FOR A 26-YEAR-OLD, Sumit cries easily. He cried that day in 2015 when he travelled from his hometown Hisar to Delhi and found his name on the admission list of JNU’s MA programme; again, when he couldn’t understand what was taught in his first class; then, when his professor told him, ‘you have come to JNU, you are in safe hands’.
And now, sitting in his professor’s room, Sumit cries again as he talks about JNU’s decision to implement the UGC cap on MPhil/PhD seats. “When I heard of the seat cut, I was in the library. Pair ke neeche se zameen khisak gayi (The world slipped from under my feet). I started crying,” he says, smiling through the tears this time.
A final year MA student of Ancient History at JNU’s Centre of Historical Studies, Sumit had — like many in his class and those in the other two MA (History) streams — hoped to take up an MPhil course here. But with the university implementing the UGC cap, his centre is among several on campus that will not take in any research scholar this year.
From 52 MPhil and 30 PhD scholars approved by JNU’s Academic Council for 2017-18, the Centre for Historical Studies has zero new seats this year.
“I have done everything to get here — picked plates at weddings, given out tokens to patients at a hospital in Hisar. All I wanted was to do my PhD from JNU and teach in Hisar. My father is 73, but he still cycles everyday to a vegetable shop where he works as a helper. He is doing that for me, hoping I’ll some day get a job. It breaks my heart to think that I’ll go back with just an MA degree. I can still apply in Delhi University and a few other places. But I will never be able to afford their fees and can never hope to get a hostel,” he says, his voice cracking again.
Sumit’s story of a smalltown boy getting into what is arguably India’s best research hub is, in fact, a story of JNU itself. It’s a university with a unique model of deprivation points for backward regions that ensured students such as Sumit, who is from the OBC category, and the others in the room — classmate Prasikha Negi from Odisha’s Sundargarh, seniors Virender Singh Bithoo from Rajasthan’s Bikaner and Jitendra Kumar from Bihar’s Jamuri — got their first taste of world-class education.
It’s this uniqueness that many fear will be hit with JNU implementing the 2016 UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/PhD Degrees) Regulations. On March 16, while dismissing a petition by JNU students, the Delhi High Court ruled that the university cannot formulate its own admission policy, and that its system of deprivation points was “legally impermissible”.
According to the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA), almost everyone who is offered a seat takes it — joining rates are in the range of 88% to 100% — mainly because the campus is seen as non-discriminatory, largely free of elitism and one that offers a relatively safer space for women. According to data compiled by the JNUTA, more women (453) than men (433) joined the MPhil/PhD programme in the university last year.
So while many professors whom The Indian Express spoke to agreed that a regulation wasn’t such a bad thing, they said that a “one-size-fits-all approach” shouldn’t have been applied.
Ashok, an assistant professor from Sumit’s centre who goes only by one name, says a regulation of this kind was long overdue, considering how PhDs are handed out across the country — a case of “total anarchy”. However, he says, “you can’t compare JNU with these universities”.
Ashok, who specialises in the economics of education, says, “Here, the resources are much more and only the School of Languages has undergraduates, so one professor can supervise more than three MPhils (as mandated under the cap). In JNU, we spend Rs 19,000 per student per month — just the recurring expenses — whereas a state university would spend around Rs 6,900.”
JNU Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, however, says there “can be no exceptions when it comes to improving research standards in universities”.
“JNU, on the other hand, should be a role model by doing high-end research. That is possible only when students and faculty publish in top-class journals and, in science streams, apply for patents, too… Nowhere (else) in the world will you see a professor guiding 30 research scholars,” he says.
Professors, however, disagree. “Yes, the Chemistry department in the University of Hyderabad has a cap of 12 students per faculty, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai has a cap of three, but they are doing it for their own reasons — lack of facilities, space constraints, etc,” says a senior professor in one of the sciences schools.
According to JNUTA data, the seat cut will lead to an “80-85% drop in enrollment” for those in the reserved categories — SC/ST, OBC and Persons With Disabilities.
R Mahalakshmi, professor for Ancient History at the Centre for Historical Studies, is among those whose student count is “much more” than the UGC cap. She agrees that “at one level the numbers are skewed”, but says there must be a “better mechanism of reforming the system”.
At least 70 per cent of her MPhil and PhD students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, many from reserved categories, she says.
“For the first six years or so of my years in JNU, I hardly had any students, now I am among those with a minus score (in excess of the UGC cap). When a student approaches you, hoping to specialise in your field, it’s hard to say no,” says Mahalakshmi, who did her MPhil and PhD from JNU and has taught for over 18 years here.
“Yesterday, when I took my MA class, I couldn’t look many of them in the eye. Some of them had joined JNU because they were focused on academics and now… It’s sad,” she says.
— Tomorrow: ‘How did they arrive at the numbers?’