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No place for scholarship (.hindu)

New guidelines cutting the number of MPhil and PhD students a professor can supervise will kill research

The claim that something as innocuous as the number of MPhil students that a university teacher is allowed to supervise will determine the future of research in Indian universities must seem far fetched. However, the drastic cuts mandated by the latest (2016) University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines on MPhil and PhD are indeed alarming, and it is worrisome that they have not received the attention they demand.\

A three-tier balance

For those unfamiliar with it, research in Indian universities is located at the top rung of a three-tiered structure. The bottom rung is made of undergraduates who account for the vast majority of students in higher education, and are enrolled in a range of disciplines in the arts, social sciences, sciences, technology, and so on. The second rung is expectedly much smaller and consists of student enrolled for two-year post-graduate degrees. The third tier, much the smallest, is that of research students who may either enrol directly in the PhD degree, or opt to do an MPhil degree (usually of two years duration) before eventually going on to the PhD.

The two-stage option is designed to address the need that master’s students often feel for additional training and skills before taking on the challenge of conducting original research for several years. This is a common requirement because in India master’s level courses do not involve original research — they emphasise the assimilation and reproduction of existing knowledge. The MPhil helps to orient students towards the new and entirely different activity of research aimed at adding to current knowledge by asking and answering new questions. Moreover, an MPhil degree makes one eligible for a full-time teaching position at the university and college level, and is thus critical for expanding faculty strength.

Many commentators have remarked on the extraordinary expansion of Indian higher education in recent years. Official statistics show that enrolment has doubled over the past decade, placing us among the largest such systems in the world. Equally remarkable is the restructuring that has accompanied and enabled expansion. Increasing privatisation has meant that the majority of colleges today are privately managed (though many may also receive some government aid).

The oxygen of access

There has also been a widening of access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are the first from their families to enter higher education. Apart from the very poor who have little chance of going beyond school, the presence (albeit to varying degrees) of students from rural areas, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Muslims is transforming what until recently was an elite structure. Moreover, women from all these groups are also present in numbers large enough to approach parity with men (official figures for 2015-16 place the share of female enrolment at 46.2%). Even more unprecedented is the fact that this kind of diverse student body is found not just at the lowest rungs of higher education but also at the top. Thanks to the implementation of reservations and the willingness of parents from vulnerable backgrounds to invest in higher education for their children, this transformation is also visible in postgraduate and research level classrooms.

There is, therefore, a tremendous sense of promise associated with this historical moment. Indian higher education is poised to produce new generations of students at all levels, including young researchers from hitherto under- or un-represented groups who can expand and transform the knowledge base of society. They will also form the next generation of university and college faculty. However, instead of enabling and strengthening this surge, the UGC’s 2016 guidelines (which are mandatory for all institutions from the 2017-18 academic year) appear to be bent on halting and reversing it.

The “vision” of these guidelines, embedded in its various clauses, is to severely curtail the number of MPhil students, perhaps with the intention of doing away with the degree altogether. The previous guidelines of 2009 allowed faculty to supervise up to eight PhD and five MPhil students, with the overall cap intended to regulate faculty workload. Surprisingly and inexplicably, the 2016 guidelines now say that an assistant professor can have just one MPhil and four PhD students; an associate professor two MPhil and six PhD students; and a full professor three MPhil and eight PhD students at a given point of time. Moreover, it has been further decided that only full-time regular faculty of a given department can be supervisors; that arrangements across departments (for interdisciplinary research) would require co-supervisors; and that supervisors from affiliating colleges must have at least two publications in refereed journals to be eligible to supervise.

Keeping in mind that the MPhil is a two-year degree, with supervisors being allotted during the course of the first year itself, these guidelines amount to cutting down on student intake every other year, leading to unviably small cohorts at best. If anything, the significance of the MPhil has only grown in recent times. Today, more than ever before, State universities have been starting MPhil programmes in the pure sciences, social sciences and humanities, and in various interdisciplinary fields such as development studies, human rights programmes and women’s studies, and large numbers of students are entering this programme across the country. Given the transformation in the student body with more and more first generation students making it to this level, there is an acute need for adequate training in undertaking research, including more inventive and rigorous ways of imbibing research methodologies. Several institutions are currently engaged in planning new modes of teaching the kinds of reading, writing and research skills necessary to aid this process. Besides, younger faculty also need new training. Supervising an MPhil student is one of the best ways for an assistant professor to grow as a researcher and teacher, so much so that junior faculty should be encouraged to have more such students, at least initially.

Route to unviability

But the precise opposite is being made to happen. MPhil classes will turn unviable because of low numbers. More students will try to get into PhDs straight from an MA degree and being ill-prepared for the challenges they will face, they are more likely to sink than swim. Faculty will be less equipped to develop as research supervisors. And most important of all, the necessary expansion in faculty strength — both to meet existing severe shortages, particularly in faculty from disadvantaged sections, and to meet the growth in students — will not only be halted but also reversed under the new conditions.

The UGC, under the direction of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, appears in fact to be bent not just on quietly killing the research potential of India’s universities, but on diminishing higher education altogether.

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