The doubtful wisdom of ‘Professors of Practice’

The possibility of its misuse is built into the very design of the scheme. Even in the US, where it has been in vogue for over 20 years, the experiment has had mixed results

Representative Photo (Getty images)
Representative Photo (Getty images)

Furqan Qamar & Navneet Sharma

Universities and colleges in the country have now been authorised to appoint Professors of Practice (PoP). They can now appoint ‘distinguished experts’ with ‘remarkable contributions’ and ‘proven expertise’ of at least 15 years, preferably at a senior level, as Professors of Practice but for up to four years.

To be engaged as a Professor of Practice, one need not possess any formal academic qualification; nor are they required to meet the minimum eligibility criteria prescribed for appointment as a professor such as a PhD degree, publications, teaching and research experience.

They just need to express their interest in being engaged as a Professor of Practice and claim that they are ‘distinguished’, or whatever the term means. The number of such PoPs will be restricted to 10 per cent of the total sanctioned faculty positions in higher education institutions (HEIs).

PoPs, ostensibly being eminent experts drawn from a wide variety of professions, are expected to help HEIs develop industryrelevant curriculums, connect academia with industry for joint research projects and consultancies, and mentor them in experiential and ‘practical’ learning.

The idea of PoPs is not an Indian innovation. US universities have long been engaging practitioners as faculty under different nomenclatures: practice professors, professors of practice, professors of professional practice or clinical professors. Later, these titles were extended to even academic faculty whose primary responsibility was teaching rather than research.

Though the US universities prescribed no ceilings on their numbers, the best estimate suggests that even after at least two decades, PoPs are not more than 10 per cent of the total faculty members. Now, of course, many universities have put a limit to 20 per cent on such faculty members.

While the scheme was popular, the response has been mixed. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been sharply critical of the practice on the ground that it has debilitated students, academic freedom and the profession. AAUP has, therefore, been demanding that all full-time faculty, irrespective of their title, should be treated as tenured or probationary for tenure.

In India, the scheme could prove to be a non-starter in the bulk of HEIs because the scheme offers no financial support. PoPs are to be either industry sponsored or to be paid by the institutions out of their own generated resources or they shall be appointed on an honorary basis. Conversely, the scheme may well be a huge success. With around 1.5 million faculty members in the higher education system, the number of PoPs could go up to 150,000. LinkedIn has already started throwing up the opportunity for its members to work as PoPs.

The loosely framed eligibility conditions for the appointment as PoP may be the magnet and attract a large number of people to join the academic fraternity. But this is also what makes the scheme susceptible to misuse.

It might lead to back door entry of ideological cahoots into faculty positions. People with no PhD, no publications, no teaching experience, no research supervision and no research exposure but with the right contacts could get into the teaching profession on a contractual basis. They could later use their clout to become permanent faculty. Taking a clue from the US experience, we can be sure that PoPs might want to be absorbed as full-time regular faculty.

The idea of PoPs may have been well-meaning and with altruistic intent, but then in this country we are notorious for our ingenuity to circumvent rules and game the system in our favour. The credibility of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is already in question following a few lesser-known universities managing to score even higher than the world-renowned Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

Recent attempts to loosen up the eligibility criteria for the appointment of faculty members in universities and colleges are perplexing. Diluting the criteria for admission and award of the PhD degree also defies logic or any plausible justification.

It is disquieting that a PhD degree is no longer necessary for appointment as faculty. It is worrying that the requirement of publishing a minimum of two quality publications, hitherto mandatory for the award of the degree of PhD, now stands discarded.

Why must the higher education regulator compel universities to fill up 40 per cent of the PhD seats with those who have neither passed the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) nor the National Eligibility Test (NET)? Ideally, the universities should have been encouraged and incentivised to prefer the JRF/NET qualified candidates for their PhD programmes.

Ironically, existing faculty members in all disciplines continue to be denied time-bound promotion merely because they do not possess a PhD degree. Now Professors of Practice placed above them hierarchically are going to demotivate the faculty and may even dissuade younger faculty from further research.

HEIs are also reeling under faculty shortages. The student-teacher ratio in higher education has been persistently declining. More than 30 per cent of the sanctioned faculty positions in centrally funded higher educational institutions remain vacant at any point in time. In state universities and their colleges, vacancies are often as high as 50 per cent.

Common sense would suggest that all the positions likely to fall vacant in about a year must be advertised and processed for selection in advance so that a replacement is ready to fill in as soon the incumbent retires. In case of delays in the selections and appointment, the incumbent may be allowed to continue till the post is filled up to ensure uninterrupted teaching and continuity of the learning process. Unfortunately, such suggestions are these days brushed aside even as vacancies mount.

Engagement and involvement of retired faculty in teaching and research, even voluntarily and on gratis, are generally abhorred. Faculty members due for superannuation in two years are banned from taking research scholars under their supervision.

In several universities, continuing research scholars are not allowed to complete their thesis under their supervisors. They are transferred to others as soon as a faculty member retires. And all these are for a reason, to minimise the presence of vested interests in the campus.

Supplanting seasoned faculty with qualifications, experience and publications with people who are aliens to the higher education system, culture and ethos sound strange in the Indian context.

But then we live in strange times and have no option but to brace for the PoP culture. These PoPs will not cement higher education but will be another façade with no serious attempt to invigorate it.

(Furqan Qamar, a former advisor to the Planning Commission, is professor at FMS, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Navneet Sharma teaches in the Department of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala)

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