The UGC recently extended the prerequisite for PhD as a minimum qualification for recruitment to the post of Assistant Professors in academic institutions by around two years (till July 2023) in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout on research. This extension, although welcome, is albeit a temporary and patchwork solution to a wider and far more nuanced policy issue that merits deeper analysis and consideration. At the root of this policy is an intrinsically flawed perception that a research degree equips an individual with a skill set that is indispensable for teaching.
However, in reality, the very logic of keeping a PhD degree as a mandatory minimum requirement not only conflates the otherwise separable binaries of teaching and research, it is also inherently inconsistent and thus does not sit well with the aims and objectives of teaching as well as research. The issue, therefore, calls for a larger debate and the issues pertinent to it need to be addressed more holistically.
It is important to understand that although teaching and research are not polar opposites and to a limited extent might complement each other in certain respects, they essentially emanate from distinct intellectual orientations and operate on firmly different footings. They are thus neither required to be superimposed on each other nor are they always mutually reinforcing. To put it simply, while some good researchers may also be good teachers and vice versa it can't be taken as a gospel truth that can be universally applied. A number of very good teachers may also be bad researchers and the reverse is equally true. This is because teaching and research more often than not call for a different set of skill sets and proclivities.
Research is an innately intrinsic exercise, born out of a sui generis curiosity to explore a particular phenomenon, issue or concern. In humanities or social science research work is also undertaken to study or analyze an already existing issue, reframe it, reformulate the problematic, even challenge the dominant existing narratives and foster a different perspective, viewpoint or opinion etc. The most important objective of research, therefore, is to break fresh ground, to contribute something not thought of, understood or realized before, however incremental that contribution or fragment of knowledge may be.
Moreover, the objectives and motivations of research and teaching do not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence and hence they need not be mirror images of each other. While research as a process is essentially self-driven and self-sustained, teaching is far more interactive and dialogic involving a reciprocal engagement from students and teachers. Although teaching does require a thorough knowledge of the subjects that the teacher is entrusted to teach, specialist knowledge of a narrow research domain with which the teacher is engaging or has previously engaged hardly does anything to bestow upon him or her a subject matter expertise over the diverse subjects that are required to teach at the undergraduate level. This is more likely to be acquired with time, experience and relevant study.
Besides, in most universities in India teachers teach a variety of subjects, often rotating it every semester or year. These subjects may not have anything to do with the area of research they have pursued or are pursuing, unless the teacher keeps acquiring multiple PhDs each for the subject he is supposed to teach and even that may not suffice given the vastness, discursivity and variety of critical approaches even within a certain discipline. The absurdity of such an exercise therefore can't be overemphasized.
On the other hand, teaching in addition to knowledge also requires a different set of skills including but not limited to effective communication, the ability to convey ideas coherently with lucidity and clarity to an audience, the aptitude to engage with students coming from diverse backgrounds and intellectual abilities and perhaps most of all a passion for teaching. These skill sets can be inherent in an individual who has an innate proclivity for teaching or they can be acquired by teaching for a number of years or in certain instances through professional experience. In many instances this makes certain categories of individuals better suitable for teaching even if they do not possess a research degree, for example, a postgraduate faculty member teaching at an academic institution for a number of years may have a better command, clarity and teaching experience vis a vis a fresh PhD holder who does not have much teaching experience. Likewise in the field of Law a lawyer who has practiced in criminal, contract, matrimonial and intellectual property domains to name a few before switching to academics is much more likely to have a better grasp and practical insights over those subjects than a PhD holder who has researched a narrow area of International Trade Law for instance.
Another issue worthy of emphasis is that an a priori necessity to acquire a teaching degree is also detrimental to research itself. Making PhD a matter of compulsion than interest runs the inevitable risk of it becoming just a compliance tool. It will not only lead to a mechanical and procedural approach to obtaining a PhD, it will also lead to an increased competition for a very limited number of PhD seats available in the country across all academic disciplines. Not only will it degrade the quality of doctoral research it will also stretch the institutions carrying out PhD research thin. At the same time, such spurt in demand can potentially put candidates who are genuinely interested in research and subsequently pursuing a career outside core academics as independent researchers or with think tanks etc. at a huge disadvantage.
