There’s good news and bad news for students planning to pursue careers in research in India.
The union HRD ministry’s Kewal Kumar Sharma, secretary in the department of higher education, has announced that the Centre plans to grant monthly fellowships of Rs 70,000 each, to 2,000 PhD scholars across IITs and IISC.
That’s great news, and the move has been welcomed by faculty and educationists, who say that it will encourage more students to take up research.
“The move will also enhance competitiveness among researchers and spur them on to produce quality work,” says Subhendu Sarkar, associate dean for research at IIT-Ropar.
After all, it is not just the quantum but also the quality of research produced by India that is holding back everything from innovation to varsity rankings on the global stage.
Elsewhere, however, the scenario for researchers is not as encouraging.
From Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences to Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, scholars are finding grants tied to the UGC NET (the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test), a generic centralised exam.
TISS, for instance, cannot grant research fellowships to students outside NET anymore according to their advertisement for admission.
Jadavpur University, meanwhile, has not received funds for non-NET Fellows since 2016.
A year earlier, the Centre had announced a plan to discontinue fellowships for non-NET Fellows by March 31, 2017, which marked the end of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. The decision was reversed following protests by students across universities.
But the funds have not followed. “It is really worrying,” says Sanjib Acharya, professor of history at Jadavpur. “Some of the non-NET students are getting paid under the state government’s Vivekanada scholarship, but that is just a temporary measure. What happens to our research and what happens to the students if payment becomes uncertain?”
For decades, there has been talk of boosting quality by making research a more viable career option for more students.
“In a country with so many universities teaching so many subjects, a huge scholarship to only a few students is shortsightedness,” Acharya says.
Sources at the All India Council for Technical Education are optimistic about the impact of the new fellowships, though.
“They are aimed at science and engineering students as it is hard to get students from these branches to pick research as a career,” a source said.
“Most are drawn to post-graduate placements which pay handsomely and those who are left behind try for higher studies to boost their chances, but do not go in for PhDs. This is not true of the humanities, where more students are drawn to research. So the announcement of this new fellowship is encouraging as this will mean some meritorious science and engineering students will be drawn to research.”