Research takes backseat as UGC slashes Funds and Fellowships

Shibu Kumar Tripathi

The ever increasing budgetary cuts in higher education and research, and now the termination of fellowship for non-JRF scholars has once again dragged students to the point where confrontation is likely to dominate educational campuses nationally

Pritam Gupta, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has recently presented his synopsis and is planning to begin his field visits next month. Those plans may have to be shelved as a crisis-like situation looms over Pritam and 500 other students like him on the campus. As the University Grants Commission (UGC) terminated the fellowship grant of Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 for non-Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) scholars pursuing MPhils and PhDs, many of them from economically weak backgrounds have been unable to pay mess charges, leading to a confrontation with the university administration. “When a scholar should ideally invest their entire time in planning research, gathering and scrutinising information, many of us are worried about where we will eat our next meal,” says Pritam, who hails from Saharsa in Bihar. The same situation has emerged in numerous colleges, universities and institutional campuses around India following the closure of the fellowship grant being provided to non-JRF students by UGC from March 31, 2017, which marked the end of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan.   

The policy of the NDA government which introduced regular budgetary cuts in higher education has left students distraught for months now. Research scholars pursuing MPhils were getting a meagre amount of Rs 5,000 and those pursuing PhDs were receiving Rs 8,000 for their research work. The plan earlier was to increase the grants to Rs 8,000 for MPhil scholars and Rs 12,000 for PhD scholars but it was scrapped by the government without any explanation. Since then, the government is slowly and strategically cutting down on funds being provided to research scholars working in the field of social sciences, humanities and liberal arts. Delhi’s JNU is not the first university to take a hit, freezing of funds to Panjab University (PU) by the UGC forced PU to hike its academic course fee by over 1,000 percent. The unexpected rise triggered severe protests that ended up with students being booked under sections pertaining to sedition and attempt to murder. Similar fund cuts led to the closure of three research centres at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The NET exam, which was earlier conducted twice a year, will now be held only once. 

More than 3,500 such scholars in JNU alone have been impacted by the decisions of the UGC, which has given no plausible explanation behind the change in rules. Meanwhile, it has affected nearly 25,000 scholars pursuing MPhils and PhDs across the country. Students are in a state of desperation and looking for alternatives to get money in order to complete their field visits and theses. The scholarship is provided to both National Eligibility Test (NET)-qualified and non-NET students. Regular phone calls to the UGC Secretary and emails to members of the commission went unanswered. 

While Pritam has started giving tuition classes outside JNU to earn some money, Sumit Sikdar, a scholar from Jadavpur University, has no other option but to ask for financial help from his parents. Sikdar, 28, who is in his second year of research, said, “This government talks about Make in India but it is actually stopping the funding for Makers of India. This government is following a policy of creating a divide between privileged and underprivileged students and is trying to divert our attention from major issues by keeping the minds of the students enmeshed in their own problems.” 

Research in India has been locked in an existential battle with vocational courses in a market which is fiercely competitive. The continuous budgetary restrictions by the government have now made it even more difficult and stressful for students to pursue research. Scholars and experts observed that while scientific research is deemed important, people fail to comprehend the importance of research in social sciences, humanities and liberal arts which trace the direction in which society is headed. Professor V. Sukumar of the Department of Political Science in Delhi University opines that any government, be it state or Union, should encourage research by increasing funding rather than strategically cutting it down because in doing so, “they are going against the promises of academic welfare.” The academic argues, “Rationalisation is very important and that can only be generated through good research. But if the government continues to shrink funds and research does not take place, it will affect the daily human relations between people in social institutions. For instance, if you do not encourage gender studies, people will keep defending patriarchy which is dominant in our culture. Growing caste violence is a major problem today and a researcher can assess the reasons behind it through his work. But in the current situation, it looks distant now.” 

While the future looks dismal for non-JRF scholars, the conditions for JRF-qualified scholars does not appear to be bright too. Numerous students pursuing their doctoral degrees under JRF have not received their fellowship grant in the last year. “At least 10-15 of my friends in JNU, Jamia and DU have not received their JRF fellowships in the last one year and are dependent on small loans from friends and family to conduct their field visits and research work,” remarks Pritam. Similar issues have emerged at the University of Hyderabad and Jadavpur University where fellowships have been delayed for eight to nine months. 

