Cracks in the foundation of India’s research landscape

Because of the new UGC norms for admitting PhD students, many universities neglect essential research skills. India ranks low on research citations and sends a huge number of students abroad for higher studies. It reflects a lack of confidence in the domestic system.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Photo | AFP

“Research is formalised curiosity. It’s poking and prying with purpose.”

— Zora Neale Hurston

In its 2024 election manifesto, the BJP promised, or rather, gave a ‘Modi ki guarantee’ to provide quality education in India. This includes establishing new institutions, using technology, providing skill training and issuing One Nation, One Student IDs. And going ahead with its ‘one nation’ leitmotif, the government is also pushing for a One Nation, One Entrance Test for PhD students.

Let’s begin with the new University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines for the National Eligibility Test (NET). They allow universities to use NET scores for admissions to PhD programmes, substituting the need for separate entrance tests conducted. However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that this initiative may serve as a means for the government to exert control over the autonomy of universities. Implementing these guidelines aligns with a broader trend of governmental intervention in academic affairs.

This move parallels other instances, like the recent alteration of syllabi to exclude portions of Mughal history from NCERT textbooks, reflecting an ideologically driven approach to education. As well as the discontinuation of scholarships like the Maulana Azad National Fellowships for minorities. This raises serious concerns about the government’s commitment to fostering equitable higher education. I have raised this issue multiple times in parliament, but it continues to be ignored, indicating a disregard for voices of marginalised communities within the academic sphere.

In the December 2023 NET exam, nearly 6.95 lakh candidates appeared. This serves as a gateway for students to pursue PhD degrees or become assistant professors. However, a fundamental question arises: Is NET an appropriate measure of a student’s research skills? The exam primarily consists of MCQs. This raises concerns about its efficacy in evaluating research skills. MCQs tend to be straightforward and often test rote learning rather than critical thinking.

Unlike doctoral programmes in the West that prioritise research proposals and statement of purpose, focusing on critical thinking, the UGC’s new guidelines appear to overlook the significance of strong academic writing skills, crucial for assessing students’ dedication in their field.

It is crucial to shed light on the dire situation faced by PhD students in India. They are subjected to relentless mental and financial exploitation. In 2023, the government increased monthly stipend for NET-Junior Research Fellows from Rs 30,000 to Rs 37,000, yet a non-NET PhD student in a state or central university struggles to receive even a quarter of this. Research scholars in state and central government-run universities are crying out about irregularities in the disbursement of fellowships, budget cuts for libraries and crumbling infrastructure. Their voices echo with stories of discrimination in PhD admissions and rampant malpractices in publications required for appointments in higher education institutions. The academic journey has become a battlefield where dreams are trampled and spirits crushed.

It will not be wrong to say our educational system predominantly focuses on clearing various competitors like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test , NET etc. The significance of the NET has become so paramount that many universities neglect to teach essential academic skills. Instead, the emphasis is on exam preparation.

The shift becomes clear when considering that, by one count, India is the 4th highest producer of research but ranks as low as 9th in terms of citations. This highlights a concerning reality wherein quantity often supersedes quality in academic endeavours. This became more real when the foreign ministry announced approximately 1.5 million Indian students are pursuing education abroad as of January 2023. This reflects a lack of confidence in the domestic system’s capacity to nurture and support aspiring scholars.

Many have observed a shift in the landscape, notably in competitive exams like UPSC, which feature multiple rounds including the mains exams assessing critical, analytical, and ethical skills through subjective questions. In contrast, exams like NET are criticised for not evaluating students’ critical abilities. Before implementing NET guidelines, several universities used their own procedures for candidates, which included an entrance exam followed by additional evaluation stages such as interviews. Now, UGC has asked universities to shut down their methods of evaluation—again an attack on their autonomy.

When students have only one choice to pursue their research dreams, coaching centres—both online and offline—will benefit. However, these centres mainly focus on passing exams rather than developing important research skills. Plus, their fees are too expensive for many students, especially those from small towns and villages. So these students may be unable to join.

Many NET candidates are also master’s level students, facing the challenge of succeeding both at university and national levels. Often, they rely on unreliable guide books meant solely for competitive exams, which, while they may offer assistance, can also lead to the adage, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Amidst the flurry of recent reforms—from syllabi alterations to the controversial removal of teachers from public universities and the contentious de-reservation of seats—a pressing question looms: Is the current regime engineering an elitist makeover of Indian academia?

(Views are personal)

Thamizhachi Thangapandian | Member of the Lok Sabha

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The New Indian Express