How can we fix what is wrong with Indian universities?

The higher education sector in India has been largely a failure story, according to most analysts. Except for a few institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, All India Institutes of Medical Sciences and the Indian Institute of Science, most of the publicly funded universities have shown an inability to face contemporary challenges with respect to the quality of research and the relevance of curricular content and teaching methods.

This article highlights some of the biggest challenges that most of the central and state-owned Indian universities have failed to recognise and address.

The illogical and bizarre recruitment process for teachers

Often the best candidates are not shortlisted for teaching posts and the worst shortlisted candidates are selected at interviews. One of the reasons is a shortlisting strategy that depends purely on numbers rather than quality.

Shortlisting committee members are often not sure of the quality of the journals where the candidate has published his or her research, for instance. They do not know if the impact factor claimed by the journal is true or false.

Similarly, there is no criterion to ascertain if a certificate showing the participation of a candidate in an international conference is genuine or not. What matters most is the certificate and the number of papers: the more papers there are, the more points the candidate gets.

The second reason for the selection of undeserving candidates is a poorly structured interview process. Most of the time experts do not know the difference between a viva examination and an interview.

They usually do not ask the candidate about his or her plans to contribute positively to the university, or his or her ideas about the administration of academically active departments. They tend instead to ask questions that assess a candidate’s power of recall or, at most, their comprehension of their own subjects. They fail most of the time to evaluate their research skills and any higher order thinking skills.

Another major problem is ‘canvassing’ or lobbying interviewers before the selection process. Though most of the universities state in their advertisements that canvassing in any form leads to disqualification, there is no actual mechanism for disqualification. Many candidates use canvassing to gain access to recruiters and ensure they are selected. I have yet to see a university that has taken any tangible measures to curb such practices.

Towards a better shortlist

It may be a good idea to include the following three ways of evaluating candidates for shortlisting, especially where there are a lot of applicants for a teaching post. Though this may not be relevant for all disciplines, it is definitely implementable in science and other applied disciplines:
  • Writing skills: A written test should be set with all the applicants invited to take a written examination. This test could be done online to save time and resources. This would test candidates’ specialist knowledge along with their writing skills. Written communication is one of the weakest skills among many university teachers. The examination should include questions on higher order thinking skills such as analytical and language skills.

  • Teaching skills: All candidates who score well in the first test should be invited to give lectures to undergraduate and postgraduate students. An evaluation should be based on a structured questionnaire that should include the assessment of communication skills, language skills, subject knowledge, presentation skills etc.

  • Research skills and aptitude: University teachers should know that they are expected to do research as well as teaching. Research skills could be evaluated based on the quality of their research papers in terms of originality and their general understanding of the research and publication process. An objective rating scale should evaluate each publication based on the number of citations it receives, the quality of the published journal, originality, the extent of the contribution of the individual author etc.
After this shortlisting exercise in which each element is given equal weighting, the candidates can be put forward for interview. The shortlist is likely to represent the candidates with the combination of knowledge, skills and attitude required for a teacher and a researcher. This method would avoid giving unnecessary and undue weighting to the number of conferences attended, the number of papers presented, the number of courses attended etc.

Measures to improve the interview process

Those interviewing need to be able to test candidates’ higher order thinking skills. They should be given a booklet on interview skills so that they ask the right questions to evaluate the candidates’ research aptitude and application and analytical skills.

Measures to curb canvassing

Every university needs to come up with guidelines and measures to curb the practice of canvassing by highlighting signs that a candidate is canvassing, the kind of evidence that suggests canvassing and the kind of action that will be taken against candidates who resort to this practice.

During the interview, all the selection committee members should be asked to fill out a declaration that they have not received any phone calls from influential people, politicians or others in favour of any candidate or that they have not received a visit from or been offered a bribe by any candidate.

Guidelines should be drawn up for reporting canvassing, with recorded phone calls, CCTV footage etc used as evidence. Guidelines against canvassing should be published on university websites.

Improving research quality

In recent years, the quality of research publications from developing countries has attracted criticism the world over. For a country such as India, this situation is damaging because it creates a bad reputation worldwide.

University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines mandating that academics need a certain number of publications to get promoted have led to the mushrooming of substandard and questionable research journals that thrive on an author-pays model.

Though some universities have started publishing guidelines for their staff and students about research publications (Savitribai Phule Pune University, for example, has issued its own guidelines for publications), this has not yet become a norm.

Instead of coming up with a list of recommended journals, the UGC should state that articles published in journals indexed with more than one credible database such as Scopus, PubMed and Science Citation Index will be considered as criteria for promotion or recruitment.

The UGC must come up with a warning to university teachers about the consequences of publishing in predatory journals. Teachers publishing in such journals in the hope of getting promoted must be called to account and disincentives must be introduced. Universities must introduce strict guidelines regarding the kinds of journals that should be avoided.

Another issue is that, though many new entry-level teachers get some seed money in many universities, there is no consistent internal funding arrangement for research projects. Applying for external funding is always difficult and is characterised by obstacles at multiple levels because of the old-fashioned way the system works. This often makes senior teachers lose interest in research once they reach the higher levels.

Some competitive mechanism should be put in place so that a specific number of teachers are eligible for research funding based on their past performance or project proposals.

Appointment by seniority rather than merit

Universities still consider that being senior in age and rank means automatically being wiser: that is why many key positions such as head, dean, principal etc are by default occupied by the ‘most senior’ people irrespective of their academic, administrative and other capabilities. Sometimes these people are appointed on a rotational basis.

On one hand, this leads to people who are not interested in posts occupying key positions and on the other, it may result in people misusing their positions.

Appointments to key positions such as head, dean, director etc must all be made through application so only interested and capable people get the opportunity to occupy these positions. Mid-career teachers are the most likely to have the enthusiasm to change the system in positive ways and they should get the opportunity to carry out their dreams.

Boosting research and publication ethics

While plagiarism and publication in poor quality journals are two well-known challenges, non-adherence to the ethical aspects of research and publication is another major problem that universities have not yet been able to tackle. There is no stringent mechanism to periodically screen for possible fabricated data, falsified data etc.

With students wanting their degrees as quickly as possible and supervisors wanting their list of ‘PhDs supervised’ to grow quickly so they can get more points for promotion, the result is often compromised research and publication ethics. Practices such as the distortion of data, simultaneous submissions to more than one journal and so forth are very common in universities.

There needs to be an accountability mechanism in cases of fabrication or falsification of data. Disincentivisation of such practices in the form of reducing salary increments should be used in proven cases of fraud. There must be a provision for sudden and surprise visits from external expert members to screen the progress of research work and to verify raw data.

Further, cases of retractions and editorial queries or complaints should be taken seriously by university authorities.

While these are a few steps that could be taken to improve the Indian higher education system, it is entirely up to the executive councils of the universities as to whether they have the willingness to take them.

Kishor Patwardhan is Professor of Ayurveda at Banaras Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh, India.