— Sufia Tippu
The shortage of engineering teachers in India is even more dire than U.S. observers are aware, Indian academics report. “Unfortunately, if you talk about it, you are dubbed a bad guy, so most of us have stopped talking about it,” said Sowmyanarayanan S. Sadagopan, a professor and founding director of International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-Bangalore).
The past decade has seen an exponential growth in the number of engineering institutions in India. Today, there are about 1,700 engineering colleges and 1,300 polytechnics, or schools designed to produce technicians. Although it is difficult to ascertain the total number of teachers in India, the shortage is said to be in the range of 30 to 35 percent.
Indian academics cite two main reasons for the gap between engineering students and teachers: a dearth of PhDs and rock-bottom university pay scales.
“The [PhD] pool we have to recruit from is very small,” said Prakash Khincha, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and vice chancellor of Visveswaraya Technical University (VTU), which oversees 150 schools and more than 50,000 students in the state of Karnataka.
“Moreover, the difference in the salary structure between academia and the industry is huge,” Khincha said. “The compensation packages to the faculty have not kept pace with the industry, leaving the faculty far behind.”
Some have proposed that industry partner with the universities to underwrite the stipends granted to graduate students engaged in research, said B.A. Balasubramanya, country head of the U.K.-based Institution of Engineering and Technology, a global society for the engineering and technology community. That way, if students “have a passion for research, they can continue to do it and not be forced to take a salaried job [in industry],” Balasubramanya said.
The government has given permission to a number of promoters–often those with political clout–to set up colleges. In many cases, they build massive campuses, advertise aggressively and admit students who are able to pay high fees, turning the institutions into great money-making machines. Since not much attention is given to studies and degrees are awarded on payment of money, faculty is also given short shrift.
“While the faculty is at least present on the campus in the Indian Institutes of Technology and other reputable schools, even with the severe teacher shortage, there are a few tier-three engineering schools where as much as 75 percent of the stipulated faculty is completely absent,” said one member of the All India Council for Technical Education. “Usually, when we go on inspection to provide accreditation to some local colleges, we see the same set of equipment [PCs and other classroom paraphernalia] from school to school. And the same teachers we have seen in the other school are shown as being on the second school’s rolls too. Good schools don’t do this, but some in the regional areas, they do.”
Some schools are using technology to close the student-teacher gap. “I strongly believe our colleges should use new technologies, such as the satellite education programs offered through the Edusat,” said K. Balaveera Reddy, a professor and the former vice chancellor of VTU. “For instance, VTU is able to get 130 colleges [about 13,000 students] to listen to one professor through our satellite programs. I do admit that eye contact and one-to-one interaction [between students and faculty] are necessary, but when that is not possible, these kinds of programs do help.”
The government is also trying to address this issue by providing incentives for intensive training programs for tutors, as well as by raising the retirement age from 58 to 62. Retired professors can teach until they reach the age of 70.
Although the government lifted foreign direct-investment restrictions in 2001, only one foreign university has so far announced plans to build a campus in India. Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the state of Andhra Pradesh in June, will set up its international campus in Hyderabad. The university will become operational in 2009 and will offer MS degrees and PhD programs in engineering, science, management, business and other academic streams.
A number of other foreign universities are reportedly interested in opening Indian campuses. Among the schools said to be eyeing Indian operations are Harvard Business School, Purdue and Cornell, in the United States, and Nottingham University, in the United Kingdom.
“Foreign universities are interested in coming here, but the red tape involved is high, and invariably, plans are put on hold” because of the government’s lengthy evaluation process, said Sadagopan of IIIT Bangalore.
Recently, Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics (and author of the Stern Review, which addressed the economics of climate change); Christopher Patten, chancellor of the University of Oxford; and Richard Sykes, rector (chairman) of Imperial College, visited India. Alison Richard, professor and vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, is expected to visit soon.
“Most of them would like to have a closer relationship with the Indian academic community, and some would, I’m sure, be interested in setting up campuses here,” said Richard Stagg, the U.K.’s High Commissioner to India. Potentially, Indian students could earn degrees from a U.K. or U.S. university’s Indian branch for “a fraction of the cost” they would pay in the country of origin, he said. But “there still seems to be a block to prevent this from happening.”