Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sixth pay commission debacles and looking forward... (Part 2)

In my last post I presented my views on what I believe went wrong during the 6th pay commission at the level of “policy changes” in our country’s higher education system, i.e. in colleges, universities and institutes. In this post I address issues related to salaries all the way from primary schools to universities and institutes and try and make a case for making the teaching/academic profession in our country a more economically attractive option than it is today. If I have your patience I believe I will be able to make a case for a model which can link economic growth with growth in knowledge for members of our society.

Two points before I start:

1. I’m going to present my views within the framework of state and central government educational institutions (with the additional hope that they also translate to private institutions). So I’m going to assume that housing and medical benefits are already extended to teachers and academics at all levels from primary schools up. If not, it is my request that this happen. As far as medical benefits go, it is my submission that every teacher and academic be given comprehensive medical coverage for self and any dependents that he or she may have. As far as housing goes, I suppose the extent will vary in the sense of size of quarters provided. But at a bare minimum a decent one bedroom apartment should be provided to every primary school teacher in my opinion and we move up from there.

2. Wherever I talk about salaries, I will simply talk about gross salaries. To be frank, I’ve never really understood the whole Basic, D.A., etc breakup. So I won’t get into that level of detail and simply mention the net or gross amount that I believe teachers at different levels ought to be making.

First a bit about what motivates this post:

I firmly believe that teachers, academics and those committed to seeking knowledge in all disciplines and fields (scientists, historians, archaeologists, etc) are the bedrock of society as knowledge sustains everything else. If we want our society to be intellectually and culturally healthy and vibrant once again (I do not believe it is either today), we need to make the profession of knowledge itself something to aspire to instead of thinking of knowledge merely as a means to some material end.

Now I do not believe that the strategy to achieve this mindset shift ought to be purely economic in nature. One has to be drawn as much, if not more, towards knowledge as material possessions to start with. Knowledge is a wealth too. This realization needs to set in firmly if we as a society are to start valuing the pursuit of knowledge as much as more “material” pursuits. Plus a large part of the solution lies in my opinion in restoring the social respectability of the teaching/academic profession - particularly at the primary and secondary school levels. The situation in this regard is particularly dismal in our country from what I can see. We need to realize one thing very very clearly: disrespect the teaching profession, discourage good people from taking it up, and we descend into ignorance. It’s as simple as that. Our children will no longer grow up with a sound foundation in knowledge and values and it will be a pretty sad day when such a state of affairs comes to pass. So respecting teachers and realizing that their contribution towards sustaining a knowledge centric and humane society is something very immense is critical.

But this said, we need to be aware that there is an economic aspect to this profession like any other that needs to be fairly addressed too. Teachers, academics, scientists and others in the profession of knowledge have the need to be economically secure too. They too would like for their children to be assured of the best possible education and healthcare just like anyone else. They will have ageing parents at some stage as well and would like them to have a comfortable old age with access to high quality health care whenever needed just as anyone else would. Plus they themselves would be well within their rights in my opinion to want a reasonably comfortable and well off life both during their professional careers and in their years of retirement and old age (for which they too would need to save and invest just like anyone else!). “Austerity” needs to be a personal choice in my opinion. We need not go about imposing it on some professions as some sort of a moral requirement while being alright with outright debauchery in others. A more balanced approach rather than harbouring extreme viewpoints would be what I recommend. This is a mistake we have been making for quite a while in our country in my opinion and we need to correct it.

To repeat an example I gave in a recent post that I believe underlines my concern that the teaching profession is not as economically sound as it ought to be:

Some 5-6 years ago I took a cab from Delhi airport. I happened to strike up a conversation with the cabbie during which I asked him how much he makes per month. I still remember his answer: things used to be better some years ago but now he was making only about Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month. Now I have absolutely nothing against cabbies making a decent living, but how many primary schools in our country do you think were paying their teachers at least Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month around 2009-2010 (i.e. 5-6 years ago)? And remember, as per the cabbie these were not as good days for him as before when he made more.

