Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sixth pay commission debacles and looking forward... (Part 1)

[Note 1: This article focuses only on policies, not salaries.]

[Note 2: That said, salaries are an important consideration too. I’ll discuss that aspect in my next post.]

A few things went very wrong in my opinion as far as sixth pay commission recommendations and their implementation went for the academic community in our country. I’m going to talk about these a bit here (within the context of college/institute/university level academia as that’s the part I am aware of) before presenting my views in the next post on what the seventh pay commission can do to provide a thrust to academics as a whole in our country all the way from primary schools to institutes and universities.

The first bungle that happened was the removal of lectureship as a post across the country. This has resulted in people with Masters level education becoming Assistant Professors. While a Masters degree is certainly indicative of a certain level of command in a field, I do not believe it is a high enough benchmark to allow the academic title of Assistant Professor. Sure salaries for Assistant Professors with a Masters degree have probably been kept lower than PhD holders at the same post. But just setting salaries lower or higher is not enough as far as the overall picture goes. Attaining to appropriate posts at the right stage in one’s career after having obtained the necessary educational qualifications and demonstrated a certain level of competence and ability is equally important if we wish to maintain high standards. Else titles lose their significance and people who are not intellectually and professionally ready get them before time. That’s not healthy for the profession as a whole in my opinion.

Being an Assistant Professor is no small thing. This title cannot be given to people before they are ready if we wish to avoid a dilution of standards overall. Benchmarks need to be set high and people need to be encouraged to put in the effort required to reach them.

So this is one thing that needs to be reversed in my opinion: A few junior lectureships for people with only a Bachelors degree but with demonstrated potential for excellence in teaching, lectureships for Masters degree holders and post-doctoral-research-fellowships/senior-lectureships, Assistant Professorships and above for PhD holders. Additionally what needs to be encouraged in my opinion is people continually moving up in their professional careers by pursuing higher degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities. For example, a junior lecturer can pursue a Masters degree alongside his or her teaching responsibilities and upon completion apply for a lectureship. Similarly lecturers can pursue PhD degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities and upon completion apply for either post-doctoral research fellowships or Senior lectureships (or Assistant Professorships if they are judged to be exceptional). Higher posts (Associate and Full Professorships) of course are a matter of promotion based on performance since PhD is the highest academic degree one can obtain.

For my next few observations I’m going to focus on where I believe things went wrong as far as IITs are concerned but I hope I’ll be able to draw a few points in the process that I believe should apply to institute/university level academia in our country as a whole and not just one set of institutes. I was not only teaching at an IIT when the 6th pay commission came around (still am) but was also an active participant of the IIT faculty federation that engaged in a dialogue with the then Minister of Human Resource and Development, Mr. Kapil Sibal.

The first thing that I believe went wrong (and I’ll elaborate on why I think so in a moment) was in introducing the requirement that one necessarily have three years of experience beyond his or her PhD to apply for a "regular" Assistant Professorship at an IIT. A new post called Assistant Professor on Contract was introduced that is given today till these three years of experience are accumulated.

This was a departure from the past when the minimum requirement to apply for a regular post was having a PhD degree. Sure some post-doctoral experience was looked at positively and it was possible to recognize the experience gained at this level through additional increments in one’s starting salary. But fresh PhD graduates with a sound academic background overall and demonstrated competence and readiness who wanted to enter the teaching profession right away were equally welcome to apply – they didn’t necessarily have to wait for an additional three years for a regular appointment if they were good enough to be absorbed sooner. The selection committee was empowered to gauge the merit of each applicant and decide who to offer a position and who not.

That was a better system in my opinion. Not only did it give more flexibility but it also increased the chances of addressing faculty shortage in IITs in a shorter time frame. A candidate is more likely to apply for a regular post instead of a contractual one. And as I remarked above, selection committees have the discretion to not offer someone a regular post anyway if they judge that he or she is not ready yet. They can always recommend after evaluating the candidate that he or she spend some time as a post-doctoral research fellow first to gain more research experience, or maybe gain some teaching experience as a senior lecturer (this provision existed at IITs and can be enabled again), if they feel that the candidate is not ready yet. On the other hand, if someone is academically ready sooner than others then why not absorb them sooner? It is only to our advantage to do so in my opinion. Why "hard code" this three year requirement at the level of policy and tie ourselves down?

So that’s the next thing that needs to be reversed in my opinion: The minimum requirement for an Assistant Professorship at IITs (or any Institute and University in the country for that matter) needs to be reset at having a PhD degree. Individual institutes have the prerogative to require further experience anyway. But I don’t think there’s any case for making such requirements mandatory for all institutes. In fact I feel that is only counterproductive. It reduces the level of flexibility available to selection committees and can potentially result in bright candidates taking up positions elsewhere because all the IITs are able to offer them presently are contractual positions for three years after their PhD.