Among those worst hit by the UGC’s laidback approach are the scholars from underprivileged backgrounds and marginalised communities, some of whom are the first academic students of their generations. Some of these scholars also have to send some money back home to support their families. Dhammadeep Sawant, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste community, is a Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF) scholar doing his PhD from the School of Educational Sciences in Swami Ramanand Teerth Marathwada University in Nanded. He is livid at the callous attitude of the UGC towards fellowships. “Whenever we call Delhi officials, they say that there is no fund for RGNF and that the UGC is constantly delaying funds with no clear communication,” Sawant said. 

In 2016, the UGC also dropped the Tata Institute of Social Sciences from the list of RGNF beneficiaries. Things went from bad to worse at TISS when 25 teachers from its three centres—Centre for Women’s Studies, Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, and Nodal Centre for Human Rights Education—were handed pink slips following fund cuts by the UGC. A series of protests has been launched on the campus against the commission for its decision which has resulted in seat cuts in the new academic session. 

Despite the push towards increasing the education budget to about 10 percent, conditions have not improved for the UGC. The commission witnessed a staggering 55 percent drop in its budget—from Rs 9,315.45 crore to Rs 4,286.94 crore for the financial year 2016-17—and it has continued in the current financial year as well. 

The problem of low budget allocation is not something that plagues scholars in liberal arts and humanities only. Researchers working in scientific fields are affected as well. The 2017-18 budget failed to impress the scientific community in India, with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Department of Space and the Department of Earth Sciences together receiving an allocation of Rs 34,759.77 crore—an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Experts believe that this number marks a mere 6 percent increase after factoring in the inflation rate of 5.6 percent. 

Presenting his budget in Parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called for reforming the UGC for higher education with little to no clarity on the steps that must be taken for this. 

The slashing of funds by the UGC has resulted in limited to no new seats in most of the departments for MPhil and PhD. Professor Rajat Datta of the School of Social Sciences (SSS) in JNU said, “The actions of the UGC have led to no new admission for research in the 2017-18 session which is to start in July. The history department itself has not admitted any new student—something that has occurred for the first time in 40 years of the existence of the SSS. Most students are reeling under pressure due to the decisions of the government and are unable to focus on their work which is of utmost priority at the time.” 

Over past years the government has used a steady hand in slashing fellowships, funds and financial allocations of different universities that have resisted the majoritarian opinion favoured by it. Due to continuous agitation and movements by the student community, the authorities have started considering them a resistant force. Vikram Kumar, a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, noted, “The current regime is very tactful in its moves to downplay the opposition against the popular opinion. In their plan to hinder the thought process of the scholars who have been driving a counter-narrative, this government has deceitfully tightened one noose after another.” Expressing disbelief over the sedition charges (which were dropped later) levelled against 68 students of Panjab University, Prof. Datta said, “It is the students who are keeping the opposition alive and in return for raising their voice, they get FIRs in their names and are charged with sedition, attempt to murder and scholarships are cut down.” 

While Left student unions have been opposing the whimsical actions of the UGC that is trying to curb the autonomy of educational institutions, Right-wing unions too are refusing to side with the commission and are demanding that fellowships be resumed and fund cuts be dealt with in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan. Lalit Pandey, President of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in JNU, said, “We are not happy with this decision of the government to curtail the fellowships of students and have met with the UGC chairman in this regard. We also sat on a hunger strike against the decision from January 24 to February 2 and called for a unified protest but none of the Left parties joined us.” 

As the sessions progress, challenges—financial, mental and emotional—mount exponentially upon students. The UGC, along with the MHRD, needs to prioritise the matter, taking into account the fragility of the situation, and act to resolve the crisis. If the government fails to solve the problems being faced by students across the country, it may be looking at another nationwide student opposition movement on the lines of Occupy UGC. This time, it may be more organised and prove to be a greater challenge for the State.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2017