This is a guest post by ASWATHY SENAN
Researchers all over the country are protesting the move by the UGC to scrap the non-NET fellowship and students have gathered in hundreds to resume their agitation at the UGC office through OccupyUGC. it appears that one should be clear about what the student reaction means: it is much more than as a demand for monetary benefits. The student mobilization happened after the committee that met at the UGC office in Delhi to discuss and increase the non-NET fellowship, decided to scrap it. Following the protests that lasted through the nights from 21 October, the Minister of Human Resources Development tweeted that the fellowship shall be continued leaving out one crucial detail: its availability to new students. This decision to end all financial support of researchers doing their MPhil and PhD until they qualify NET or JRF is a huge threat for the research community in India as this is a clear move to professionalise research and make it a mere add on to teaching career.
The National Eligibility Test is an objective-type test conducted by the University Grants Commission, twice every year to select candidates eligible for teaching in India. Those who top the NET exam get the Junior Research Fellowship. When researchers are selected by individual departments after rounds of short-listing proposals, entrance exam and interview, why should there be another round of test to prove your excellence in research capabilities? If a researcher has to take an exam that will assess her research ability shouldn’t it be different from the joke of a memory test that NET has become? If the UGC is saying that having a PhD is not the criteria for teaching, and NET is mandatory, they need to also acknowledge that NET is the criteria for only teaching and not of research. Those qualifying NET also have the choice to teach or not to teach during the course of their PhD programme. Or maybe, the UGC envisions all the researchers in this country as merely budding teachers and when the education system is becoming more and more prone and designed to make us professionals, why spare only the researchers? It is with this vision that the UGC has decided to universalize the system that the scholars at Delhi University are following.
The researchers in Delhi are divided into three types: the first consists of students who are not just researchers, but also ad hoc or guest teaching faculty members in various colleges in DU. Teaching is their primary job and their concern mostly revolves around the issues they have with their HoDs, graduate students, good and bad, interested and distracted. Their teaching and other administrative work takes up so much time that they cannot even submit their PhD assignments on time. The second type is of those who are not teaching, but are equally miserable: they are yet to crack the eligibility test called NET which would qualify them to teach and earn more than 50,000 (or more) a month. It is the third third that is a threat to the university and the UGC.
The students who would fall into the third category might not want to teach and want to use their student years to read, learn, discuss, do theatre, engage in political activity or grass root movements activism,or simply go to the library every day and work on their PhDs to produce a well-researched and rigorously-argued work of research work.
In universities like JNU or Hyderabad Central University, an important part of students’ daily routine used to be sitting and sipping chai at canteens or coffee shops or in the hostel rooms or under the trees combining it with intelligent and relevant discussions: the topics ranged from politics to gender to caste to food to Facebook. They held meetings to discuss political and social issues on a range of issues – when a student is harassed or served a notice without explanation, when the quality of mess food goes down, or when a contractual labourer is dismissed without prior notice. But should all these be issues for researchers? Shouldn’t they be concerned about getting their papers published, find means to increasing their points and try and get a permanent job at the earliest? Shouldn’t students’ interest in questions of subjectivity and governmentality and state be restricted to theorizing them? Isn’t having formal forums approved of and watched by university authorities, such as debating societies and film clubs, be more than enough to improve argumentation skills? But now one would hardly find any such researchers in the Faculty of Arts or near the chai adda in Law Faculty or even in the reading room of the Central Research Library? Because they all are in the process of becoming good and efficient teachers or being so.
With the four year programme that UGC insisted upon for PhD in 2010, which to my knowledge was adopted only by Delhi University, the pressure on students became immense: one had to submit the thesis in four years, extendable up to one year; there was no provision to deregister either. Surely, research cannot be an unending process but it is not a project that can be delivered in a mechanical fashion within a stipulated time. There has to be accountability with regard to progress of work which will mostly be with their individual supervisors and that is what the annual presentation of the work in progress does. When someone is enrolled in a four-year course in one’s mid- or late twenties, there could be so many personal and professional hurdles. Such strict conditions make research difficult, especially for women, when even the provision of maternity leave is not defined in clear terms. Is 5000 or 8000 rupees a month enough for those who want to do research in a country like India where even subsidised hostels or mess facilities are not guaranteed?
As far as Delhi University is considered, hostels have only limited seats; and women’s hostels have all possible regressive rules beginning from attendance-taking every night to limited night outs! Although the private PGs and rented flats are so expensive in Delhi, one has no option but to take them because of these conditions in university hostels. In the case of Delhi University, the administrative process is so long that the non-NET fellowship is not granted on a monthly basis, the fellows need to claim it every month. This includes getting the application signed from the supervisor, HoD and Registrar and submitting it to the finance section (which includes running at least five times from one section to the other). So, students claim it only once or twice a year in bulk. If one looks at the number of students who have joined the humanities department of IITs in the past few years, one can find a steady rise. The reason is not only the research atmosphere, it is money as well. The IITs give the same fellowship as JRF to their fellows, again only to those who have qualified the NET. The question is also as to, how certain central universities like Hyderabad Central University or JNU manage to deposit the fellowship every month in the students’ account and Delhi University cannot? So, when UGC states that it is the “only grant-giving agency in the country which has been vested with two responsibilities: that of providing funds and that of coordination, determination and maintenance of standards in institutions of higher education” is it really doing any of that?
It seems like that the UGC has hit upon the idea that professionalizing research is the best way to end free thinking and political activity among researchers and the universities are following suit. Students are issued show-cause notices for writing status messages on Facebook, girls and boys are suspended for sitting on the same bench, students are warned for organizing protest rallies lamenting Dalit killings in the country! So the system has found a way out: put pressure on students to clear NET as they won’t have any other financial support, make them run from one college to the other to work as ad hocs, so that the rest of the time will barely suffice to write and publish research papers and attend seminars. They will not have time to understand, leave alone know of the crisis their fellow researchers face, they will not have time to sit and discuss research questions, they will not have time to question the change in UGC rules, they will not have time to debate the new book they have read or the disagreements with the speaker of the seminar they just attended. The authorities have realized that the student community is the greatest threat to any regime and breaking them in all possible ways with less leisure time, more rigorous schedules, and stricter parameters of grading is the best solution. Better still, make them teachers, and their concerns will only be FYUP, semesterisaiton, biometrics and attendance of students (not that they are any less of an issue, but the UGC has found ways of suppressing those issues). Stop them from being students, and make them professionals. After all, professionals have no option but to be part of and follow the system!
Aswathy Senan is a researcher scholar at Delhi University.