Along the same lines, the following policies were brought in during the 6th pay commission for appointments at the associate and full professor levels:

Associate Professor: To become an Associate Professor at an IIT, one now requires at least six years of post-PhD experience of which at least three should be at the Assistant Professor level at IITs or equivalent institutes.

There are two problems with this as I see things:

1) The requirement of first having been an Assistant Professor at IITs or equivalent institutes to apply for an Associate Professorship at an IIT can potentially lock out people (or unnecessarily delay their career progression) who have been at other institutes despite the possibility of them having performed well there. This is unnecessary in my opinion. In fact appointments at all levels (Assistant, Associate and Full Professorships) in IITs are through open advertisements and selection committees ought to evaluate candidates based on their performance at the previous level regardless of whether they are internal or external candidates. So we need only focus on how one has performed and not be concerned about where one has worked previously. Why rule out the possibility of people improving themselves with time? In fact, I am of the opinion that people should be encouraged to "move up in life" by continually improving themselves.

Say someone did not manage to obtain an academic position at an IIT or an equivalent institute right after his or her PhD and joined some other institute instead. And then worked really hard to improve themselves further and in some years started performing at the level of an IIT faculty member. Say such a person demonstrates sustained performance at an academically high level and can make a case for an Associate Professorship at an IIT at some point. I really don’t see why he or she should not be encouraged to apply for the same. Sure let these candidates be evaluated with as much rigor as anyone else. But in principle they should be as eligible to become Associate Professors at an IIT as anyone else as long as they are able to demonstrate that they are competent enough for the post when they apply.

Such a policy can also discourage people working in industries or research labs from migrating to academics. Someone may choose to join an industry or take up a scientific position in a research lab right after his or her PhD and wish to enter the teaching position after some years. As long as he or she has demonstrated a high enough level of competence and performance I do not see a problem with them coming into IITs as Associate Professors in a manner commensurate with their seniority and experience elsewhere instead of having to necessarily take a dip in their careers, spend three years as Assistant Professors, and then apply for an Associate Professorship. In fact, I would see it as a positive for our academic community if it can draw good people from industries and research labs towards itself. It is only counterproductive to discourage such migrations in my opinion.

2) Six years after PhD is too soon in my opinion (in general; there can always be exceptional people and exceptions can and should certainly be made for them) to attain to the academic title of Associate Professor.

Prior to the 6th pay commission, the requirement to apply for an Associate Professorship was simply 8 years of post-PhD experience with no other conditions. I feel we need to revert to this. It is simple, uncomplicated and offers complete flexibility for people who might wish to migrate upwards from a lower ranked institute to an IIT (and there’s no reason why they should be prevented from doing so as long as they prove themselves worthy – in fact, as I have remarked above, the idea of working hard and "moving up in life" needs to be encouraged in my opinion!) as well as laterally from industries and research labs to academia.


Professor: To become a Professor at an IIT one now requires at least 10 years of post-PhD experience of which at least four years should have been at the level of Associate Professor at an IIT or an equivalent institute.

This is double jeopardy!

Say someone who is an Associate Professor elsewhere wishes to apply for a Professorship at an IIT. What is it that we expect of him now? That he first be an Assistant Professor ( i.e. actually take a demotion!) for three years, then be an Associate Professor for four years at IIT and then be eligible to apply for a Professorship. I see absolutely no point in insisting on this.

Likewise for people who might want to move from industries or research labs to IITs later in their careers. If they are good enough, then they ought to be able to come in as Professors in my opinion and that so in a manner that is commensurate with their seniority and experience. I see absolutely no point in necessarily making people take a dip in their careers if they want to move to an IIT.

If someone can prove that he is academically ready to be a Professor at an IIT, he should be made a Professor at an IIT. As simple as that.

[All this makes even lesser sense in our present predicament when all IITs are said to be facing a faculty shortage!]

The policy prior to 6th pay commission for appointments at the level of Professor was simply that one have at least 10 years of post-PhD experience to become eligible to apply for the same – no other conditions. It was simple, uncomplicated and offered far more flexibility than the policy brought in during the 6th pay commission.

It is my submission that the above policy changes that were brought in during the 6th pay commission have not been beneficial. The previous policies were more sound and I believe we need to revert to them for a healthier and more rational functioning of our country’s academic system.


[As indicated at the start of my post I will present my thoughts on matters related to salaries in the teaching/academic profession all the way from primary schools to institutes and universities in my next post.]

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