The ministry of human resource development (MHRD) is reportedly keen on instituting an evaluation system for college and university faculty linking their promotion to the quality of teaching. Apart from current academic performance indicators (API) such as published work in books and journals, participation in seminars and conferences, and professional development activities, the ministry wants to make faculty members accountable to the ‘ultimate stakeholders’, the students, who will get to assess teachers’ performance. The idea is to include teaching performance as an element of API and the ministry is assessing the weight it ought to be accorded.
Few would dispute the need to address the problem of quality in higher education. A large swathe of the sector is the source of despair for students and policymakers. The challenge is to unravel the effects of mismanagement over the decades. There are too many in faculty positions who are incapable of publishing peer-reviewed work and who owe their positions to networks or rank venality. Protected by tenure and social networks, teachers are known to neglect teaching or make little effort to keep in step with innovation. From that vantage, getting students to evaluate teachers is on the face of it a reasonable intervention — one that has proved to be fairly effective in Western universities and elsewhere. Students, particularly in badly-run remote government colleges, hardly have a say in academic affairs. Handing them a tool to exert pressure on faculty sounds sensible in theory. But this is also fraught with risk. In these intensely political times in campuses, teachers conveying contrarian ideas can be subject to intimidation. In the case of bad teachers, this tool can be an incentive to pander to students.
The fact is innovations work best amid systems that have a degree of pre-existing functionality. An institution which is modestly committed to improvements responds to incentives. By contrast an individual in badly-governed institutions where working conditions are poor will find newer layers of evaluations coercive. Academic faculty need to be accountable for the quality of their service delivery but much thought needs to be given to the institutional environment and the quality of leadership in our public universities.