ABDUL LATHEEF NAHA: Higher education in the country, particularly engineering education, is facing a crisis. It is pulling on with half the teacher strength it requires. The government pressed a red button the other day when it was revealed in Parliament that the country faced a shortage of more than 3,00,000 teachers in its institutions of higher learning. In engineering education alone, the shortage is more than 1,50,000.

This finding revealed in the most recent government assessment of faculty shortage across the country has come as a shock. What is more shocking is the increase in the faculty shortage to 54 per cent from the 40 per cent a few years ago. The government has swung into action by allowing institutions to hire expatriate Indians to make up for the shortage. The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development has permitted the 15 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), premier engineering institutes in the country, to appoint non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIOs) as permanent faculty as part of measures to tide over the teacher shortage. Foreign nationals, however, are not allowed permanent appointment.

But is this move a solution? Experts call it inadequate.

The Lok Sabha was told last week that 1,693 teachers were required immediately for the 15 IITs and 1,522 for the 30 National Institutes of Technology (NITs). But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

From 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the teaching posts are lying vacant in the country’s top engineering institutions. The situation is worse in hundreds of private self-financing colleges.

A recent assessment made by an eight-member committee appointed by the Kerala government revealed that hardly one-fifth of the engineering institutions in the State met the stipulations made by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Of the 24 engineering colleges the committee inspected at random, only five were found to have met most requirements stipulated by the AICTE.

The AICTE currently stipulates a 1:14 teacher-student ratio for engineering institutions. “That itself is very high from a healthy academic perspective,” said a senior professor of NIT, Calicut. Plans are afoot to bring down the teacher-student ratio in engineering institutions to 1:12. The ideal teacher-student ratio, expert say, is 1:10, which is the international standard.

The Central engineering institutions, including the NITs and the IITs, started facing the faculty shortage with a 27 per cent increase in number of seats for other backward classes (OBCs) over three years from 2008 to 2010. This increase resulted in a cumulative increase of 54 per cent in faculty requirement, which remains unfilled for various reasons.

The lack of recruitment of supporting or non-teaching staff in recent years has compounded the problem. The ratio of teaching and supporting staff is 1:1.1 in Central engineering institutions. When the student intake doubled in recent years with the increase in seats and courses, not a single appointment of supporting staff was made in the past nine years at NIT, Calicut. The result is that the faculty is being forced to spend part of their time for clerical work, leading to a dilution in academic activities. And the ultimate loser is the student.

The shortage of faculty affects the students in many ways. When there are not enough teachers, more students are often assigned to a single project, leading to a lack of attention from teachers and an eventual dilution in quality. Besides, the choices before the students for their elective subjects are considerably reduced.