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Monday, December 10, 2018
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Crafting the joyless university

A public audit of the UGC’s functioning is required before it can do further damage to higher education.
One phase of a long-standing stand-off between the University Grants Commission (UGC) and a section of our university teachers appears to have ended on June 16. As reported in the press, on that day the Government of India announced that it was acceding to all but one of their demands on the rules governing their functioning. Some peace would have been bought no doubt, but it cannot really further the principle that at the end of the day, after everyone’s rights and responsibilities have been granted and codified, the experience of the university must be a joyful one for our youth. There is some reason to believe that it is not always so in India today, and this is a pity.
Hours of contention
There are three components to the UGC’s package governing the faculty. Of these, mostly two have proved to be bones of contention between the two parties. These have to do with the mandated workload for teachers and student evaluation of courses, including of the lecturer herself. But it is the third component that needs to be scrutinised for its suitability. This is the assessment of teacher performance on a range of activities, ideally centred on research, or what laypersons would recognise as the contribution made to the stock of our knowledge. As a measure of faculty performance, the UGC has devised the Academic Performance Indicator (API), which is the score the teacher has attained in all activities combined.
Pulapre Balakrishnan
On the workload, having attempted to increase it by 25 per cent via a notification issued on May 10, the UGC has now climbed down and restored status quo, whereby a teacher has to undertake 16 Direct Teaching Hours a week. This may not appear particularly strenuous to the public, who are used to a 40 hour week! However, they may not be taking into account that every hour of lecturing, or even discussion, requires several hours of reading and preparation, these two being distinct tasks.
So how are we to arrive at what is a reasonable workload for our university teachers? I would have thought that it is obvious that in this globalised world of knowledge production, one approach would be to seek to approximate the global norm. Were we to do that, we would notice immediately that India’s college teachers have to teach far too much. They teach more hours per week and for more weeks in the year than their counterparts, at least in the anglophone world. I shall explain how I arrive at this conclusion but first draw attention to the fact that with so much of teaching to do, they are left with little time to read for their classes, which directly impinges upon the quality of the lectures students receive.
This is as far as the dissemination of knowledge is concerned. We are yet to address the creation of knowledge. It is not only that a heavy load of teaching crowds out the time left for research, but too much of teaching deadens the intellect which requires leisure and solitude to flourish. So while the UGC’s decision to not increase the workload may appear conciliatory, it must not lead us to overlook the possibility that the existing work norm itself may be unacceptably high.
A constructive suggestion is made here. Instead of approaching the problem from the perspective of a mandatory number of teaching hours, it could be viewed within a framework that starts out by setting the number of courses a teacher must teach in a year. The global benchmark is four courses, two being taught in each of the two semesters. Nevertheless, this would yet leave open the issue of the number of hours of lecture per course. Again, globally, the norm would be no more that 40 hours per course. I understand that in some universities in India it is as much as 60 hours per course, no doubt determined by the number of hours lecturers must teach per year. This approach has the consequence that students are now forced to attend far too many lectures. As with teachers, so to for the students, too many lecture hours can be a disaster. Passive participation kills all creativity as there is no responsibility imposed on the student to engage. The student’s misery is compounded when the quality of lecturing is poor. The answer to both overworked teachers and deadened students is to drastically reduce the lecture hours. Back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the proposal that a teacher does four courses of 40 hours each in a year shows that India’s teachers, under present UGC norms, are teaching approximately.
a 100 per cent more than their peers. The consequence of this for the quality of our universities can be imagined.
On constant evaluation
The second of the bones of contention between the UGC and the teachers concerns student evaluation of courses. Surely students must be given the opportunity to assess the instruction they receive, in particular the quality of lectures. While there is scope for immaturity here, the answer to this is to take the evaluations with a pinch of salt, not to scrap them. The university needs to know how the courses that it offers are perceived so that course correction is possible. There is no substitute for student evaluation here. Teachers must learn to treat this as part of give and take. There is no professional or ethical ground on which they can refuse to stand up and be evaluated by their students. The UGC is right to recommend student evaluation of courses, even though we may argue over the metrics.

Finally, the third aspect of governance of our universities by the UGC. The government’s statement of June 16 makes no mention of it, though it is the most controversial component. Represented by the API, this prescribes minimum scores to be attained before a teacher can be considered for promotion. Mainly two elements are involved. One is the specification of a mandatory number of years to be spent in each category, between Assistant and full Professor, and the other is the assessment of research. Both are problematic.
There is absolutely no reason why the number of years of experience in a post should be a consideration in assessing a teacher’s intellectual progress. Things had been done differently in India in the last century. C.V. Raman came into the university from government and Amartya Sen had been made a full professor when he was all of 23 years. They went on to win Nobel Prizes.... More
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