If we have allowed things to come to such a pass that being a cabbie in Delhi or Mumbai (or perhaps even a paan-bidi shop owner or a pizza delivery personnel in some establishments) have become more lucrative options than being a primary school teacher in one’s own town then, with due respect to all these professions, it only reflects our immense lack of maturity and foresight. Likewise with other essential professions (as I like to call them): nurses, hawaldars, soldiers... We need very good people (and lots of them) to man these professions and cannot afford to compromise on quality one bit. And we can’t hope to make this happen if we don’t sort out the economics of it. Idealism in its own place, family bread and butter in its own.

Sure let us set high standards in recruiting teachers. Sure let us expect teachers to continuously develop themselves in terms of knowledge as well as teaching pedagogies. To teach children and nurture them into becoming mature adults and responsible members of the society is no small thing. And we certainly need to recruit the best people we can to do this. But at the same time let us also then pay them salaries that are respectable enough for the teaching profession to become economically sound and not be a constraint that comes in the way of capable people choosing it as a career option – at least early in their lives before they have earned higher degrees that can enable them to pursue options of either teaching at colleges and universities or perhaps taking up other career paths if that be their eventual choice (I'll expand on the 2nd part of this statement later in this post).

So here’s my first proposition: Let the starting gross salaries for school teachers be set as follows (I’ll talk about the need to cap these salaries as well later):

Primary school (Grades 1 to 5): Rs. 30,000/- per month.                  
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com.]

Secondary school (Grades 6 to 10): Rs. 40,000/- per month.
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com. + B.Ed.  OR  B.Tech./B.E. (longer program)]

Higher secondary school (Grades 11-12): Rs. 50,000/- per month.
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com. + B.Ed.  OR  B.Tech./B.E. (longer program)]

Yes! I do believe that we need to value our bachelors degrees as well as the teaching profession this much.

Similarly, starting salaries for instructors for Diploma programmes in Technical Education at institutes such as ITIs can be set at Rs. 60,000/- per month with minimum qualification requirement being a B.Tech./B.E.

I want to make a point here that I will keep coming back to again and again: Let us aim at establishing a culture wherein people in the teaching profession continue to study more themselves and pursue higher degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities at different levels.

Say someone takes up a teaching position at the primary school level right after their B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. Let them not stagnate there. Instead, let them pursue a B.Ed. alongside and try and move up to being a secondary school teacher, and after some experience perhaps a higher secondary school teacher. Again, during this period let them pursue masters degrees in their subjects so that they can try and obtain a lectureship at the college level where they teach B.A./B.Sc./B.Com./B.Tech. students. Or they could pursue the M.Ed. degree and involve themselves in teaching B.Ed. students.

Sure pursuing higher degrees alongside one’s teaching responsibilities would likely take more time than pursuing them full time. But one earns a salary alongside and that can be exactly what is needed for many a individual or family.

To encourage this continuous pursuit of higher education oneself and migrating to teaching at higher levels, I believe we also need to put caps on salaries at each level. So the salaries at the primary school level can perhaps be capped off at say Rs. 35,000/- per month. One then has to put in the required effort, obtain a B.Ed. degree and try and move up to secondary school teaching if one wants to earn more (thereby also opening up primary school spots for others). Likewise, salaries at the secondary and higher secondary school levels and diploma institutes can perhaps be capped off at Rs. 45,000/- per month, Rs. 55,000/- per month and Rs. 65,000/- per month respectively as well. If someone wants to earn more than Rs. 65,000/- per month, he or she then has to obtain a masters degree and try and obtain a lectureship at a college.

In a similar spirit, I propose that gross salaries of lecturers in colleges range from Rs. 70,000/- per month to Rs. 80,000/- per month until they obtain a PhD (which can be pursued alongside one's teaching responsibilities). After obtaining a PhD one can either choose to continue teaching at the college level and be eligible for promotions with higher salaries within the college system or follow up the PhD degree with some post-doctoral research experience if needed and try and obtain a faculty position in a university or institute where one would also be involved with post-graduate education or a scientific position at a research laboratory.

