I have been to numerous selection committees, and I am quite aware of the quality of faculty selection in our tier 2 institutions. As soon as you go beyond IITs, BITS, IIITH, IIITD, and a handful of other institutions, invariably the selection committee meeting ends with the Director making a request to the committee to recommend at least one candidate, any one who was marginally better than the others, so that the next semester's courses can be taught. In any of these committees, I always look at my role as providing my honest views about the candidate, and making sure that there are no biased selections. I don't look at my role as quality control (beyond giving my honest feedback). The primary stake holder in that hiring is the institute and not me, and hence they have to do quality control and not me. So, invariably, I will agree to recommend that one candidate, who could not speak a word about his thesis that he had just submitted, and who could not answer simple questions about the course that he had recently taught, and yet in my opinion, was the best amongst all those who were interviewed. Participating in such committee meetings can be very depressing as they expose this myth about India being the largest producer of scientific manpower. These candidates can hardly be called "scientific manpower" and yet they represent the best that our scientific manpower production factories have produced. What are we doing to our next generation, forcing them to study from these types of faculty members. And this is one reason why I always ask people to seriously consider studying abroad, if they can afford it.
A few weeks ago, I was in a selection committee to recruit faculty for a new institution. The new institution (which shall remain nameless) has this agenda of excellence that they would not want to recruit just about anyone. So they had shortlisted a set of people whose CVs looked pretty good, better than the most candidates that I have met in tier two institutions. Most of them were existing faculty members in our Tier II institutes, which included IIITs, NITs, IIMs, and a few select state colleges and universities with excellent reputation. (IIMs are certainly Tier 1 institutions, but only when it comes to management related programs.) If you were to select faculty purely on the basis of their CV and pedigree, it would be extremely tough to take a call. And I was really excited about a new place being able to attract such CVs.
All the candidates were told to bring in prints of a few papers of theirs, preferably those papers which were recent and in which they had a significant contribution. One member of the committee had a very sound strategy for the interview. He would ask the candidate which paper is the strongest work. He would then ask a simple question about something in that paper, and the result was often hilarious (actually, very sad, given that these represented the second tier of institutions in the country).
The hottest area of research amongst those was "optimization." Can you explain what is a generic problem of optimization (not in your specific context). Sorry, I don't understand the question. OK, you have this equation in your paper. Can you give us an insight into this equation. Sorry, no. I just copied this equation from Matlab help files. Do you think it is ok to copy from Matlab help files without understanding. What's wrong, everyone does it. But then this appears to be a central equation in your paper. Why are you using this one and not anything else. I don't remember. But this is your recent paper, with you as the first author. I am the first author, because I am the supervisor. How do you avoid convergence to a local maxima, and guarantee that you will find the global maxima. I don't understand the question. Do you know what a local maxima is. Yes, the points that are close to global maxima. Thank you very much, you can leave now.
There were a few senior professors as well amongst the candidates. There was a faculty member who said that he is very strong in Operating Systems. When we asked to narrow down the area further, he said memory management. OK. Why do we need virtual memory. Virtual memory is needed to allow a program of larger size than the physical memory of the computer. Really. But it means that if the physical memory in a computer is larger than the addressable memory, then we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory. If we can somehow enforce that all programs will be smaller than the RAM in the computer, we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory in such a situation. How would you ensure that two programs who are using the same address space will not conflict with each other's memory. Sir, I have been teaching OS every year for the last 20 years. My students have got jobs in top CS companies, and you are telling me that I have been teaching wrongly all these years. Yes, my dear professor, you have been teaching wrongly for all these 20 years.
I suspected this, but did not want to believe this. In the last 20 years, I would have asked this question on virtual memory to at least 100 potential MTech/PhD students, and till date, NOT EVEN ONE (other than those who have studied at an IIT) has answered it correctly. The sequence of exchange that I had with this senior professor of operating systems in one of the good institutes of the country, was exactly the same I have had with students from such colleges. And yet, I always believed that they were taught correctly, but they didn't pay attention. Or they are learning from poor quality text=books. I could not believe that they learnt wrongly because their professors did not know.
I can go on and on, but the summary is that most of these faculty members with great CVs did not know even the basics of what they were teaching, or what they were doing research in. They did not know that copying content from elsewhere was plagiarism. They did not know that they should understand what they write in a paper. It was almost as if the papers were generated with some automatic paper generating software.
And what is worst is that when we investigated further with these faculty members who all had substantial number of journal papers, it turned out that many of those papers were in paid journals with no peer review. And yet, they would defend the practice by saying that everyone else did it too.
Since most of these faculty members were young and recent PhDs from similar institutes (IIITs, NITs, and good state colleges), it also puts a question mark on the kind of PhDs being produced in the country.
And yet in a country where the quality is determined primarily by the amount of money their graduates can get in the market, these institutions are rated very high by the society. So there is no hope of any improvement either. If they are all doing very well, where is the pressure to change. The only positive of these institutions is that they have successfully created a culture of self-learning (necessity is the mother of invention), which will ensure that their alumni keep learning on their own throughout their careers.
But is this enough for the "Make in India" to succeed. Are we really on our way to harness our demographic dividend.
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