India needs a GIAN-Plus strategy

US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January this year provided the occasion for the two countries to sign off on the Global Initiative of Academic Networks, or GIAN.

Widely attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who first proposed GIAN during his visit to the US last year, the new initiative aims to bring up to 1,000 American academics to India each year to teach and carry out research at universities and perhaps other higher education institutions that are funded directly by the national government.

These include the so-called 'central' universities and the well-known Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, and the Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs.

GIAN is expected to benefit India’s universities in a variety of ways – in the adoption of new methods of pedagogy; boosting research in cutting-edge technologies; and building stronger academic ties between Indian and American academics. Some government officials believe that GIAN will also compensate for faculty staff shortages across India’s higher education sector.

Token measures?

The reception to GIAN has been mixed. While government officials appear over-optimistic about what GIAN can achieve, Shamika Ravi of Brookings India believes that GIAN-like efforts “will remain token measures until the Indian higher education system undergoes a tectonic shift in governance structure”.

Others have wondered aloud whether even India’s best universities are in a position to fully benefit from the visits of GIAN scholars.

There is no doubt that GIAN has a lot of potential. However, it will require the Ministry of Human Resource Development – which is responsible for education as well as related areas – and participating universities to improve their past record at coordinating and executing large and ambitious plans.

Borrowing academics

While the GIAN initiative is laudable, government officials do not appear to have given any thought to other ways in which they could boost India’s higher education system by ‘borrowing’ some of the best Indian minds on a short- to medium-term basis. For instance, there are hundreds of Indian academics based at universities and research centres in countries other than the US, whether in Australia, Canada, Singapore, the UK or elsewhere. There is no ‘plan’ to bring them to India.

Moreover, a very large number of highly-qualified academics, many of them trained at some of the best universities in the world, are based in India but work outside the university system. They are found at specialised research centres and institutes of all kinds – which continue to proliferate and rob universities of well-qualified potential faculty – at think tanks and even, especially in the case of social scientists, at newspapers and magazines.

Many of them have opted to work outside the university system for fully defensible reasons, for example, because of the highly politicised nature of India’s universities. Unlike public universities in the West, for instance, vice-chancellors are routinely appointed to their positions by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Moreover, a culture of nepotism and 'institutionalised mediocrity' is not only widespread but runs deep.

GIAN-Plus is the way forward

Given the large pool of combined academic ‘assets’ at home and in non-US locations, the Indian government needs to devise something like a GIAN-Plus, particularly for India-based academics, to entice them to become part of India’s university system and boost the country’s higher education sector in the same ways that GIAN scholars can.

One of the main reasons why locally available assets are under-used is that India’s higher education overwhelmingly privileges ‘experience’ measured by number of years in the profession and does not give due weight to the broader skills, expertise and outlook acquired by studying at world-class institutions.

Therefore, it causes frustration when government officials remark that among the many benefits that GIAN scholars will deliver is their ability to develop better and updated course materials or help improve teaching methods. These tasks do not require a fancy initiative such as GIAN; the kind of expertise required to do these things is already available within and outside India’s university system.

Moreover, using local academics would save the government money. There are reports that American academics will be paid in the range of US$8,000-US$12,000 for short visits of less than a month and more for longer visits of one semester or so.

For competitively qualified India-based academics, a compensation of approximately 50% to 75% of that amount would be sufficient to lure at least some to them to work part-time at universities, whether for teaching, research/writing or both.

At the moment, with some exceptions such as business and medical schools, the compensation for part-time faculty is abysmal. As such, there is no incentive for those outside the university system to take up positions as adjunct or visiting faculty members.

Most institutions in need of faculty staff make do with people who are willing to teach for less rather than attempting to attract those who are better qualified to do so. Only a GIAN-Plus system could change that.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, or BITS, Pilani-Goa, India. He writes regularly on India’s higher education system.