Coming to institutes and universities:

In my last post I had argued for a reversal to PhD being the minimum requirement for an Assistant Professorship at universities and institutes (instead of PhD plus three years of post-PhD experience) while pointing out that selection committees have the discretion anyway to recommend if necessary that a particular candidate first gain some more research experience through a post-doctoral research fellowship or perhaps spend some time as a senior lecturer before being appointed as an Assistant Professor. So, I’ll first suggest salaries at the post-doctoral research fellow and senior lecturer levels (both of which should ideally be at the most 2-3 year positions in my opinion):

I would recommend setting the monthly salary for post-doctoral research fellows at Rs. 80,000/- (fixed) i.e. the salary cap for lecturers at the college level (see above).

If I’m not mistaken, this would be a significant increase in salary at this level and I believe it would be a step in the right direction. Post-doctoral research fellows can play an important role in increasing the research impetus in our universities and institutes. Such a salary might not only increase the probability of some of our brighter PhD graduates choosing to gain their post-doctoral research experience in institutes and universities within the country rather than going abroad for the same but may also help us attract candidates from outside the country.

The salary for senior lecturers at institutes and universities can be set at Rs. 1,00,000/- per month (fixed) with an expectation that they contribute in teaching as well as research.

The starting salary for Assistant Professors at institutes and universities can be set at Rs. 1,20,000/- per month. From here on it would be a matter of being promoted to an Associate Professorship and then a Professorship based on performance and I suppose an evaluation of one’s academic maturity. Again, I believe there should be salary caps at the Assistant and Associate Professor levels so that one stays motivated to keep progressing to higher levels. But I am going to desist from opining on what these should be or what the starting salaries for Associate and full Professorships ought to be.

A full Professorship, in my opinion, ought to indicate a judgement by the academic community that one has attained to a level of academic maturity beyond which one need not be judged or evaluated anymore. So there really needn’t be any more posts as I see it.

Posts of administrative and academic leadership in institutes and universities (Heads of Departments, Deans, Directors), as I see things, ought to indicate responsibilities being given to members of the academic community from time to time and not be looked at as “promotions”. I do not believe any of these responsibilities need have separate salaries associated with them. Instead, I am of the opinion that one simply continue to earn salary as per one’s station in his or her academic journey while executing such responsibilities. Just that how well one executes such responsibilities (yes, that needs to be evaluated too!) be accounted for when forming a judgement on one’s overall credentials.

I end this post with a submission that while we have certainly come a long way since our independence in 1947, we have a longer way to go still before we can claim to be relevant in the global academic community. I believe that in order to achieve such a standing we need to address the economic aspects of knowledge centric professions in our country as much as correcting our mindset vis a vis how we view knowledge and its relevance and importance in our lives. I have presented my views on what would be a balanced approach as we move forward. It is my hope that the relevant bodies in our country’s academia as well as state and central governments will take the necessary steps during the 7th pay commission to remove any lacunae that might exist and give a positive thrust to the teaching, academic, scientific and all other knowledge centric professions in our country.

True that the above will possibly require significant budgetary revisions as far as allocations to the education sector go. Would it be worth it? I hope I have been able to convince you that it would. Additionally, one mindset shift in the society at large that would go a long way in bringing about this economic impetus to the education sector is the willingness of those who can afford to pay for education to do so while subsidies and scholarships be reserved exclusively for those who actually need them. Most of us who are well off don’t really hold back from spending money on material comforts and luxuries. While I don’t really have a problem with that as such, I do believe that we shouldn’t hesitate on spending on education either. Knowledge is no less important.

Actually perhaps many of us already do spend a fair bit on education when we feed the humongous coaching industry that has taken root in our country. From what I have heard salaries in coaching institutes are possibly significantly higher than in schools. I wouldn’t be surprised if better people teach at coaching centres today than at schools. Or if school teachers double up as coaching class teachers.

I recommend that we direct our resources directly at schools. Let’s upgrade them, hire the very best to teach our children, demand the very best from them and be willing to pay them salaries they deserve.

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.]

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Different knowledge systems may call for different education formats.

I'm going to keep this post relatively short as the point I wish to make is quite straightforward in my opinion and I believe I'll be able to make it fairly succinctly.

Consider systems of knowledge such as modern day science and technology that have developed and evolved over the last few centuries primarily in the west.

