Dr. Rajat Acharyya is the Director (Additional Charge), UGC-HRDC and Former Dean, Faculty of Arts and Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University. He spoke to BE’s Ellora De regarding the
present education system.
Dr. Rajat Acharyya
Q) Are you satisfied with the faculty recruiting procedure of our education system? If not, what is needed to improve it?
A) Recruitment of good teaching faculty is one of the main pillars of the education system. The current system of recruitment of teachers at the universities based on Performance Based Appraisal System (PBAS)/Academic Performance Indicator (API) made mandatory by the UGC and subsequently by the respective state governments for state universities has certainly made the recruitment process more objective, and importantly, transparent. There are, however, a lot of areas in the system which need to be improved.
For example, one key component of the PBAS was the research publications of applicants in the form of journal articles, text or reference books, chapters written in books and the like. The problem here is that there is no built-in quality check for such publications and often quantity of publications appears to outweigh quality of publications. The UGC has recently made some changes in this regard by identifying a list of journals, only in which an applicant must have published his/her research papers for getting any credit for such publications. It is certainly a welcome move, but it is not sufficient for the much required quality check. The system still doesn’t ensure quality of research and knowledge creation nor does it ensure dissemination of such knowledge.
The most important lacunae in the present recruitment system is its failure to judge teaching skills of applicants. A good researcher does not always turn out to be a good teacher. Similarly, domain knowledge of an applicant in his/her area of research (judged through across-the-table interviews) is not a sufficient indicator of his/her understanding of the basics of the subject which is an essential requirement of a good teacher. Job seminars, not in the area of an applicant’s past or present research but on core/basic topics of undergraduate/postgraduate courses, students’ feedback (if the applicant is already teaching elsewhere) and the like may help in this regard. These norms are now being followed in some universities, and in recruitment of college teachers in some parts of the country but a lot remains to be done in this regard. However, good judgment over teaching skills through such job seminars would depend a lot on the quality of subject experts, and unless the universities and relevant authorities appoint persons of high academic repute and teaching skills in the selection committees, nothing will work for the betterment of the system.
Q) Do the universities have proper faculty exchange programme? What is your suggestion in this regard?
A) No, in general in the case of the state universities, there is none. There are exceptions like Jadavpur University, though in a very limited way and mostly as an outcome of collaborations with some foreign universities.
Q) Do the universities have proper student exchange programmes?
A) No. Students exchange programmes require a lot of financial support. Even exceptions are rare so far as the state universities are concerned, and those too are outcomes of specific and sporadic efforts of the concerned university or department in collaborating with some foreign universities. There is no proper system in place. Exchange programmes, particularly with foreign universities, provide exposure to different environments, cultures and learning experiences.
Q) Our system faces a gap between teaching methodology and preparation of course modules. How can this be overcome?
A) I do not agree with this in general. I have been taught by some of the finest minds in my discipline and I never felt that there had been a gap between their teaching method and preparation of course modules. In fact, that is what we can expect from a very good and thinking teacher. I try to follow their path and I know of many teachers in the field of economics who does similarly as well. I would not say that this is what all teachers do, but would not accept “a gap between teaching methodology and preparation of course modules” as a generalised statement.
Q) Are students who are opting for academics being given enough R&D opportunities, sent for internships and national and international seminars/conferences, tested on research abilities and analytical skills and encouraged to publish their works in peer-reviewed journals?
