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Almost everyone in faculty is promoted in Indian universities. DU started the damage in 1970

Today, Delhi University has been relegated to the backwaters of all global rankings, with a similar story playing out in universities all over India. But there is a way out.

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Indian universities have suffered immensely due to the combined impact of rotating headships and near-automatic promotions for all. It started in 1970 in the University of Delhi. Now, almost everybody gets promoted regardless of merit and heads of departments are appointed by rotation so all promotees get to be HOD without being qualified or suitable.

But not too long ago, the University of Delhi would have easily secured a very high rank in any global ranking system. During the 1950s and the 1960s, it had reached a pinnacle in terms of its academic standing. The roll call from those years boasted of distinguished names such as D.S. Kothari and A.N. Mitra (Department of Physics), P. Maheshwari and B.M. Johri (Botany), B.R. Seshachar and M.R.N. Prasad (Zoology), M.N. Srinivas (Sociology), V.K.R.V. Rao, K.N. Raj, Amartya Sen, A.L. Nagar, S. Chakravarty, and J.N. Bhagwati (Economics), T.R. Seshadri (Chemistry), S.R. Ranganathan (Library Science), U.N. Singh (Mathematics) and Nagendra (Hindi). And this list is by no means exhaustive.

Unfortunately, as things stand today, Delhi University has been relegated to the backwaters of all global rankings. However, such a rise and subsequent decline is not peculiar to just Delhi University. Almost every university in India has a similar story.

Also read: One look at Allahabad University will tell you how inbreeding is ruining India’s academics

When merit wasn’t just a term

There are several factors that have contributed to this universal decline. One of them has its roots in an action that was unwittingly initiated at the University of Delhi in 1970, and which was readily and unthinkingly adopted by universities around the country over that decade.

Until 1970, all academic departments of Delhi University were headed in similar fashion by professors of great eminence. It helped greatly that they were at the helm for a significant number of years, which enabled them to provide sustained momentum and direction to their departments.

Of course, there was a downside to this arrangement. Sometimes, personal prejudices and even highhandedness would creep into the decisions and actions of those heading a department. But overall, they discharged their responsibilities meritoriously. One of the most important consequences of their stewardship was the fact that, in order to be able to acquire an academic position or gain promotion in any department, an individual needed strong credentials because genuine merit was the main criterion. In varying degrees, such a situation was prevalent in most universities across India.

Also read: Something’s wrong with how university VCs are picked. Exam delay debate is one fallout

DU’s debilitating act

But a marked decline began to set in at Delhi University when, in 1970, it suddenly switched to a system where departmental headships were rotated among almost all faculty — regardless of merit — and that too for the short duration of three years. Soon, this measure began to be adopted by almost all Indian universities. It had a detrimental effect since more often than not, a departmental head would be unequal to the task of adhering to high standards — both academically and administratively.

To compound this problem, the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 1982 and under severe political pressure, implemented a system of promoting academic faculty — ‘Merit Promotion Scheme’ — which, in practice, resulted in automatic elevation of all and sundry on the basis of length of service — a minimum of eight years.

There are other reasons but rotational headships and automatic promotions are common factors responsible for the decline of India’s various universities. It is no coincidence that the Indian university system has suffered immensely since the 1980s, when these twin measures took effect. Academic merit has been severely neglected as a consequence. Many faculty members who would ordinarily have retired at lower positions are now assured of being appointed as full-time professors and become heads of departments in due course of time.

Ordinarily, several of them would not be appointed to any position but that is where an ineffective head of a department succumbs to unwelcome pressure. The HoD knows that he or she could be at the receiving end post retirement. More often than not, this also results in academics who are not well-qualified being anointed as chairs of their respective departments, only because they managed to gain undeserving and automatic promotion to a full professorship.

