get enough retired hands. The shortage at entry level too is not felt so keenly as in the middle level, where people well positioned in the industry cannot be attracted,” Dr. Thampuran says.
Although the AICTE has made M.Tech. degree mandatory for faculty, most private engineering colleges are yet to abide by it. The AICTE has given two more years to the colleges, knowing full well that there are not enough hands with M.Tech to teach.
Of the 121 engineering colleges in Kerala, hardly one-fourth offer M.Tech programmes. In the wake of a new AICTE stipulation and an appeal by Union Human Resource Minister Kapil Sibal, many institutions came forward to start postgraduate programmes. But the State’s universities have not been considerate. Several colleges were denied permission to do so.
For example, when the M.E.S. College of Engineering, Kuttippuram, applied for two postgraduate programmes in computer science and electronics and communication, permission was given only for the computer science course.
The faculty shortage is the worst in the branches of computer science and electronics and communication in almost all engineering colleges. The reason is simple. The engineering graduates of these two branches are much sought after by the industry.
Unattractive pay is another reason for the dearth of faculty in engineering colleges. Although the AICTE has stipulated a pay scale, not all private engineering colleges in the country offer that pay to the faculty. “Only good pay can attract good people from the industry to teaching,” V.H. Abdul Salam, Principal of the M.E.S. college, says.
P. Suresh Kumar, Principal of Government Model Engineering College, Thrikkakara, says the faculty shortage is not felt in the engineering colleges run by the government in the State. “The problem is mostly confined to the private sector,” Dr. Kumar says.
When private engineering colleges, particularly those started in recent years, are worried about meeting the AICTE stipulations including the faculty strength, top institutions such as the IITs and the NITs are worried about the dwindling quality of their research.
“Right now, we don’t have a mechanism to measure the quality. And that is where we survive,” says Vineeth Paleri, Professor and former Head of the Department of Computer Science, NIT, Calicut.
Dr. Paleri, who had worked at Purdue University, U.S., one of the top 20 technical institutions in the world, says that as a professor at the NIT, he gets three times the workload that he used to get at Purdue. “Shortage of hands leads to overloading of the faculty. When the faculty is overloaded, the students suffer at all levels. And research is the worst casualty,” he adds.
It is this lack of quality at higher level academics, particularly doctoral and post-doctoral research, which deprives India of any single technical institution of international repute. “We have IITs. But they are known only for churning out the best undergraduates. Good institutions worldwide are measured in terms of research — in terms of the number of Nobel laureates they create and patents they win,” Dr. Paleri says.
Even when the country’s education managers talk volumes about enhancing the quality, little is often done towards walking that talk. That was perhaps why the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) observed a couple of years ago that hardly 25 per cent of the students passing out the country’s engineering institutions were employable.