In March 2007, I got the opportunity to visit the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. It was interesting to visit the alma mater of thousands of successful engineers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The faculty members were fondly narrating episodes of some of their brightest students.
But, throughout the day-long visit, I kept wondering what retains these professors in the teaching profession. The moment a student graduates from the IIT, he or she gets a job of nearly US$2,000 a month, if not more. And the professors at IIT get about half of that. This, when each of these faculty members is a PhD. Isn't this ironic? Little wonder then that the attrition rate in various IIT departments is becoming a cause of concern.
According to news reports, a faculty member at IIT gets around US$1,022 (50,000 rupees) a month, on average. In comparison, professors at U.S.-based Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology take home US$10,000 to US$12,000 (500,000 rupees to 600,000 rupees) a month. In addition, each time a researcher abroad publishes a paper, he or she is paid for it separately, on top of their monthly pay. Not here in India.
Professors at the various Indian Institutes of Technology have been demanding a pay hike for some time now. Recently, faculty members of some IITs even went on strike. They have demanded a scholastic allowance of US$307 (15,000 rupees) a month. A professor at IIT Mumbai told a TV reporter that the scholastic allowance is a compensation for the fact that faculty members spend six years working on a PhD, which is the minimum educational qualification required to be a faculty member at any of the IITs.
"Had they taken up a government job instead, they would have earned at least US$47,267 (2.3 million rupees) during those six years. The government should compensate the faculty members for this," the professor told the reporter.
The good news is that the union human resource development minister, Kapil Sibal, met with IIT directors last week to resolve the salary imbroglio. His ministry reportedly made a detailed presentation on the revision of salaries of IIT faculty and how, after the proposed revision, they would be paid more than the University Grant Commission (UGC) pay-scale and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) scientists.
The meeting saw the minister assuring the directors that a special cell would be set up in the ministry to facilitate entry of foreign faculty in IITs. The meeting also discussed the need to create an international pool of faculty for IITs, subject to the ministry's approval.
While this is the case of the IITs, I see that all around, there is opposition to paying more to teachers. I see this most in the case of schools, with parents using social networking Web sites and e-mail groups to oppose the recent fee hikes for teachers.
While education needs to be affordable, paying the teachers meager salaries will not draw talent to this profession. Despite the hikes, teacher salaries in India are already quite low. With 50 percent of the population below the age of 25 years, India probably needs more good teachers today than ever before.
Technology's place in education
On the other hand, the issue of inclusiveness certainly needs to be addressed. This can be done by offering soft study loans and scholarships (in the case of higher education) and the use of technology (for primary, secondary and higher education).
Perhaps technology today has the biggest role to play in educating the masses.
The government has set very ambitious targets, such as reaching universalization of elementary education by 2010, and attaining 100 percent female literacy by 2014 (46 percent of women in India today are illiterate and can't even write their own name).
But, who will teach the masses if we continue to pay poor wages to our teachers? It's a Catch 22 situation because higher salaries, in turn, will make education unaffordable for the masses.
Technology can address the twin issues of teacher remuneration and cost of education. The use of mobile phones, social networking sites and virtualization technologies in education will ensure that the best of teachers--who may be teaching at a high-profile school in a metro--are accessible to the not-so-well-off students.
If the government is to achieve its targets, it will have to encourage educational institutions and the private sector to deploy technology effectively to take education to the poorest of poor. And we, in the bigger towns and cities, will have to accept the fact that better education and better teachers will cost more.