Bangalore: "No research, without resource for our Profs," an IIT alumni has told the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Santosh Ansumali an IIT alumni and currently a Faculty Fellow (Engineering Mechanics Unit) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, said in a letter to the Prime Minister that if the government cannot provide the best resources to the IIT faculty, it has no right to expect the best research either.
His letter reads as follows:
"Dear Dr. Manmohan Singh,
My generation is a fan of yours because we have tasted the fruits of the economic reforms that you initiated in the 1990s. As kids, influenced by newspaper reports and brought up on a heavy dose of movies, many of us believed that the real problem in India was smuggling of gold. However, you taught us that the real issue was the exorbitant taxes on gold imports rather than smuggling. You solved the problem by identifying the root cause and dealing with it effectively.
We learnt from you that many a problem will disappear if we only pause to think about what the issue really is. And that is why we follow you. But it seems to me that, now that you are Prime Minister, your own government is not following you.
Recently, the government informed that it would turn the Indian Institutes of Technology, and other elite institutions, into world leaders in research by streamlining the recruitment and promotion processes. Human Resources Minister, Kapil Sibal suggested that there is a need to fix the poor recruitment policies at IITs to raise their standard and produce a few Nobel Laureates.
But according to the IITian, the real problem remains unaddressed. Sibal preached that the IIT research profile is not similar to that of Harvard because IITs hire inexperienced people as Assistant Professors and there is no cap on the number of people attaining a Senior Professor status. In order to resolve this, he has suggested that people with less than three years's experience should be appointed under the On-Contract Assistant Professorship (OCAP) scheme. But, he is willing to waive the process for the likes of C N R Rao or Stephen Hawking.
Similarly, for promotions too, Sibal has suggested that only 40 percent of the people should attain the 12,000 grade pay status. He also rejected the demand made by IIT faculty members for 10,000 as 'A' grade pay. According to Sibal, OCAP is very similar to the tenure system practiced at his alma mater - Harvard - for appointment at the entry level.
Sibal says that the OCAP system and the restriction on promotions and pay will increase competition and the IITs's research output. He also dubbed those who oppose this system 'greedy people who are afraid to face competition'. But the question is, why would an engineer with two or more years of post-doctoral experience come back to India for a paltry salary of 25,000 a month? It hardly needs to be reminded that an engineer with a similar profile would expect a pay packet in the range of 8 lakh ( 800,000) to 25 lakh ( 2.5 million) a year, if he/she takes up industrial research opportunities even within India.
I do not see why would an Indian researcher join the OCAP scheme? In case a good candidate does join, OCAP will end up acting as a hurdle to his research. An OCAP scheme teacher will have to tutor students, struggle for money and strive to get PhD students, etc. Who would want to risk years of post-doctoral effort for this? This, I think, can only result in further deterioration at IITs.
Mr Sibal claimed that by creating a hierarchy at the senior professor level and keeping a cap of 40 per cent, he is increasing competition. In reality, this will create a situation where a deserving junior faculty member will not get promotion because senior people would have already filled the quota. If you really want to increase competition, why should promotion be permanent?
The whole issue seems to originate from the premise that IITs are flush with good applications and yet research is poor because they are not careful with the selection process. First of all, the number of successful Indian professors at good American and European universities/industry is a good indication that we cannot compete with good global universities unless our pay packages too are comparable.
I agree that a lot of talented people come back to IITs because of reasons like dedication to the nation, commitment to family, etc. However, you cannot create a world class research university based on goodwill alone. No one chooses a job based on PPP (purchasing power parity) calculations or on comparison with other Indian government staff. A vast majority will do hard monetary calculation and decide where to go. If you want the best people and the best research, you will also have to provide the best infrastructure - which will include salary, start-up grant, PhD students, workload distribution, etc.
And, for god's sake, please stop telling us that we cannot provide good salaries because we are a developing nation and short on resources. If you cannot provide the best resources, you have no right to expect the best research either. To quote former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: 'If you pay peanuts, you will only get monkeys.'
I am quoting this not to insult the current IIT faculty (including myself), but just to remind you that we cannot design an IIT system based solely on the idealistic and nationalistic fervour of the faculty. It is no surprise that the best Indian minds emerging from IITs vote for PhDs abroad rather than in India."
Here are some very simple reforms, which should make the system more efficient:
1. Introduce a real tenure system: Similar to many universities outside India, we can have the tenure system where everyone is appointed for a three or four year term. People should be confirmed based on performance. Exceptional people should get early confirmation and the others should go for a second tenure before confirmation.
However, such a system requires that we must have a good start-up research grant system. Furthermore, in such a system it is natural that people will expect a decent salary. In my opinion, a respectable salary for entry level professor is 100,000-plus per month.
1. Faculty salary should be completely de-linked from babus's salary. In fact, why give new salary from some past date? Start it from some future date and it will save a lot of taxpayer money.
2. Think globally: Why should all IIT professors be Indian nationals only? Like all good global universities, IITs should also recruit from a global talent pool.
3. Increase PhD salary and post-doc pay: Unless we start paying good amount to students, we cannot increase our research output. Most of our good students go out partially due to financial reasons. Why can't we pay Rs 25,000 a month to PhD students and OCAP salary to post-docs?
4. Periodical review by international experts: Every once in a while, we must have the performance of IITs audited by a global panel of experts.
5. Introduce penalty for unethical behaviour: Indian academia in recent years has witnessed a lot of cases of unethical behaviour, like plagiarism. However, we do not know of a single case where somebody has actually been punished. We must start punishing those who wilfully indulge in unethical behaviour.
Dear Mr Prime Minister, I hope you will act soon and stop all attempts by Mr Sibal to degrade the IIT system."