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Learning to Teach: Why the UGC-Proposed Workload is Unrealistic and Undesirable

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The Wire | By Sai Vinjanampathy | 05/06/2016  | Opinion |

Questions raised by those unhappy with teachers protesting the UGC-proposed increased workload norms highlight a gross misunderstanding of the academic process.

Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) amended a resolution regarding teaching norms of faculty. The norms prescribed different numbers of hours for assistant, associate and full professors, an example being 18 hours of teaching for ‘teaching only’ assistant professors. These proposed increases have caused considerable outrage amongst faculty members and faculty associations have begun registering their protest. As a consequence of these protests, the amendments have been since withdrawn. One thing, however, that has been left out is an academic discussion of what a reasonable teaching load should be. Besides focusing on the politics of the matter, it is important to understand the misconceptions of the academic process. Several comments to articles published by various news outlets and posted on social media have included three themes. These themes can be summarised as: 16 hours (chosen as a representative number) a week does not sound like much; these faculty members are complaining because they do not wish to work hard; there are poor people in India to whom working “just” 16 hours a week would be a luxury/taxes are wasted on these faculty members who do not even want to work for 16 hours a week; and more teaching will mean better students – what is the faculty supposed to do, if not teach?  These questions represent a profound misunderstanding of the academic process, making it necessary to clarify what the process is like and explain why the proposed numbers seemed unrealistic. There is a reasonable number of hours a faculty should be expected to teach, depending not just on the seniority of the person but also the kind of institutional responsibilities he or she is given. Being a physicist, my examples are drawn from the science institutions in the country, though the arguments presented generalise to other disciplines as well.

Different roles within universities 

In order to describe teaching and research institutions in India, colleges and universities can be divided into three categories: teaching institutions, joint institutions and research institutions. By teaching institutions, I refer to many private colleges in India and several governmental institutions whose primary focus is to prepare undergraduates and masters students for higher education. The second category, which I have termed “joint” (teaching and research) institutions, include all state and central universities and the Indian Institutes of Technology. There is a third category, composed of purely research institutions such as the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. This third category trains researchers and mostly does not concern itself with degrees below PhD, making them less relevant for this analysis. How much teaching is appropriate in each of these institutions? One might be tempted to argue that since there are typically eight working hours in a day and assuming that there are five working days in a week, the answer is 40 hours. But this number would be a gross overestimate.

This is because teaching an hour’s class takes roughly two to three hours of preparation. To even the foremost expert in a given field, teaching a class on the topic of her expertise is time intensive. This is because she has to organise this material into a structured course plan, prepare and work through examples and theorems and contextualise the material by reading and including contemporary examples. For instance, a professor teaching a course on relativity should certainly include a discussion on the discovery of gravitational waves, a phenomenon first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 and observed last year (reported this year). This kind of preparation is not easy and cannot be “done just once”. Taking the number to be two hours of preparation per hour of teaching (a conservative estimate), it is easy to see that a faculty who works 40 hours a week should not be expected to spend more than fourteen hours a week teaching in a classroom. This fourteen hours implies that the faculty does not have time to engage in research and is not obliged to participate in administrative duties. If we assume that such a faculty at a teaching institution is expected to spend a modest 20% of their time doing administration, then the number drops from thirteen hours to ten hours. Here lies the problem. In teaching institutions, where the expectation is that faculty teach and participate in administration a modest 20% of the time, the teaching load would be too much if the faculty is expected to handle anything more than ten hours of teaching. Assuming a six day work week would increase this to twelve hours of teaching. This is after leaving out important duties like grading, which take up a lot of additional time.  In joint institutions, it can be presumed that faculty members are expected to do research 40% of the time, teach 40% of the time (paying equal attention to teaching and research) and perform administrative duties 20% of the time. This means that out of the 40 hour work week, faculty should be expected to teach five to six hours a week. All of the faculty’s research activity will have to be accommodated into the remaining 18 hours, a hard task at best.

Lessons from elsewhere

The thumb rule of two hours outside class for every class hour is quite standard across the world. In the US, four year colleges sometimes have exclusive teaching faculty, who are at best required to teach four “three credit” courses, which amounts to twelve hours in the classroom. Compare that to the UGC suggestion of 18 teaching hours for teaching only faculty and it becomes clear why academics were protesting the numbers. In four year colleges, the typical joint faculty teaches at most two courses a week, amounting to six hours of classes, usually the number being even smaller. The corresponding Italian (and much of European) number is also six hours in the class per week, while it is about ten hours in the UK. There are variations across fields and departments in the numbers quoted here. For research faculty at US universities, the load can be as low as three hours one semester and zero hours the next. The conclusion is inescapable, which is that the number of teaching hours in Indian universities fostered by the UGC are already too high and not in keeping with international workload standards. This could be having an adverse impact the quality of teaching and research.

Luxury and efficiency

The is another popular argument . Since India is a poor country, the argument goes, faculty at UGC affiliated institutions should work very hard. In theory, there is nothing wrong with hard work. The devil, as always, is in the details. That poverty alleviation is an urgent goal for India is something nobody would disagree with, which is one of the important reasons why I think we should be worried about these new norms. Successive governments in India are committed to poverty reduction. Education is a key ingredient if this national ambition is to ever become reality. Given that India will add eleven million workers each year for the next ten years, there is a palpable urgency to grow industry and have a well-educated workforce participate in growing the Indian economy. Good quality education and training are key to having such a well prepared workforce, but substituting the quality of teaching for quantity in various institutions will not support that. This will negatively impact the stated goals of economic development, worsening the already existing skills gap. The final reason why the current number of hours proposed by the UGC is worrying is societal. Across nations, there is consensus that faculty members are overworked. This pressure is upsetting the work-life balance of teachers, negatively affecting society in many ways. While other nations are arguing about reducing the workload to manageable levels and demanding better quality from their faculty members, India should not fall victim to a “quantity is quality” fallacy and increase workloads disproportionately.

Conflicting demands

An unrealistic workload can also be seen as being in conflict with two other “national desires”. The first is increasing quality in the average (non elite) institution. This has to be done for India to enjoy a large pool of qualified researchers and teachers. Increasing the workload in already underperforming institutions is not guaranteed to produce better results. Perhaps the effect will be the opposite. Here, what is needed is a guided approach that improves quality of teaching. The second demand in conflict with the UGC demand is for India to have several “world ranking” universities. These rankings compare very specific things, publications being one of them. One thing that is certain is that the quality of research in joint universities will suffer if teaching loads and research loads are impractical and incommensurate with each other. The stipulated teaching workloads and research outcomes must be realistic. Otherwise, we risk overburdening faculty and negatively impacting outcomes. Alternatively, a well reasoned policy of prioritising quality over quantity can help India effectively educate her citizenry. –  Courtesy     /       Sai Vinjanampathy is a researcher at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore   :


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