[I'm not saying that these knowledge systems do not have parallels or commonalities with (or are necessarily better than) science and technology as practiced in other civilizations either in the distant past or present times. Perhaps they do and perhaps there are alternate viewpoints and models that are in some ways better. I do not know enough about these matters to compare or comment meaningfully at present. All I am saying is that at least as far as the present day mainstream understanding (and acceptance) of such subjects goes, pretty much all significant advancements that have taken place perhaps at least in the last 300-400 years have been primarily in the west.]

For such systems of knowledge it is perhaps an acceptable premise that the manner in which the rest of the world engages with them and the educational framework through which they are communicated to the next generations of students are aligned with educational methodologies in the west, at least till such a time that someone somewhere either demonstrates the existence of a better knowledge system or establishes that an alternate educational framework would be better.

What the presently and widely accepted educational framework for "western" knowledge systems (phrase used in the sense above) translates to in more concrete terms is three to four year bachelors degree programs followed by two to three year masters programs and finally doctoral programs that can vary a fair bit in their lengths from student to student and advisor to advisor. Within these durations, recent times have seen the implementation of the semester system along with credit based coursework across universities in India. These structures (and degree titles) have essentially been adapted from the west and as I remarked above I can see the validity of doing so for knowledge systems that can essentially be called "western" today since that's where they have primarily developed and progressed for quite a while now.

Again, I'm not saying that these modalities and structures of transmitting knowledge are the best possible. Perhaps there were better approaches in the past that academic communities drifted away from for some reason. Or maybe its the future that will reveal different modalities which prove to be academically more sound in the long run. These are certainly valid debate points in my opinion and I keep an open mind.

I'm simply saying that I do not have any fundamental objections per se in adapting education formats from the west for knowledge systems that have essentially developed there.

However, I do sense a problem with imposing such modalities and structures on every knowledge system.

Consider education in Indian classical music for example:

The first thing to realize is that Indian classical music is a serious knowledge system just as western classical music is, although extremely different in its conception as well as delivery. Music education is taken very seriously in the west and pretty much every university of standing has a school of music that offers education in diverse forms of music all the way till the doctoral level. The west of course focuses on forms that have developed there. Likewise, we must primarily focus on forms that are central to us.

The very cultural identity of any people is intimately connected with their knowledge systems and for this identity to persist it is of paramount importance that these knowledge systems not only be preserved but an ecosystem created (academic aa well as economic) in which they thrive. Integration of Indian knowledge systems in Indian universities is of paramount importance. And we must do this in a way and through an educational framework that is appropriate for our knowledge systems. I'm starting with music but will expand to other subjects soon.

[Any one who even suggests that Indian classical music is any less profound than its western counterpart has basically had one too many for his or her own good in my opinion.]

Coming back to the point I wish to make, I'm not quite sure that the framework of bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees is the best possible framework for education in Indian classical music. In fact if you read about any of the maestros in the field, past and present, you will likely find that the way they have been educated is very different from how we have become used to viewing education. And the results of their manner of education are absolutely beyond any discussion. I'll just take a few names from north Indian classical music to drive home this point: Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, the Dagar brothers. Note that these are names from the recent past and the present. I have not even gone to the distant past: example: Mia Tansen. So their manner of education does extend to the contemporary.

Now I'm not an expert myself in this field so shouldn't really opine on how to go about implementing an alternate method of education that may be more appropriate to the field of Indian classical music in our universities. Can it be done? If so how? What kind of teacher-student ratios would be ideal? How would one qualify to teach in such a university program? Note that some of the best Indian classical musicians in the world today would probably not have "PhDs"! What would be the approximate length of such a program and what would be its structural breakdown (if any)? What might be some of the intermediate benchmarks till one arrives at the status of being called a Pandit or Ustad? Ar what stages (if any) can one be meaningfully absorbed as a teacher at different levels so that the students' (and their families') economic conditions may be addressed? These are all important questions that must be addressed in my opinion by none other than experts in the field of music themselves. So I propose the following:

Let the Ministry of Human Resource and Development along with the University Grants Commission organize a conclave of maestros in north as well as south Indian classical music and seek advice from them on all these questions. Let us adapt the educational framework they recommend. The same university can have different frameworks and modalities for different knowledge systems. I don't see a problem with that. In fact, our universities would only be the richer for it as I see things.