Also read: For free-thinking JNU, lack of diversity in faculty, students, courses has been a curse

Course correction

It may be argued that a vice-chancellor has the powers to prevent near-automatic promotions but as the records show, very few of them have shown any desire or commitment to implement stricter standards. Similarly, vice-chancellors dare not interfere in the business of headship by rotation even when they have some leeway in this regard because the practice is heavily entrenched. This too could be alleviated to a large extent if vice-chancellors were appointed with great care and then granted longer tenures subject to performance.

This is not to say that promotion for faculty should be abolished altogether. The point is to shun inbreeding at entry-level appointment and make merit the only criterion. Standards need to be set in the appointment process at every level and that could begin with appointing good and deserving individuals as vice-chancellors.

I have often argued that any university in India or abroad with a proven track record has progressed largely because of its vice-chancellor, who not only enjoyed total freedom but had their tenures extended for longer periods to achieve what they had set out to. Maurice Gwyer served at Delhi University for 12 years and many of the eminent faculty were brought in at a young age during his tenure. The same happened during Robert Goheen’s distinguished tenure at Princeton University.

But all such examples are in the past. It’s time Indian universities revisited their glorious days by bringing back some of the traditions from the yesteryears. Appointment of deserving vice-chancellors can be the starting point.

The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.

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  1. The author Dinesh Singh has tried to round-off the glorious past history of Indian universities, but to his utter dismay, he has found that no university in India now is enduring the academic excellence!

    An outstanding feature; something in which something or someone excels…

    The University of Delhi, the highest seat of learning in India, is a hard-hitting expose like all other universities. He has been agonised to have seen its dispirited picture on many curtilages, but once, its quality of teaching was excelling under any setting. There were ‘professors of great eminence.’

    He has identified so many downcast states which are responsible for all these hard-hitting states of depression.

    In the valuable words of Dinesh Singh, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist, “Today, Delhi University has been relegated to the backwaters of all global rankings, with a similar story playing out in universities all over India.”

    All these occurrents have made him downhearted; and lowered his spirits.

    He has also said “there is a way out” to get rid of these ills and so, he has further suggested to adopt some corrective course of actions to pull-back the lost glory of Indian universities and to possess good qualities in high degrees and in educations.

    Dinesh Singh’s column is well-qualified and well-founded on Indian universities. I thank him very much for penning this column of immense signification.

    I also thank Badrul bhai, for letting us to read this article which is having worth, merit or value characterised by grandeur!
    – Anwar A. Khan, Dhaka , Bangladesh was a petite FF of the 1971 war field to establish Bangladesh having no FF certificate, but he doesn’t mind for it.

  2. “a distinguished mathematician and an educationist”

    Pray, how did he distinguish himself, other than being
    the son of an ex-VC ?

    Before showering such encomiums, maybe The Print should have
    checked whether any of the leading mathematics groups in the
    country would have welcomed him on their faculty. Or investigated
    his publication record and the stink associated with it.

    While much of what Dinesh Singh says is undoubdetely right, he and
    his career embodies exactly the same traits that he denounces.

  3. While much of what he says is true, it amuses me that the author is
    decrying the erosion of academic excellence after assiduously engaging
    in the very same during tenure as the VC of DU.

    Incidentally, The Print is damaging its credibility by using the words
    `a distinguished mathematician and an educationist’ to describe him.

  4. You are taking about merit wow it’s extremely amusing when we use merit give merit a priority for our different political agenda.

  5. Well sir, I wonder you understand the basic principles of causality. What you present is just blabber. Where is the evidence for cause and effect. Forger that, you don’t even present the evidence for correlation! Why don’t you first attempt a good meritorious argument so that people can take this seriously!

  6. It is an open secrete that Vice-Chancellors are appointed thought lobbying by politicians and in turn such Vice-Chancellors bring in their cronies in academic positions. The system is almost rotten. No easy solution is in sight. Regionalism, caste, creed and sycophancy are ruling the roost. Finding Vice-Chacellors who are not cronies may be a good starting point.

