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In my opinion

Teaching university courses in India

My story should give universities pause when considering international partnerships

BY DOUGLAS H. PARKER | JAN 02 2013

It’s difficult to read any document these days that pertains to postsecondary education in Canada without finding some reference to the importance of internationalization. China has been a strong postsecondary market for Canada for years. More recently, Canadian universities have turned their attention to India. Like China, but even more so, India has a capacity problem. There are simply not enough universities in India for the huge number of students who are interested in pursuing undergraduate education. Nor will India be able to create enough of these institutions on its own soil for years, if ever.

My own experience teaching in India, although entirely personal and individual and the result of teaching at only one institution, leads me to conclude that there are several concerns that Canadian universities might need to be aware of before jumping feet first into what at first blush might seem to be a potential money-spinner and attractive market, ripe for the picking.

My wife and I spent a 12- week term in the winter of 2011 teaching at a university in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The institution offered a stand-alone MBA degree and an undergraduate degree in Liberal Studies in collaboration with another state-approved university. I was hired to teach a couple of courses in English literature, one at the first year level, the other at the fourth-year level. My wife taught a chemistry course to first-year students. The institution was private and, although approved to offer programs, received no financial support from the government. As a result, tuition fees were very high for Indian students, about equal to the average of what university students pay in Canada. Consequently, the students who were accepted to this residential university came from privileged families, although there was a very small minority there on scholarships.

As far as I could tell, paying high tuition gave these students and their families a sense of what might be called academic entitlement: their expectation was that they would graduate no matter what. From talking to others, my understanding is that most students admitted to undergraduate programs at Indian universities in general have a high, perhaps unreal, expectation that admission automatically means completion and graduation. At private institutions, such as the one I was at, that expectation is a given for both students and the administration. What’s more, the concept of the “bribe” is endemic in Indian culture. Paying a premium for anything, possibly even university admission, may be seen by the payer as something that encourages the recipient to commit to a particular course of action that will satisfy the payer that his or her money has been well spent.

What follows are my experiences – and once again I stress they are mine alone – coming to grips with and struggling to frustrate this understanding, a tacit but powerful “academic compact” among several willing partners.

At the university where I taught, students were expected to attend class. Taking attendance was mandatory, and each day I would pick up an attendance sheet from the academic office, or if would be delivered to my classroom, and I would check names on the sheet against bodies present. After each class, I would return my sheet to the office. Results were tallied and if students missed three classes in any one term, they were to be disciplined. As far as I could tell, this elaborate system of ensuring attendance was merely window dressing. I don’t recall any of my delinquent students being disciplined in any way for missing class.

My upper-year course was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Of the nine students in that class, I might find two or three sitting in the classroom when I arrived in the morning to begin teaching Shakespeare. Others might drift in any time after that – or not. Medical slips were risibly easy to obtain from the campus doctor, but, in general, no excuses for late attendance or absences were given. In complete frustration, I locked the classroom door on one occasion. Students who arrived late and couldn’t enter simply walked away, but my action of locking the door had no visible effect on their future behaviour: they’d come to class, if at all, when the spirit moved them.

With the exception of two students in that class, everyone else had a very cavalier attitude towards the material. Often times, they wouldn’t bring the text to class, or they wouldn’t have read the material, or they would get up and leave to answer their cell phones or go to the washroom. One student who had slept in and missed breakfast encouraged me to truncate a class before its official end so that he could get to the dining hall before it closed. One day, in absolute frustration, I walked into the classroom, looked at the three students sitting there and announced that I was quitting. And then I walked out. I had gotten to a point where I wanted to precipitate a crisis and I figured abandoning a class might do precisely that.

It didn’t take long for the dean to appear at my guest-house door since I was living on campus. Rather than ordering me back into the classroom, she sympathized with my plight and said she understood why I took the action I did. She also told me that my students’ behaviour was not atypical of the place and then she left. I took what she said to be a shoulder shrug.

A few days later I received an email from the president, asking to see me. When I walked into her office, she shook my hand, congratulated me on the courage of my decision and said she understood why I did it. She told me that many students at her institution were spoiled, and that the behaviour of my senior students was unacceptable, but begged me to give them another chance because four of the students in that class were graduating and needed the course to do so. She also told me that she had spoken to them and warned them not to misbehave again. So I took them back. The result: a few days of what I would deem good behaviour – arriving on time, bringing the text, being prepared – and then, depressing recidivism.

I finally concluded that what was important to both the students and the president was that the course be completed. In their eyes, to complete a course was, in some strange way that was entirely foreign to me, to be successful in that course. Success had very little to do with performance and everything to do with hanging in until the end. The proof of this came when I failed one of my graduating students. The same student also failed my wife’s chemistry course, which she was taking as an elective, because she never completed assignments and rarely showed up. We learned when we returned to Canada that the student had graduated. Clearly she hung in, hung around, went the 12-week distance, despite not fulfilling the course requirements.

The lion’s share of students who submitted assignments in my Shakespeare course never submitted them on time, or they were far shorter than the required page limit or, worse still, entirely off topic. For one assignment, I asked students to take a scene from one of the four Shakespearean comedies we were studying and show how the scene contributed to the play as a whole. One student submitted a not-bad essay, but it had nothing to do with the assigned topic. She decided to see if I would accept her essay on love in Romeo and Juliet. Not only was the essay off-topic, it was on a play that wasn’t on my course. My guess is that she had written this for another course at another place.

