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Competing for the best

India’s ability to attract global faculty hinges on dramatic changes in its higher education structure

The flow of academics, for decades, has been from India to other countries. One can find top Indian talent, for example, at many American universities. They include the dean of the Harvard Business School and the dean of Harvard College, and a number of university presidents as well as professors in many fields. This flow of talent has heavily impacted the availability of highly qualified academics in Indian universities. To counter this “brain drain” and to quickly improve top Indian institutions, the Narendra Modi government introduced flagship programmes such as the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty Scheme (VAJRA), and Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC). It was reported recently that there are just 40 foreign teachers at all of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) — 1% of the total faculty of 5,400 — despite the government’s goal to attract 20% international faculty at higher education institutions such as the IITs. This is despite the fact that internationalisation in general and the appointment of global staff is central to the new ‘Institutions of Eminence’ programme. The goal is even more lofty after the IIT Council, last year, recommended the recruitment of foreign faculty on a tenure basis. The Graded Autonomy Regulations of the University Grants Commission also now allows the highest performing universities to hire up to 20% foreign faculty on tenure basis.

It is virtually impossible for India to attract large numbers of international professors of high standing and ability without dramatic changes in many aspects of the existing governance structure in higher education. Dramatically enhanced funding would also be required.

The talent pool

There are two kinds of international academics to be considered. The first category is accomplished senior professors — these would be very difficult to lure to India. Established in their careers, with attractive international salaries, and often with family and other obligations, they are embedded both in their universities and locales. The other group are younger scholars who may have fewer ties to universities and societies, and are thus more mobile. Further, some, depending on their disciplines, may have difficulty in locating a permanent academic job at home due to a tight academic job market. They also will not add to the immediate prestige of the Indian university which hires them since they do not have an established reputation. However, they can provide quality teaching, research and they often bring a useful international perspective.

The main possibilities for mobility are academics of Indian origin (non-resident Indians) who have successful careers abroad and who might be attracted back. The major recent initiative of the Indian government, GIAN, has been successful in attracting many academics of Indian origin from different countries for shorter durations. However, the experiences of two prominent universities sponsored by Indian and other regional governments — the South Asian University in Delhi and Nalanda in Bihar — show that offering higher salaries with exemption from taxation has not been very successful in attracting senior faculty of foreign origin.

In some ways, the best Indian universities would require a kind of “cultural revolution” to join the ranks of global world-class universities — and to be able to lure top faculty. The structural and practical realities of Indian universities make them generally unattractive to academic talent from abroad. A few examples indicate some of the challenges.

Scales of salary

Indian academic salaries are not globally competitive, even taking into account variations in living costs. In the U.S., senior academics at research universities typically earn around ₹8,970,000 and up annually, and those at top universities can earn ₹13,800,000 or more. The average salary for a full-time academic is ₹5,037,000, with those in high demand fields in the sciences, business and others earning significantly more. In comparison, the total emoluments offered to a professor in an IIT located in one of the Indian metro cities, in accordance with the latest Pay Commission’s minimum pay scale with house rent allowance is around ₹2,640,000. China, which is also actively luring top international faculty to its research universities, is offering salaries of ₹6,900,000 or more along with additional research funding.

International faculty cannot be offered long-term appointments in Indian public institutions. A five-year contract is all that is available. Thus, there is little job security.

Obtaining research funding is difficult and the resources available, by international standards, are quite limited.

On the other hand, a few ‘elite’ private universities such as O.P. Jindal, Azim Premji, Ashoka, Shiv Nadar, Ahmedabad, Krea, and the management institute Indian School of Business have adopted different strategies; for instance, ranging from attracting foreign nationals, to Indians who studied at prestigious foreign universities to their institutions by offering higher salaries and other benefits than are available to local hires. The faculty diversity of O.P. Jindal Global University, for example, stands out among these with 71 full-time foreign faculty from 32 countries. The key motivation for hiring foreign faculty at all these institutions is to improve international competitiveness and secure positions in global rankings, which in turn would also attract more motivated students.

These new private institutions with, by Indian standards, considerable resources have proved that it is possible to attract foreign faculty, at least those with an Indian ethnic background. But the challenges faced by public institutions, even those of as high quality as the IITs and the best universities, seem insurmountable, at least in the context of the current Indian higher education environment and bureaucratic and legal framework.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, U.S. Eldho Mathews is an independent higher education researcher based in New Delhi

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 5:11:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/competing-for-the-best/article26959323.ece

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