I further propose that such an effort be extended to the following uniquely Indian systems of knowledge:

1. Indian classical dance (all forms).
2. Yoga (philosophy and practice).
3. Vedic studies.
4. Indian philosophical systems and Vedanta.

I look forward to the day when universities across India will thrive in knowledge systems from all parts of the world with each system being addressed and communicated through modalities and structures appropriate to it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Choosing a career path after 12th grade

In this post, I address the question of choosing one's career path after 12th grade.

To set the tone, I repeat a paragraph from my last post:

"Choosing a professional career based on one's interests and on what one is inspired and motivated by holds a central place in my worldview. Of course there can be exceptions. There may be instances, for example, when one may need to take up a career path because of financial considerations at the personal and family level. But I think we need to think of these as exceptions and not the norm. Otherwise we run the risk of students losing interest and getting demotivated - which is a big loss, not just for them but for the society at large as well since a large amount of talent, inspiration, energy and enthusiasm can just get dissipated instead of being tapped for the overall good."

When I use the term "professional career" above, I do not just mean a medical or engineering career. I mean any career path.

So my very first advice to students: Think deeply about what you want to do with your life, which subjects interest you, what you wish to learn formally and what as an extra-curricular pursuit, what it means (in reality with an understanding of the effort required and the possible challenges you may have to face and not just fancy notions you may have picked up from the TV) to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a musician or a mathematician or a theatre artist or a poet or a scientist or an architect or a writer or a historian or a journalist or an archaeologist or a political leader or a police officer or to be with the country's army, navy or air force etc etc. Think, explore, talk to people in different professions and figure out what interests you, what inspires you, what is it that you want to do with your life. Then make your choice and put in the effort required to achieve your dream.

Two concerns that may arise are:

1. Social respectability and the supposed "prestige" associated with certain careers over others. I suspect this concern arises more in parents than the students themselves and my request to them would be to not make this a constraining factor in their wards' choice. Most such notions of "prestige" are generally based on widespread ignorance, at least in Indian society, and are nowhere nearly as important as your ward's happiness in the long run. I'll try and dismantle some of these myths below.

2. Certain careers and professions being more economically viable than others. Well, this is certainly true. There is higher likelihood to be "richer" while pursuing certain careers than others. However, my submission is that monetary richness need not be the only factor while making a career choice. If this were the case, we wouldn't have some of the bravest men and women choose a career in our armed forces for example. So passion is a consideration too! (Although I do think that our government needs to do far more than what it does today for our soldiers, hawaldars and people in other "essential services" such as school teachers and nurses - I'll make an appeal on this and present my views on the matter later in this post). So is interest in a particular subject. Just imagine if Albert Einstein or Marie Curie or Ramanujan or Laplace or Fourier or Stephen Hawking or C.V. Raman, for example, had chosen an IT career instead of becoming scientists and mathematicians. Or Ernest Hemingway or Ustad Bismillah Khan for that matter. What a complete waste that would have been!

This is not to say, of course, that a certain amount of financial well being and security is not important. I am no admirer of poverty and hope to see the end of this curse on our planet within my lifetime. But I believe there are strategies one can adopt to work around financial constraints, at least to some extent. I'll discuss my thoughts on these momentarily.

But first, to discuss respectability of professions:

I referred to Ernest Hemingway, a famous author, above. Some other well known classical writers and poets in the English language that most of us would probably be familiar with are Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare (of course!), Emily Dickinson, John Keats and many more... My mother tongue is Hindi. So I'll mention a few names in that language too: Munshi Premchand, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Maithili Sharan Gupt. Many of you may know many more names associated with literature and poetry in several languages. If not, I recommend doing a simple google/wikipedia search and familiarizing yourself with literary greats at least in your native language.

The point I am trying to make is, in my view, it is no less prestigious to aspire towards having a literary career than say a career in engineering or medicine. Just imagine, for example, a perfect engineering world with classy apartments for everyone, flying cars, daily space shuttles to Venus and Mars and computer screens that we can make appear in front of us with a snap of our fingers, but with no beautiful poetry or profound (or for that matter, funny) prose. That would be a very poor and shallow world as far as I am concerned.