And then there was the graduating business student in the fourth and final year of her program who was delaying her return home so that she could do an assignment for a fellow student who found the course material too difficult. She told me this while I was sitting across from her at lunch one day, with no sign of embarrassment or shame whatsoever. I think I might have been the one blushing.

While it may sound as if I’m opposed to internationalization and constructing academic bridges with Indian universities, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did I teach in India, but I also did my doctorate abroad, administered a university campus in the south of France for five years, and was awarded a faculty fellowship in Europe. But, I think cultural differences and ingrained practices have to be understood, seriously scrutinized and taken into account when Canadian universities strike protocols with foreign universities, and, in this case, with Indian ones.

Douglas H. Parker is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.

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  1. Adam Budd / January 2, 2013 at 11:20

    Thanks to Douglas for his valuable piece in University Affairs. I am a Lecture [associate professor] of History at the University of Edinburgh, having graduated from the University of Toronto in 2004. Apart from my scholarly work in Scotland, I teach literacy skills to former street children in Delhi, and I teach pedagogical skills to the teachers who work with these kids, through the Salaam Baalak Trust (an Indian NGO that does great things).

    My experience teaching disadvantaged children in India is very different from Douglas’s–but I understand his frustrations, having experienced this culture of unabashed bribery during many stays in India. But the kids I teach, and the university-trained teachers that I train and supervise there, are eager to work hard, to earn my approval, and to demonstrate their mastery of the material.

    These kids, and these teachers, value the time I spend with them far more than the privileged undergraduate and graduate students that I teach in the UK (and have taught in Canada). They are eager to excel and work far harder than any students I’ve encountered over many years of teaching in the West. And, amazingly, they are eager to teach me their perspectives on the material I present to them, and on my ways of describing them.

    In turn, I have learned complicated lessons about how and why my own skills are relevant; how and why these energetic kids can make a meaningful contribution to our own approaches to learning, expression, and why teaching together with Indian colleagues can create a stimulating and challenging classroom unlike anything I’ve seen in the West.

    Those in India who want to learn (i.e. not Douglas’s students) need our academic expertise–indeed the country needs our expertise far more urgently than any cash donations. And we, in turn, have a lot to learn about our own expectations–of our colleagues, of our scholarly resources, and of the possibility of teachers learning from those we assume have little to say, let alone to suggest.

    I agree with Douglas that Canadian universities’ involvement in India should not comprise the fee-for-service teaching model, where we provide a service in return for payment. But I believe this for different reasons: we should look for ways to work as mixed teams to learn from each other’s requirements. My sense is that Indian students and colleagues can offer us a wider range of perspectives on teaching that we would expect at first.

    India is offers enormous resources for teaching–but these should be shared, working with those who want to work hard to make the most of what they can offer us, and we need to be prepared for surprises that are more positive than those Douglas encountered.

    • Lola / July 31, 2016 at 17:33

      Awesome reply.

  2. Meenal Shrivastava / January 2, 2013 at 12:20

    I am very disappointed to read a colleague’s “analysis” based on a single experience of teaching one course in a private university and applying it to all “Indian Universities”. University education in India is very uneven (like anywhere else in the world). Adam Budd pointed to one end of this spectrum that comprises more than 500 universities (not counting the mushrooming private for-profit “universities” in the past decade), which is closer to my experience as a proud alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). While there are numerous examples of poorly managed and funded institutions to every JNU or Delhi University in India, Douglas Parker’s painting of this variegated tapestry of educational institutions in India with such a broad brush-stroke reeks of the most uninformed prejudice in my opinion.

  3. Srinivas / January 2, 2013 at 13:35

    I am slightly surprised by the author’s experiences while teaching in India. The author did emphasized that the comments are his own and are based on one institution, however, I am very disappointed by the extrapolation and conclusions drawn out of those. Academic institutions vary a lot even with in a country and the same is true for Indian academic institutions. The experiences by the author are from one extreme end in the range and that too on the worst end. There are many institutions / universities in India where students are interested in their studies, students work hard to earn their degrees, admission does not guarantee a degree unless you work for it, administration/professors/lecturers are very committed to their duties and are not ‘shoulder shrug’ minded, and classes are not cut-short because a student missed breakfast and finally money / bribe doesn’t warrant a seat.

    I was moved to comment on this article because it does not portray a complete picture of Indian academic institutions. Common entrance tests (name of these exams vary with the state, program, and university)are very common in Indian academic institutions where every student who wants to get into any program, have to not only pass the test but be in the top numbers to get into the program. Readers can visit this news article to get a bit more information about common entrance test for MBA program (http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-17/india/29896279_1_entrance-exam-lakh-students-aicte).

    This comment is not intended to offend anybody but only to provide clues that the incidences suggested in this article are rare / not common in India.

  4. Baihua Chadwick / January 2, 2013 at 16:32

    Like many readers who responded, I am very disappointed that the author of this article felt comfortable drawing conclusions from one single 12-week teaching experience. Sharing his experience is one thing, but drawing the kind of conclusions only demonstrated his own lack of experience in international education and lack of understanding in internationalization. Everything he described can and are happening in Canada too. I challenge him to undertake intercultural sensitivity training prior to re-enter the Indian market. I bet you his experience will change!

  5. Dr K / January 2, 2013 at 16:50

    Douglas probably went to teach at some very small private school (or a shop I would call) and is generalizing way too much. Indian education system is very varied and the experience that he mentioned can be had at many Canadian schools too.