For Whom The Bell Tolls?

Scrapping Non-NET Fellowship

Ayan Guha

University Grants Commission's (UGC) recent move to scrap non-National Eligibility Test (NET) fellowship has invited a lot of criticism from student community. Many teachers have also expressed their displeasure at this hasty move of the supreme regulatory body of higher education in the country. Under the non-NET fellowships, currently students who are registered under MPhil and PhD programme of all central universities and some select state universities receive a research grant of Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 per month respectively. This move has come in the wake of demands by a section of students for hike in the amount of non-NET fellowship. No doubt, the move has greatly antagonized the research scholars who are currently beneficiaries of this fellowship. This move is being widely perceived as a conspiracy to facilitate the entry of private capital in higher education sector in a grandiose is argued that for smooth entry of private capital in higher education Government has to treat the public and private universities in the same manner by cutting down funding for the central and state universities. Therefore, declaration by the UGC of paucity of funds as the reason for the discontinuation of non-NET fellowship has created considerable misgivings in the academic is being speculated that the Government is willing to include higher education in the list of tradable service under World Trade Organization (WTO).Even after putting aside all such speculations it can be said that the move to withdraw scholarships and fellowships have much wider social and practical ramifications, than anticipated.

Going by the international standards, the current research infrastructure in India is deplorable. Most of the universities don't have Wi-Fi facilities within their campuses and very few of them find it necessary to provide free in-campus and off-campus online access to journals and books to their students and research scholars. Many universities do have good libraries with enviable collection of books but the non-cooperation and foul behaviour of the library staff have become matters of folklore within their campuses (This can easily be attributed to the widespread prevalence of semi-feudal mindset all around). As a result, the research scholars often remain at the mercy of their moods. Under such circumstances, substantial costs have to be incurred by a researcher in order to collect basic study materials. In addition to this there is constant pressure to publish more and more for the sake of higher API (Academic Performance Index). It is here that the situation becomes extremely tricky. There is no dearth of reputed journals but it is extremely difficult for the manuscript of a budding academician to find a slot in these journals. The so-called double-bind peer review process invariably ends up selecting the writings of a small coterie of academic big-shots who forming a mutual admiration society promote, praise and award each other. Even if by some dint of luck a rookie researcher manages to publish his manuscript in a reputed journal the waiting period between submission of his brainchild and publication of the same is ordinarily no less than that between the appearance of the foetus and the birth of the baby. In a fiercely competitive job market it is highly unaffordable for any research scholar to wait so long like an anxious father for the successful delivery of his baby. Trapped in such a predicament, the demoralised scholars are left with little option but to tread along the known lanes of institutionalized mediocrity. They end up routinely paying to some sub-standard journals for publishing their articles. They, thus acquire quantitative enrichment of their resume harbouring the hope that once they get into the university department as a faculty member and develop sufficient connections in academia they will be able to crack the code and their manuscripts will reach the privileged pages of widely recognized journals and magazines. But often getting into the university faculty also requires connections. In search of the right connections which may make them sail through the ocean of joblessness, the research scholars often have to participate in seminars and conferences by paying a hefty registration fee. Thus, in this country research involves various overt and covert costs.

Given the current high costs associated with research if scholarships and fellowships are rolled back only people from affluent socio-economic background will be able to pursue research. This will hamper the quality of social science research in particular. Social science research flourishes in an atmosphere of social diversity where people from diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds get a chance to interpret the social reality with the help of their own socio-cultural experiences. It is a common knowledge that in a country like India with such vast socio-cultural landscape and intricate system of social stratification, the social perspective of a scholar is likely to be embedded in his social position. Indian society is spilt up into numerous forms of identity based non-territorial social partitions which re-incarnate themselves discursively in the field of epistemology, shaping and enriching general and intellectual discourses. Such discourses will increasingly become a monolith divested from fertile multiplicity and vibrant plurality if epistemological creation emanates only from a particular social stratum having more or less similar social experiences and worldview. Such a monolithic discourse originating from elite social mindscapes is likely to support and reinforce the neo-liberal interests by generating critical normative legitimation on suitable occasions. On the other hand, for the under-privileged the pursuit of liberal arts will be considered an unaffordable luxury and romantic pursuit of fashionable idealism resulting in the gradual disappearance of societal perspectives that can potentially carry the germs of dissent and diversity.

Furthermore, in a traditional society like India where girls in their twenties have to resist constant pressure from their parents to marry at the cost of their careers, this meagre amount of fellowship has great value in the life of many female scholars. It often helps many promising female research scholars to tide over the parental pressure to start a family at a very tender age. Under such circumstances, the withdrawal of fellowships and scholarships may adversely affect the ambitions of thousands of young and talented female scholars. Therefore, the move to do away with fellowships and scholarships will affect not only education but also the society in general. It is likely to unleash a process of silent and imperceptible social engineering, through which along with academics, the socio-cultural dynamics will also be restructured.

It has been argued in support of the move for withdrawal of non-NET fellowship that a serious and deserving research scholar should not have any problem in qualifying NET and once he qualifies NET he can legitimately receiveĀ  the fellowship amount. This point cannot be dismissed but serious doubts have been raised regarding the credentials of this examination to judge the academic calibre of the candidates, particularly after the introduction of objective examination patterns. Now it has become all the more easier to qualify this examination, which is evident from the increasing success rate. In all likelihood a serious researcher will qualify this examination. But this does not justify the disbursal of such a paltry amount of fellowship only after one passes this examination. Though it is right to assume that a serious researcher will qualify NET eventually but it is equally wrong to assume that he will qualify it at his first or second attempt. One can enrol for an MPhil programme just after his Masters and many people actually do so. Most of the students prepare for NET examination while pursuing their MPhil or PhD and there is sufficient time lag between filling up the form of the examination and receipt of NET certificate. Under such circumstances, in the event of withdrawal of fellowships many deserving students have to carry on their research without any financial aid for a considerable period of time. Technically, it may happen that a researcher fails to qualify NET through the entire span of his PhD research. Should the possibility of such a technicality debar the disbursal of fellowship till one qualifies NET? The answer is no because of two reasons. First, even if a person does not qualify NET through the entire span of his doctoral research, after the completion of his research he is deemed fit, as per rules, to teach in colleges and universities in a substantive capacity. It will be an absolute anomaly to regard a person good enough to draw a salary of Rs 50000 to Rs 60000 as a college or university professor undeserving to receive a fellowship of Rs 8000. Second, since the amount of Non-NET fellowship is extremely meagre this should be seen as an encouragement to research for bringing more and more bright yet economically backward students into the arena of research. The disbursal of such a meagre amount of fellowship should not be made contingent on the argument of merit. And even if such disbursal is made contingent on the argument of merit, the payment of this paltry sum of fellowship should be deemed adequate for a person who has demonstrated sufficient merit in qualifying the MPhil or PhD entrance test conducted by a public university.

For one thing the amount of non-Net fellowship is meagre but its withdrawal is likely to have great social ramifications and practical implications. Therefore, the issue needs to be handled with utmost care. It seems that the Government did not anticipate such massive protest against its decision to do away with non-NET fellowship. Under pressure from all quarters it has decided to roll back the move to do away with fellowship for non-Net candidates and the matter will now be referred to an Expert Committee. This is a sensible move. The Human Resource and Development Minister, Smriti Irani has indicated that the fellowship will not be discontinued for the time being. However, the students have decided to continue their protests so long as the no official circular is issued by the UGC clearly nullifyitig its earlier decision to do away with the non-NET fellowship. It seems that a considerable amount of mistrust has been generated in the minds of the students regarding the intentions of the regulatory body. Under such circumstances, the current political dispensation is being blamed for the move to curtail non-Net fellowships. However, the problem lies with the direction towards which the entire higher education sector has been moving for the past few years. The private universities which are functioning today and making huge profits catering to the children of super-rich fellow citizens set foot on the Indian soil much before the current Government took charge. Following their footsteps more and more private universities are opening plush five star campuses today. They are offering superb infrastructure but the question is who are reaping the benefits of such infrastructureā€”the rich or the deserving. In terms of knowledge creation the output will be below par if affluence rather than merit is the criterion of entry into these five star campuses. However, such below par academic output will have little effect on generation of profit and this is where that the problem chiefly lies.

Vol. 48, No. 22, Dec 6 - 12, 2015