  7. Dr Dinesh Singh has raised a highly relevant point. Inbreeding destroys the university / institution of higher learning. So do automatic promotions.
    During my days of IIT Delhi where I had leadership position in faculty association I argued against inbreeding in IITs that was very much prevalent till 1970s and early 80s.
    We convinced that no one who graduated from an IIT with a PhD be appointed as a faculty unless he has served other IIT or a reputed institution in India or abroad.
    It worked wonders the guru chela system that was creating stagnation of thoughts and ideas disappeared and so also disappeared the trade unionism in faculty. IITs started looking upwards for quality education, research and innovations. Today they stand tall enough.
    Automatic promotions under the disguise of merit promotion scheme did a great damage surely not just in DU but also in DCE. I despite being the strongest and high headed VC of DTU could do any thing as the promotion panel was headed by the technical education Secretary who would in those days please everyone to have a smooth sail.
    But now the rot has set in quite deep after years of neglect of higher education. There are no short cut for revitalization except radical reforms like some suggested by Dr Dinesh Singh.

  8. Life in IITs and NITs are living hell. Only bossism and those people are promoted who are in the kitchen cabinet of the Director. Colonial mentality is there. In IIT Jodhpur the last Director use to terminate the faculty members a day before his/her probation is going to get completed. This news was there in all the newspapers. In IIT BHU where interview was conducted when Prof.Rajiv Sangal was the Director. The interview of Associate and Professor in English was conducted without an English expert. A lady from linguistics was called for interview. Linguistics and English literature are totally different subjects and Ajit Kumar Mishra is appointed as Associate Professor in English who was working in a degree college of Kanpur and was not even teaching in a University. In IIT BHU Vinita Chandra was made directly made Associate Professor in IIT BHU who was simply a research associate in Women Studies Center, BHU and that too on contract basis. Prof.Rajiv Sangal appointed her as she was of his cast.
    I like to give example of IIM Rohtak and Amritsar where many faculty members have left their permanent positions as Director use to misbehave badly with the faculty members. Around 5-7 faculty permanent members have left IIM Rohtak. and same case is with IIM Amritsar.
    I am working in National Institute of Technology Jalandhar. If you see the NIRF ranking of NITJ you will find that the Director Lait K Awasthi has manipulated the data to get 52nd ranking. I have proof of it. I can mail it anybody if he or she likes. Moreover, so much of nepotism is there in NITJ that in every department only Himachalis were appointed as faculty members as the Director is from NIT, Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh. In non teaching too only Himachalis were appointed in NIT Jalandhar. Though NIT Jalandhar is an Institute of national importance.
    The second example is of NIT Uttranchal where in a department only 2 faculty members post but the Director has appointed 4 member and mostly from Sikkim Manipal or they were from Rajsthan. He did in many departments of the Institute. The result is that many faculty members are sitting without any teaching load in almost all the departmnets.

    So please do not do not say that in IITs , NITs and IIMs merit is followed while selecting faculty members.

  9. There are good models in our country itself. In IITs and IISc faculties are promoted based on few metrics. Those metrics are usually research outputs (citation per paper, number of PhD/MS), teaching methodology ( student feedback factored in), institute responsibilities ( organising workshops/conferences under national schemes like TEQIP/GIAN/SPARC and various inter country exchange programs) and funding brought to the institute through projects (very important nowadays as it gives financial independence to institutes).
    Universities should shake off the colonial mindset and stop behaving as an elite organisation which is entitled to get resources just because people working there possess some fancy degrees

  10. Professor Singh took the things to extreme in his tenure at University of Delhi wherein he stopped the promotion of everyone and anyone. Not a single teacher in DU colleges got promoted since Prof Singh became the VC and that is the case even today. I agree with Prof Singh that strict guidelines must be followed in appointment of VCs so that fiascos like FYUP or elephant riding VCs are avoided. We have witnessed five years of whims and fancies of a VC itself becomes too much to induce downward spiral.

  11. The adherence to meritocracy is the only thing that can abolish inequality, and help in progress of our nation’s institutions.

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