A) Nowadays, most of the universities and institutes are encouraging post-graduate students at the end of their first year to take internships, and accordingly changing their academic schedules to enable them to take such internships. For example, since 2014, when I was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Jadavpur University, the classes for second year MA (Economics) start in the 2nd/3rd week of July, whereas classes for other subjects in Arts Faculty start on and from 1st July. This enables the post-graduate students in economics to start internships starting from June 1, right after completion of their end semester examinations. However, this opportunity is not limited to those who opt for academics, primarily because students do not opt for academics at the end of first year of their post-graduate study but keep their options open. The nature of internships they apply for, however, often reveals their future options. Good course curriculum in universities and institutes like Jadavpur University, Delhi University, JNU, ISI, Hyderabad University, is designed in a way to test research abilities and analytical skills. However, it varies from one discipline to another. In universities, where the course curriculum includes project work, students are certainly encouraged to publish their works in peer reviewed journals. For Ph.D. students, it has become mandatory to publish at least one research paper in a peer reviewed journal before submission of thesis. Though it is not mandatory For M. Phil students many supervisors insist on publications.
Q) Are students going into non-academic streams taught written and Communicative English, data analytics and mathematics, corporate ethics and other skills needed for their specific field?
A) Corporate ethics has never been part of the course curriculum either at the UG or at the PG level, though I do feel that it should be. Mathematics as a subsidiary or pass paper for Economics Honours students at Jadavpur University is compulsory since 2000. As far as skills in data analytics is concerned, both the under-graduate and post-graduate courses in Economics at Jadavpur University provide ample scope for students to develop such skills. The Choice Based Credit System course curriculum introduced by the UGC for the undergraduate course has been adopted by almost all universities across India. Jadavpur University was the first to adopt it in West Bengal. Similarly, the course also puts a lot of emphasis on subject specific skills and communicative English by introducing skill enhancement and ability enhancement courses.
Q) Why are the students going abroad? What is lacking in India?
A) In the United States and Europe, courses and study programmes are student-centric and prioritise students’ preferences. There are lots of flexibilities in course curriculum like choice-based credit system, credit transfer systems, quality assurance and movement between higher education and vocational skills training courses. Also the demand for inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary programmes is now increasing. But the study programmes and course curriculum in most of the higher education institutes in India provide very few opportunities in this regard. Similarly, with the increasing geographical mobility of people in the present era, demand for digital and distance learning is rising. Unfortunately, in many cases the digital content and distance learning materials in universities in India are of poor quality. Unless we can offer a flexible and competitive course structure and quality assurance, and provide the students a scope for digital and distance learning, such brain drain cannot be stopped. The UGC has already made it clear that digital and distance learning should be treated at par with regular, full-time and contact-based courses and very recently the Supreme Court of India has also given a verdict that Ph.D. degree obtained through distance learning mode should be treated at par with Ph.D. degree obtained through regular curriculum. These will certainly help. However, in a globalised world with opportunities to study abroad being even larger than ever before, global ranking of universities also matters .Unfortunately, not a single Indian university features in the top 100 universities in the world.
Q) As an educationist, what are the things that need to be rectified in the higher education system?
A) Quality of teaching cannot always be ensured through academic regulations as these are designed as punishment schemes for under-performing teachers but not as reward schemes for the better or best performers. The problem of quality is often accentuated by inbreeding in recruitment of teachers at the entry level. Inbreeding has destroyed many departments of many Indian universities. Moreover, the best minds are not attracted into research and teaching, and for that, returns from teaching. There is also the lack of high quality research infrastructure such as well equipped libraries and laboratories. In fact, lack of research facilities compared to those in the USA and Europe has become larger than ever due to shrinking of the education budget and lack of private support in such facilities in India.
Finally, the governance of higher education must be freed from political interventions, which includes appointments of academic administrators. The present system in such appointments in higher education institutes in India, and in West Bengal in particular, have certainly evolved over the recent years to achieve the objective of merit-based recruitment to some extent, but the system still remains far short of the extent that would be required to ensure that academic merits are not compromised upon.
Q) What is your message to your future successors?
A) Prioritise and focus on teaching and take the challenge in teaching in areas beyond your comfort zone.
Q) What is your message to the students?
A) Whatever you do in your life, do it passionately and with full commitment, sincerity, and good intention. That will help you to hold your head high, make life better for someone else, and make your parents, peer group, and above all your teachers, who made you who you are feel better.