So if you have dreamt of becoming a writer or a poet, my advice would be to take your dream seriously and try and figure out an academic program that is best aligned with your literary interests. Educate yourself deeply in languages of your choice (I know, getting a Masters in English or Hindi or Telugu or any other language probably does not guarantee that one becomes a great writer or poet in that language; but at least you get to read and study what you love!), develop yourself and try to achieve literary greatness. The only condition as far as I am concerned is: Whatever your choice, be serious about it. Life is short. Don't fritter it away. Be serious about your goals and try your best to achieve them.

Does this mean everyone who aspires to can or will become as great or famous as some of the personalities I have named above? Perhaps not. But that need not stop us from following our hearts and pursuing our dreams. To draw an analogy with physics, there are so many physicists in the world but only a few get the Nobel prize. Does that mean all the other physicists have been unsuccessful? Certainly not. The entire scientific community communicates its findings with each other continuously. And when a breakthrough happens, its actually a moment of success for everyone involved in the field as I see it. Sure some minds reveal themselves to be more brilliant or insightful than others. But everyone's effort counts. And I suppose those physicists who are in the profession out of a genuine interest in the subject, are deeply curious and find joy in the process of discovery would enjoy being physicists regardless of whether awards come their way or not.

Similarly, every well written book or play and every verse of beautiful poetry adds to the literary richness of this world. So with fine art: every beautiful painting makes this world a more beautiful place to live in although only a few artists may achieve fame. Then it may not be always the case that a great artist receives recognition within his or her lifetime, or for that matter that fame and recognition always come to those who are good. At the end of the day its about being true to yourself and trying to be the best you can be in my view of things.

So if literature happens to be your passion, plan to pursue a career in it by all means. Just remember to work hard and give it your very best. As I said above, I'll discuss some possible strategies of trying to get around financial constraints that some may face shortly.

Another field that is tremendously important in my view is History. And I believe it is neither taught well enough today nor is it valued enough as a subject - which is exactly the opposite of how it should be in my opinion! A knowledge of how different civilizations evolved over the millenia, a knowledge of how our own civilization has evolved and transformed, the challenges we have faced and our successes and failures, these are topics of great importance in my opinion and I feel any education is incomplete otherwise. So if History fascinates you and you aspire to be a Historian yourself, know that you would be taking up a career that is no less important than any other.

Same with music: Think of Ustad Zakir Hussain (Tabla), Pandit Hariparasad Chaurasia (Flute), Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (Santoor), Ustad Bismillah Khan (Shehnai), Pandit Ritwik Sanyal (a disciple of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar and presently a Professor in the Faculty of Performing Arts at Banaras Hindu University) (Dhrupad), The Dagar Brothers (Dhrupad) and many more... I have listed some maestros in Hindustani classical music here. In case you are interested, just do a simple google/wikipedia search for musicians in the Carnatic style or other forms such as western classical or jazz.

Can you imagine a world without music? Should a career in music be considered any less important or "prestigious" than any other career? Again, the only thing I emphasize is: If you choose to pursue a career in music, be serious about it. Go through the required training (for example: http://internet.bhu.ac.in/performing_arts/), put in your best effort and try your very best to be a great musician. Again, every beautiful song or composition counts and adds to the beauty of this world. Some musicians become famous, some don't. Plus, as I said above, fame need not always imply greatness. So its not about that - its about following your heart and being the best you can be. Just don't shortchange yourself in the effort you put in. If you do so, only you stand to lose in the end.

Or Dance: If I am not mistaken, dance was considered to be a divine art in India at one time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance). It is our great misfortune in my opinion that we have reduced it to the level of  "item numbers" today. I, for one, have great respect for Indian classical dance forms as well as other serious forms of this art such as the ballet and would encourage anyone seriously interested in pursuing a career in dance to go for it.

In fact one of the best practices I have seen is music and dance being part of children's education at home in many Indian families. I believe this is more prominent in eastern and southern parts of the country but it would be good to see this culture spread. Every morning, children singing for a while - often just practicing the seven basic notes (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa). I think there is a value to this even if one doesn't eventually pursue music or dance as a career. From my own rather limited experience I feel that practicing vocal music in the Indian classical style has a calming and consolidating effect on the mind. I have started late but wish I had received this education as a child. In addition to children learning music and dance at home while growing up it might also be worthwhile to introduce Indian classical music and dance as optional electives at the primary and secondary school levels.This will generate much needed employment for musicians and dancers as well as help sustain these art forms. I'll come back to this point in a bit.

