Plan for universities to hold jobs for foreign faculty

India wants to hire more foreign academics to boost the position of its higher education institutions in international university rankings. But proposals for one-fifth of the faculty body to be drawn from overseas have met with local opposition as universities are concerned they will be left to fund foreign academics without any increase in their budgets.

Invitations are already being sent out to foreign academics who might be interested in short teaching stints under India’s Global Initiative of Academic Networks or GIAN project.

Apart from that, the top universities known as category one institutions – the top 50 universities in India’s national rankings – will be required by the University Grants Commission or UGC, the higher education regulatory body, to reserve 20% of faculty positions for foreign academics hired for longer terms.

The proposal was included in a recent draft regulation sent to universities for consultation in June.

According to India’s Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, taking on foreign academics would raise institutions in international rankings, as one of the indicators is the proportion of foreign faculty in each institution.

Foreign professors would also help increase the number of foreign researchers and students as part of the government’s internationalisation plan. The government is also proposing to set up 20 world-class universities – 10 private and 10 public, known as institutions of eminence, offering world-class academic infrastructure and courses.

There is some evidence that institutions already hiring foreign academics are climbing in international rankings. These include the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay or IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, which were in the top 200 of the latest QS World University Rankings.

Several IITs said they were actively seeking to recruit from universities in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada.

Institutional autonomy

Controversially, the UGC regulations require each institution to negotiate the salaries for foreign faculty members and pick up the bill themselves, as part of the proposed increased autonomy of category one institutions to determine tuition fees and faculty salaries, allowing them to pay competitive salaries to attract foreign faculty and retain them.

But Ajay K Mehra, director at the Centre for Public Affairs, New Delhi, says the draft UGC regulations reflect a mandate from the finance ministry for higher education institutions to raise 30% of their own funding.

“This is a backdoor exit for the government. Hiring 20% of faculty strength with their own resources effectively means a 20% cut in UGC funding,” Mehra said.

Others see this as creeping privatisation of the universities with the funding for such posts having to be drawn from student fees.

So far, the government has not indicated what ‘foreign faculty’ means – Indians nationals with foreign degrees, Indian nationals with foreign degrees and foreign passports, or foreign nationals. This could have implications for negotiating salaries and there are fears that differential treatment could lead to charges of discrimination or even racism if non-Indians receive higher salaries in order to attract them.

M Rajivlochan, member of Punjab State Higher Education Council, said the IITs, for example, were wary of hiring academics, foreign or otherwise, on a permanent basis, as they are impossible to fire if they do not perform well. A foreign degree “is no guarantee that you will get a good quality academic”, Rajivlochan said.

Opposition to permanent staff

“There’s no harm in inviting foreign academics as long as they are on short-term contracts but there could be practical problems if they are hired on a long-term basis,” says Saket Bahuguna, national spokesperson for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the influential student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Foreign faculty could be a temporary stopgap for a serious shortage of qualified faculty at top institutions, he said, adding: “There is no dearth of talent in our country and we certainly cannot be relying only on foreigners to fill up the large number of vacant posts – a situation created by years of administrative lapses.”

Hiring foreign faculty has been touted as a way to bridge the shortage of faculty at many institutions that has been a concern for some years. Addressing an international conference on the ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education’ in April, Javadekar said nearly 40% of faculty positions at the prestigious IITs and universities run by the central government were lying vacant.

However, the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, in a formal statement, declared the regulations to be “an unacceptable assault on the younger generation of postgraduates who are already suffering from years of contractual and ad hoc employment and lack of job security due to insincere and inadequate initiative in the filling of substantive vacant posts”.

Predicting the plan will end up “curtailing and discouraging local talent at the national and state levels even further”, the Delhi University Teachers’ Association said the UGC should increase funding allocations to allow permanent faculty to be hired rather than bringing in foreigners on contracts. It has called on university teachers to reject the draft regulations.

Photo: Some of the foreign academics recruited to teach in India, as shown in a video on the GIAN website.