UGC out to get 'Research' Veers and more PhD degree holders, not necessarily better ones

No requirement of a Master’s degree for PhD, admission of those who failed to pass JRF/NET and relaxing requirement of peer-reviewed research papers make little sense

UGC out to get 'Research' Veers and more PhD degree holders, not necessarily better ones

Furqan Qamar & Sameer Ahmad Khan

The University Grants Commission (UGC), accused of being moribund, seems determined to salvage its reputation with a vengeance. It has announced a series of measures which it asserts would improve the quality of higher education in the country. They may well however end up achieving the opposite, believe educationists.

A case in point is the haste with which the UGC is diluting the quality of PhD. Its 2022 regulation relating to the minimum standards and procedures for PhD degree seeks to reverse all the earlier initiatives taken since 2009 or before for improving the quality of PhD.

The existing regulation exempts JRF/NET qualified candidates from university-level entrance test for admission to PhD. As a result, they were getting preference for admission to many good universities. However, now the UGC is seeking to restrict the number of JRF/ NET qualified candidates to a maximum of 60% by mandating universities to admit a minimum of 40% of their research scholars from amongst such applicants who have not been able to qualify JRF/NET.

Why? What purpose would it serve? Nobody knows or wants to tell.

Concerned about the deterioration in the quality of PhD, largely due to the proliferation of part-time research scholars, UGC had itself banned part-time PhD in 2009. The only exception was for people already in the teaching profession. UGC has now reversed the decision and has once again permitted part-time PhD.

Is it to increase or arrest the decline in PhD enrolment? Available data suggests otherwise.

PhD enrolment in India is indeed abysmally low as it accounts for merely 0.5% of the total enrolment in higher education. But it is also true that in absolute terms it has consistently increased since PhD regulations were tightened in 2009. It increased from 84,000 in 2011-12 to 2.03 lakh in 2019-20.

The data further shows that nearly 10 lakh candidates apply for JRF/NET and nearly 8.5 lakh take the exam. Of these, about 50,000 qualify in the exam and are declared eligible for appointment as Assistant Professor or for pursuing a PhD. Some of them may decide against pursuing PhD but a good number of them are unable to get admission to universities of their choice. Easing the entry barrier would further exacerbate the situation.

Further, the regulatory bodies are giving a big push to PhD immediately after completing undergraduate degrees. There is now no need to do a Master’s. And this is applicable not only in exceptional cases but as a general rule. Is it about catching them young for a future academic talent pool? But the same regulators still require a person to have a Master’s degree to become eligible for a faculty position. Had the idea been thought through carefully, the faculty recruitment rules must have also been changed simultaneously.

The new regulation does not only propose to dilute the standards and requirements for admission, but it also seeks to dilute its 2016 regulations by doing away with the provision that “PhD scholars must publish at least one research paper in a refereed journal and make two paper presentations in conferences/seminars before the submission of their dissertation/thesis for adjudication, and produce evidence for the same in the form of presentation certificates and/or reprints.”

UGC seems to have reached the erroneous conclusion that the prerequisite of publication and presentation of papers may have been based on a good premise but has failed to improve the quality of the PhD. It has, instead, promoted plagiarism, publications in predatory journals and pay-to-publish kind of unethical practices.

Faculty members and research scholars may indeed be vulnerable to predatory practices not only by predatory journals but also by some of the reputed ones. The authors are made to wait for a long time and finally receive rejections.

Interestingly, while their papers are not regarded as good enough for publication, these authors are often approached to serve as reviewers. They are expected to do so free of cost as a part of their academic and moral responsibility. Publishers of these journals conveniently forget about their morality when it comes to publishing the papers.

Authors are often enticed to publish open source to get a higher citation. But opensource publications come at a heavy cost as authors are made to pay hefty fees. Even for the print edition, they may have to pay either per page or for every coloured diagram and exhibit in the paper. Authors have no option but to agree. UGC should have tried to curb such practices by exerting its influence on the publishers. Instead, it has chosen to do away with the requirement of the publication.

The move has received a mixed response from academia. Some cite the example of institutions of national importance and world-class universities abroad which do not insist on publication as a prerequisite but are still able to produce quality PhD. An overwhelming majority, however, feel that the move is retrograde and would adversely affect the quality of PhDs. They believe that the malaise is much deeper emanating from a deterioration in the research ecosystem in the country. It, thus, needs to be treated at the systemic level rather than symptomatically.

Research scholars need to be urged to publish more rather than less and not just in any journal but in journals of repute. Even postgraduate students should undertake research as part of their course requirements and must strive to publish their findings.

Undermining the capabilities of the researchers and limiting expectations from them would cause more harm than good. Research scholars must be trained to author and publish research papers. Diluting this requirement would be detrimental to their employability and career progression.

Many heads of higher educational institutions, including some of the reputed private and deemed universities, have come out emphatically against the move. They assert that they would not like to remove the requirement of publications for awarding a PhD nor would they want to appoint a faculty who is a PhD with no publication in a decent journal.

The onus of maintaining quality surely falls collectively on the researcher, supervisor and the institution. But the role of a control mechanism cannot be ignored. The UGC Consortium for Academic Research and Ethics is already doing its bit to empanel quality journals. An independent mechanism for accreditation and quality assurance of academic journals could go a long way in improving the standard of research publications.

Finally, undue dependence on publications in ‘international journals’ is proving detrimental to India-specific research.

(Furqan Qamar is a professor in the Faculty of Management Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, & former Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission. Sameer Ahmad Khan is pursuing PhD from Faculty of Management Studies, JMI. Views are personal).

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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