So to summarize: Whatever be your particular interest (it could be to become a theater artist or to pursue a career in the fine arts for example), immerse yourself in the field, understand what it is to be really good in it, identify a program of study that is best suited to proceed towards your goal and work hard.

The worry of course is then being able to make a decent living in such professions, that are perhaps today not "mainstream".

The central strategy I propose to address this concern is that more people consider taking up teaching positions at the school, college or university level. And alongside one's teaching responsibilities at different levels one can continue to pursue knowledge and work towards higher degrees (more on this below).

I think we as a society have lost sight of the fact that teaching is an extremely honourable profession. Perhaps the highest there is as Knowledge sustains everything else. We need to correct course on this front and have the very best in every field take up teaching positions. There is a dire need for good teachers in our country today in my opinion. So I propose this strategy both from the viewpoint of aspirants in different fields earning a decent salary while pursuing their own individual goals as well as to address the need for good teachers.

If there is a need to start earning money right after your bachelors degree, my recommendation would be to take up a teaching position at the school level. If you are unable to get a good teaching position right away, offer tuitions for a while. But be sure to pursue a Masters degree alongside. Don't stop studying yourself! That's the key. Don't lose sight of your long term goals. I know that salaries at the school level may be a concern. As I mentioned above, I'll make an appeal to the government regarding this later in this post along with presenting my views on the matter. But till such a time that the overall situation changes for the better, we still need to keep moving forward while negotiating any financial difficulties that may arise as best we can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting yourself and your family using such a strategy as you work towards your goal. In fact teaching school children is such a great service!

But as I said above, be sure to pursue a masters degree alongside. Keep studying!

After you obtain your masters degree, try and obtain a better teaching position at the school level, or if possible, a lectureship at the college level where you can teach bachelors students.

Again, don't stop studying yourself :)! Enroll yourself in a PhD program alongside and work hard towards writing a good thesis.

Once you have a PhD, you can either obtain a more senior position at a college, or better still, try to become a faculty member at a University or an Institute where you can also be involved with post-graduate education..

This is how it usually works out in my field too. Pure research positions in science and technology are rare to find and by and large those of us who are interested in research take up academic positions in an institute where one has teaching commitments to fulfill. That's what pays the bill and alongside one gets complete academic freedom to study and research whichever area one wishes to.

So teach, and alongside, keep working towards your goal of becoming an author or a poet or a musician or a mathematician or a scientist or a painter. If you are lucky the roles will flip eventually. You will become a mathematician who also teaches. Or an accomplished Sitar player or Odissi dancer who also teaches others. And who knows maybe one day you will (if you want to of course) become a full time painter or musician or author or scientist who earns enough directly from his or her profession and won't need to teach anymore from a financial point of view. The thing to realize is that there is a whole range of possibilities that can help you stay in the field and keep moving forward.

In extreme situations if the financial conditions are very difficult at some stage in life it may be necessary to take a break for a while and return to pursuing your subject after some time. That's fine. Just don't lose your inner focus and commitment. Or you can pursue your subjects through distance education or correspondence courses (example: http://www.ignou.ac.in/ , look for other avenues too) while being on a job. No problem. The important thing is to gain as much knowledge as you can.

In fact this reminds me of something I wish to share. I met a young man working as a server in a Barista cafe recently (his name is Harjot if I remember correctly, but I'll double check the next time I go there). For some reason I asked him if he was also studying alongside his job at the cafe. He answered in the positive and told me that he was pursuing a BA degree through correspondence. I was so impressed to hear this. I believe we need to encourage this mindset. Yes, work early in life if your situation demands it - but find a way to keep studying alongside as well.

This is something fairly common in the west. Most students work part time even during their under graduate programs to ease the financial burden on their families. It may not be necessary for everyone here in India and many may not prefer to if the family is in a good enough financial condition to support their wards' educational program but we need to respect this approach as well whenever the situation demands it. To give a personal example, I worked at a McDonlads during my masters program in the US for a few months till I got a teaching assistantship. I used to stand at the sales counter for a few hours in the day and help clean up in the evenings. To this day I feel proud of myself for having done that. And my fellow workers were mostly students going to the same university, including one girl who was pursuing her PhD in western classical music!

