Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Trouble Pursuing Academic Research in India


I always had the feeling that academic research in a reputable institution in India would provide us with the most democratic space to exchange thoughts and work freely. However, what is troubling, even after assuming that all these are available, is the question of sustaining this research activity. The pity is that what surrounds this seemingly democratic academic space is the hostile giant bureaucratic institutions like the University Grants Commission (UGC). UGC as far as I understand is a mess of activities with no transparency in what is being done. The simple story is this. The support that is offered by this regulatory institutions reaches the intended beneficiaries very late. When I say beneficiaries, I have in mind only the ‘sustenance researcher’ who has the ‘academic willingness’ but no ‘financial ability’ to work. There are many living realities amongst us who fall in this categories.  

Researchers fall under definite categories: starting with the actively enthusiastic ones at one end of the spectrum and those who consider research as the never ending ladder of educational progress in the country. For the latter category, it is nothing but another step in the educational ladder which we ought to take. It stops with a job or marriage or probably with tiredness and boredom over constantly pondering over a single hypothesis for a very long time. It is not surprising that some research works in social sciences endlessly stretch to more than two decades. And ultimately you will be doubly surprised at the results. There is a parallel cottage industry of conferences and paper presentations which too thrive in the country. Now a day’s books and journal articles also have been trivialized from its past glory to things which can be achieved through the right contacts. It is thus a dense black sea of research activities going on in the country; a black sea, unfathomable not because it is deep but because it is dark.

The tides here are controlled by the UGC. The first thing on offer for a would-be researcher by the UGC is the NET-JRF (National Eligibility Test- Junior Research Fellowship) scholarship. This also decides your presumed ability to teach. Teaching is a different ball game but the UGC will give you an eligibility certificate to teach without actually teaching (like learning to swim through a postal course). You clear this exam and the UGC shall also provide you with a scholarship to get you through your PhD. Now there are lots of stipulations attached to gain access to this fellowship; you need to show regular progress in your work, you need supporting papers ones you complete your research period of five years, you need to be a teaching assistant and so on. So the number of strings attached are many. At the end of this however, there is no guarantee that you will get your fellowships on time. When I say on time, this can sometimes mean for instance 20 months (in my case), or more in the case of other poor souls.

But I firmly believe that no one cares for any of this and JRFs and SRFs (Senior Research Fellowships) are nothing but huge excuses at limping the average candidate towards his quest to do research. Even without these hugely hollow titles one can do research; but these titles have already been accepted as reflecting quality of the candidate. Now that is where our educational system has lost; by making people blind to quality and promoting only the number of degrees they collect. If you are a JRF/SRF you are looked in awe by the academic community. However, what is often noted is that it is not the bright or the brilliant but the average student who clears it. The bright and the brilliant only find place outside the country. Does the grand then promote the average student? I think it does not. Rather it hampers them in two ways: by delaying payments endlessly and by destroying all hope he has on the system. The quality of assistance he receives from the teaching community is a different question all together; better not addressed. The average student would better opt out of this to lesser activities than academics. 

So what is this UGC promoting? Is there a need to be proud of the UGC titles or should we better move out and question the need for all these restrictions? How many of us are aware of other funding options in research? Formal higher education (especially in social science) in India always comes at an opportunity cost, the cost of taking up a job somewhere during the same period. But the UGC increases this cost by adding an endless list of requirements when you are a part of this giant: from not being allowed to take up a full time job to forcefully listing out requirements that sometimes seem so silly. It seems silly because at times they are bypassed with careless ease and no one bothers to cross check what is submitted on paper.

What we understand by research in India is what this nodal agency has told us. It is more a pursuance of the degree rather than any commitment to pursue knowledge. Knowledge could be built with consultations with experts, travel, discussions at any level, regular reading and analysis of policies and through various other means. Redirecting such efforts only through formal institutions under the state limits our capabilities to acquire knowledge. I feel it is this one challenge - to engage and stand side by side the giant UGC during the course of his/her research- that will stand high between the researcher and his quest for knowledge.

Rahul V Kumar

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