In fact, quite in contrast to the current policy approach of making PhD research the a priori qualification for recruiting assistant professors, research should ideally be undertaken after one has already spent some time either teaching or being professionally engaged in a related field. A prior teaching or professional experience may better equip an individual to zero down on his or her area of potential prospective research and bring more clarity, maturity and perspective into research.
Furthermore, a research engagement, doctoral or otherwise can very well be carried alongside teaching. It can also serve as a logical progression for an academician who is already teaching at the tertiary level since it can help further intellectual refinement, keep the learning loop active and continuous besides contributing to the existing discourses in that area of research. As a matter of fact, many leading institutions globally lend significant weightage to academic and professional experience in the relevant domain while selecting PhD candidates.
However, the reverse scenario, the compulsion of finishing with doctoral research first before one can embark upon a teaching career is fraught with inconsistencies and problems. In addition to the concerns raised above it also puts undue pressure on the researcher to finish the project at the earliest which can potentially have a bearing on the quality of research. Besides, it also delays the commencement of a teaching career by at least four to five years even if one is otherwise qualified to teach in all other respects, this can be hugely demotivating and may potentially preclude many bright and deserving candidates from contemplating a teaching career for themselves.
Another important question that begs consideration is the ground reality of the various levels and hierarchies existing in our higher education system and consequently widely varying standards of higher education PhD included. The NAC rankings are a case in point. Although the mechanism of ranking the institutions currently leaves a lot to be desired it still provides some indications as to the relative excellence of various teaching institutions of India vis a vis others.
At many institutions in India obtaining a PhD is far easier. Besides, the practice of ghost-writing PhDs or even sale and purchase of PhDs is not unknown. In contrast at some of the leading institutions doctoral candidates have to toil for years before they can get an all clear for thesis submission. Moreover, such heterogeneity of teaching and research standards also reflects on the relative merit of candidates, for example, and exceptions notwithstanding, in general a post graduate from a leading national or international institution where both entry criteria and the academic environment are rigorous is likely to better placed academically than a PhD holder from an average institution where the quality of both teaching and academics is subpar. Extending this argument further, even a post graduate from an institution where academic ambience is more serious and rigorous will be a better candidate for a teaching position than someone whose academic performance has been rather average at graduate and postgraduate levels but who has managed to secure a PhD degree for the sake of compliance. A homogenizing approach therefore simply does not take into cognizance such vagaries of our education system.
Another point worth mentioning is that an undue insistence on PhD as the minimum threshold for teaching renders the very purpose for which the National Eligibility Test (NET) was envisaged practically redundant. NET as the name itself suggests tests the eligibility of the candidates for taking up a teaching position at academic institutions. Along with a postgraduate degree, NET is also a mandatory UGC requirement for recruitment to teaching positions. Hence when there is already a threshold screening criterion available for testing the aptitude and/or the eligibility of candidates for teaching, adding an additional requirement for a PhD and prioritizing it over everything else does not make sound logical sense.
Moreover, it would also be erroneous to project PhD as the be all and end all of research. In fact, a significantly large body of research is also carried outside doctoral research projects both by faculty members and others. Faculty members hence have ample opportunities to find or create avenues for research even after their recruitment should they be so interested. At the same time the motivations behind pursuing a PhD may be very different from that of only teaching and not everyone pursuing a PhD may be inclined to take up a full-time teaching position. For example, many working professionals who are not academicians wish to pursue a PhD for furthering their own knowledge or contribute to the domain related to their work or even to improve career prospects within their organizations. There are in fact a number of PhD holders who never get into active full-time teaching and among other things instead, go on to pursue research either independently or within think tanks and in numerous other ways. To reiterate, such a mad rush to secure a PhD for landing a teaching position will leave such people at a disadvantage.
Finally, an examination of the complex and layered issues involved in the teaching-research conundrum unequivocally brings home the central argument that the idea that a research degree has to be a prerequisite and an absolute minimal threshold is myopic, logically fallacious and thus uncalled for. It is akin to putting the cart before the horse and can have deleterious consequences for both teaching as well as research in the country. To accord, a blanket priority to PhD holders in matters of recruitment for teaching positions in tertiary education is an overly homogenizing approach glossing over the various nuances of the existing ground realities. Previously also the TSR Subramanian committee (2016) and more recently the P Balram committee (2019) in their reports have recommended against keeping a PhD degree as a minimum qualification threshold for entry-level teaching positions but their recommendations remain unimplemented. It is time now that this glaring aberration on the policy front is jettisoned for good.