Focus our best academic talent in a few places to promote excellence
Presidency University is struggling to hold on to its best people today in part because as a state government institution in a poor state, it pays at least 40% less than its competitors who benefit from the munificence of the central government.
In 1959, when my father joined Presidency College, Kolkata, as a lecturer in economics, his monthly pay was ₹600, the equivalent, say, of ₹25,000 in today’s money. When he came back to the college in 1966, having spent five years teaching abroad, he was paid ₹700, something like ₹17, 000 today. Inflation had been high in the intervening years, and the rupee now bought a lot less.
The decline in real incomes of academics continued through the early 1970s, and only starts to turn around towards the end of that decade. In the meanwhile, Indian academia relentlessly bled talent—in my field of economics, world class names like Pranab Bardhan, Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen and T.N. Srinivasan and many others who are less known but still very distinguished, moved abroad, surely in part because they were tired of feeling poor.
Since then of course things have significantly improved. Based on my admittedly shallow research, a lecturer/assistant professor today at a government college or university makes somewhere between ₹40,000 and ₹120,000.
And yet the sense I have from my friends in academia is that recruitment is a huge issue. Whereas in the 1950s and 60s good teaching jobs were scarce, and many talented people had to settle for ill-paying part-time jobs in obscure private colleges, finding competent teachers is a major problem these days, and very few places even aspire to attract world class talent. Even prestigious institutions like the Delhi School of Economics have many unfilled slots.
It is tempting to blame the explosion of institutions. There are of course many more colleges, universities and institutes, which is why places like Presidency University (the erstwhile Presidency College) are now struggling. In 1959 they used to have the pick of the talent; now they have to compete for them against upstarts that are often able to pay much more (more about that later) and offer better working conditions.
But if you think about it, this cannot explain why the entire system is short of talent. After all, the fact that we have so many more institutions also means that we are producing vastly more graduates and each such person is a potential academic, a possible Nobel Prize winner in the making. The same factors that increased the demand for higher education should in principle also increase the supply of outstanding researcher-teachers? Why haven’t they?
One answer is that there are many more lucrative non-academic jobs in the private sector. The best students from Delhi School get jobs in consulting or finance that pay much more than a full professor will ever make.
On the other hand, this is a problem worldwide; Harvard pays its faculty well, but many of them could make much more money in the private sector. Instead it relies on the innate rewards from being an academic, the pleasures of discovering things and influencing people. Why doesn’t that work for us?
A part of the answer is that while our salaries have gone up, the sense of what constitutes a good life has also changed. Our academics may be richer now than they were in 1960, but they are much further from being able to afford the best schools for their children (which are often very expensive) or in most cases, an apartment remotely resembling what their friends in the private sector take for given. They hear their friends talking about sending their children abroad for college, knowing that it is out of reach for them. And they feel poor. Unlike most Harvard professors.
But another piece of the answer is that academics is a lonely business in India. One great pleasure of being an academic is the ability to trade in ideas with your colleagues and students; it is not much fun being the only connoisseur of some fine point. If everyone who you want to share ideas with is elsewhere, you might as well also go. This is why it is easy for good institutions to fall apart; when the stars walked out on Delhi School back in the 1960s and 70s, they took with them a big part of the reason for the others to be there, and I suspect something similar happened throughout the system. Moreover, once the most inspiring teachers were gone, students no longer had role models in front of them pointing to academia as a career.
I emphasise this last point because it tells us something useful about what we need to do now, if we want to build world-class institutions. First we need to start small; the more we can concentrate our best talent in a few places, the better our chances are of creating a group that can become the nuclei around which the rest of the academic community in the area can grow. I realise that this goes against the spirit of populating the country with IITs, but that may be why it’s all the more important to say.
Second, let our institutions loose; give them a grant per student and let them (and not the UGC) decide (within limits) what to teach and what not to teach and who to pay how much and how to raise extra funds, as long as they are able to attract a good enough student body (based, say on performance in school leaving exams). Presidency University is struggling to hold on to its best people today in part because as a state government institution in a poor state, it pays at least 40% less than its competitors who benefit from the munificence of the central government. Given that the budget is not about to change, why not allow them to decide what fields they will teach, what each class size should be and how they will use their total budget, again subject to keeping the student body happy and good students coming. This will encourage institutions to concentrate and build in areas where they have a chance to be excellent and attract the best students.
I realise this would be a radical move and there are obviously dangers. But the alternative is to be stuck with mediocrity; what better time than in this year when we celebrate another radical moment: exactly two hundred years ago, the affluent citizens of Kolkata did something entirely remarkable. They set up a college for secular learning, almost surely the first at least anywhere in the English-speaking world, which was to eventually become Presidency University. Let’s take courage from that.
Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT
The views expressed are personal