Another cue we need to take from the west in my opinion is how the willingness of people to pay for experiencing art forms such as music helps keep these art forms alive. I am not just referring to concerts and performances by famous artists here. Pretty much every weekend you will find music performances happening at different venues where often local upcoming artists perform and one can go and see these performances for a nominal price. Of course the performances have to be of a certain minimum standard otherwise the concerned musicians don't succeed. So they have to continuously work hard and keep improving themselves. But the point I am making is that this culture enables artists to support themselves and stay focused on developing themselves and their art further which in turn enables art itself to progress further.

I think we need to move in this direction a bit. From what I have seen most of us who are fairly well off financially would easily spend a few thousand rupees on food in an upscale restaurant but would hesitate to buy a ticket for even a few hundred rupees to go for a concert or dance recital where say a local upcoming Sarangi player or Kuchipudi dancer were to give a performance. Or for that matter an art exhibition featuring paintings by a local upcoming artist. We could perhaps occasionally forego an outing to watch a bollywood flick and spend perhaps half the money to watch a theatre performance featuring local artists in a regional language. If we can bring this shift in our mindset, we may suddenly be able to create avenues for our artists to express themselves and our society would be culturally far richer that it is today.

Coming back to the teaching profession: I promised above that I will make an appeal to the government regarding salaries for school teachers and personnel in other professions such those who enroll themselves to become soldiers or hawaldars or hospital nurses. So here goes:

I refer to the professions I have just listed as "essential services". People in these professions are fundamentally important to society. Our children need to be taught by the most loving and knowledgeable teachers we can find. Our patients and the elderly need to be cared for by the most caring and competent nurses we can find. The security of our villages and towns and our borders depends on the bravest, fittest and most committed people taking up careers in police and army services. And all these people and their families have needs to fulfill and aspirations for a decent life for themselves and their families. We must ensure that we pay them well enough so that these concerns are addressed and financial constraints do not become a factor that blocks people from taking up these professions. At the very least, complete medical care for the personnel in these professions and any dependents, education for their children, salaries that ensures a basic living standard at the level of food, clothing and shelter and a provident fund type option that ensures a basic level of financial saving and security for the future must be guaranteed. If we do any less than this we are doing a great disservice to not just the personnel themselves but to ourselves as well.

Here's an example to emphasize the appeal I am making:

I once took a cab from Delhi airport. Now I am in the habbit of striking up conversations with cab and auto drivers occasionally. It makes the time pass and I get to understand a bit about them. So I asked this can driver how much money he makes per month. I still remember him telling me (this was about 4-5 years ago) that business used to be much better but he now manages to make about Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month. I'm not completely knowledgeable about salaries in the professions I have appealed for above but in case we have allowed a state affairs to set in wherein it is more lucrative to be a taxi driver (with due respect to their profession and an acknowledgement of their hard work as well as the fact that they too have their needs and aspirations and a right to earn enough to fulfill them) than to be a nurse or a school teacher or a soldier or a hawaldar, then it only reflects our immense lack of maturity and foresight.

It is my earnest appeal to the state as well as central governments to put thought in this direction and ensure that all "essential services" related professions deserve the respect and monetary compensation they deserve.

To end this post: I believe that for quite a while professions of medicine and engineering have been emphasized the most, at least in our country, and a sense of these professions being more "prestigious" than others may have set in. I hope I have been able to convince you that if this is indeed the case it is based on nothing but ignorance. Choose to pursue these professions, just like any other, only if you are really interested, motivated and inspired to be a doctor or an engineer. Otherwise, do not choose to be one. Be who you want to be and do what you want to do with your life. Just remember to work hard and move towards your goal without hurting or disadvantaging anyone else in the process.

[The only exception I would make to this advice is if your family has been struggling financially and choosing such a career path would liberate them from this as well as a social respectability bondage in your opinion. Even then, if possible, my advice would be to try and choose a path towards economic liberation for your family that is best aligned with your interests and aspirations. Hopefully some of the suggestions I have made above will be of some help.]

Best of luck!