India debates a nationwide tenure system


Credit: Colin Anderson/Getty

Academic researchers and administrators in India are debating the benefits of adopting a tenure-track system similar to that of the United States in Indian research institutes and universities. A few, including the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, are already using the system, whereas others, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, have a probationary-period process. Under that scheme, the performance of new faculty members is assessed after one year by a review committee, often comprised of department heads and institutional administrators.

Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.

Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.

Those who endorse the tenure-track system say that the probationary system allows low-performing researchers to remain in their posts. “How do we ensure that quick appointments to a very well paid, highly privileged and permanent position does not encourage complacency?” asks ecologist Vishwesha Guttal, who was awarded tenure in 2016 at the Indian Institute of Science, five years after he was hired.

The issue of tenure-track versus one-year probation has sparked discussion and debate among academic scientists in India, partly in response to an interview published in June in the newspaper Hindustan Times with Jayant Udgaonkar, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. In the interview, he advocated adopting the tenure-track system nationally. His comments followed the release of a draft policy in May by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees higher education in India, recommending a gradual national adoption of the tenure-track system. The ministry could not be reached for comment.

Udgaonkar, a biochemist, says that it is difficult to properly assess a researcher’s progress in a single year. He thinks that the tenure-track system provides scientific accountability and allows a candidate who has been given strong support and regular feedback to receive a comprehensive assessment at the end of five or sometimes seven years.

But many do not agree. Theoretical physicist Arvind, director at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research campus in Mohali, says that a five-year tenure track will increase job insecurity and put pressure on new faculty members to pursue only short-term research goals during that period. “Academia requires stability,” he says, adding that there is a paucity of fallback options for candidates who don’t make the cut. India has few second- or third-tier research institutions where a scientist whose bid for tenure is rejected elsewhere can seek another appointment, and few commensurate industry positions.

Institutional support, easy access to equipment and resources, and timely disbursal of government grant funds have long been sore points in Indian academia; they have also been a talking point in discussions about adopting a tenure system. Gagandeep Kang, an academic gastroenterologist and executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad, says that institutions and government need to improve access to funding and resources to level the playing field for researchers who are up for tenure and allow for a more-rigorous review process.

Ramaswamy Subramanian, a structural biologist and director of the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says that if tenure is adopted, the process will need to be uniformly objective and fair. Subramanian, who has held tenured positions in Sweden and the United States, points out that tenure-review committee members in India, usually senior scientists and administrators, are likely to lack personal experience of the process.

A nationwide system is unlikely to be adopted soon, predicts Arvind. “Each institution is autonomous,” he says. “There may, at best, be suggestions that the governing boards of individual institutions can then consider.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02296-y


Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing