Court challenge to drastic PhD programme cuts at JNU

The implementation of drastic cuts to MPhil and PhD programmes at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU, in New Delhi must now await a final decision by the Delhi High Court, which is hearing a writ petition filed by a group of students challenging the reductions.

The University Grants Commission or UGC, India’s higher education regulator, last year issued new regulations restricting the number of research students each university faculty member can supervise at a time as part of a drive to improve standards and create world-class universities. Previously it was left to universities and departments to decide on the number of research students to admit.

At JNU – one of the country’s top ranked research institutions, which issues mainly postgraduate and research degrees – faculty are already supervising more than the limit set by the UGC. As a result, the number of MPhil and PhD places for the academic year 2017-18 has been dramatically cut from 1,174 to just 194.

In March when JNU released its prospectus for the coming academic year, after a lengthy delay, the unexpected savagery of the cuts was met with disbelief and sparked uproar in the academic community and among prospective students.

The university also scrapped ‘deprivation points’, awarded to applicants from India’s poorest districts for MPhil/PhD admissions, which students say will mean the extensive cuts will hit poorer students most and affect social inclusion at the university.

A single judge at the Delhi High Court ruled on 16 March that JNU, though an autonomous university, was bound by UGC norms and had to follow the across-the-board cap on MPhil and PhD programmes. But an appeal before a two-judge bench made by the students resulted in a court ruling on 28 April that any change in JNU’s admission policy for research programmes must await final outcome of the writ petition.

The court is hearing a separate plea by the left-wing Students' Federation of India or SFI challenging the UGC plan to put a cap on the number of MPhil and PhD students a professor can guide. The SFI petition, filed on 10 April, challenges the caps announced by UGC as part of new regulations as "irrational, unreasonable and arbitrary".

Research focus

“JNU is continuously ranked as one of the best universities in the country. Strict numbers for PhD research guidance, for masters guidance, should be relaxed in their case, because the people there are outstanding enough to be able to guide many more students than in standard universities," said opposition Congress Parliamentarian Rajeev Gowda, speaking in India’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha on 7 April.

So far, the UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversee the higher education sector, have shown no sign of relenting.

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar defended the caps on JNU’s research programme in parliament, arguing that where the UGC now mandates a professor may guide a maximum of eight scholars, some JNU professors were guiding more than 20. He claimed one retired JNU professor was guiding 44 students, while 19 professors were guiding between 20 and 30 students each.

The UGC was following global practice by limiting the number of students a professor can guide, he said.

According to JNU’s own figures, its 565 faculty members guide some 5,000 research scholars, or an average of nine scholars each.

Under UGC’s ‘Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/PhD Degrees’ regulations, announced on 6 June 2016, an assistant professor can have just one MPhil and four PhD students; an associate professor two MPhil and six PhD students; and a full professor three MPhil and eight PhD students.

But Edward Rodrigues, a professor at JNU’s highly rated sociology department, said the issue is not one of numbers. “Apart from the fact that JNU is dedicated to research, the professors work according to schedules that accommodate research students at different stages – some may be away for months together on field work, for example,” he said. “In fact, many [JNU] centres conduct no teaching at all but concentrate on research programmes.”

He argued while there may be merit in capping MPhil and PhD faculty-student ratios to improve the quality of research, the same could not apply to JNU. “We believe that once UGC understands the difference there could be a reversal of the policy – the court’s final decision may well be conducive to that,” he said.

One-size-fits-all policy

According to Rodrigues, many of the steps taken under the new regulations were in fact overdue.

“The idea, after all, was to streamline admissions, improve the quality of research and administration. All this was needed because the system in many universities had begun to rot. It’s just that research institutions like JNU and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research got caught in a one-size-fits-all policy.”

Avijit Pathak, a professor at JNU’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, sees another dimension to the new Human Resource Development Ministry policies that seems to work against the social sciences while favouring courses that are “more instrumental and have to do with technology, management and commerce”.

He notes that even as research seats in the social sciences are being drastically reduced, JNU management has announced the opening of new centres to teach management and engineering.

At JNU’s school of social sciences only two of its 13 research centres will be able to admit students this year whereas there were admissions at all 13 centres last year. The Centre for the Study of Social Systems, which had an intake of 38 postgraduate students last year, will have none this year.

Some of the affected centres include those carrying out research into poverty and regional development issues, which has led critics to assert that vital research into inequalities in the country would be affected.

It became apparent that physics, computer and systems sciences, computational and integrative sciences, biotechnology, history, political science and English studies will not admit a single research student. Professors say the work of many of the centres and departments will be severely disrupted. Many professors will be forced to sit idle for lack of research students.

One way to preserve research student numbers is to hire more faculty staff, but the university is already trying to fill 300 vacant posts, amid a country-wide shortage of professors.

Another top-rated university, the University of Delhi, currently has 3,000 research students to 800 faculty members, which is within the UGC guidelines.