JNU faculty chorus: Seat cap by itself isn’t wrong but why hurry, why heavy handed

The university administration, however, believes that even with the seat cap, JNU’s PhD numbers won’t compare too badly with that of other universities.

Written by Uma Vishnu | New Delhi | Published:April 13, 2017 4:18 am

“IN PRINCIPLE, I support such a cap,” says an associate professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at JNU’s School of Social Sciences. With many of his colleagues announcing an agitation against the UGC-mandated cap on MPhil/PhD seats, his is one of the few rooms that stayed open one afternoon.

“We may quibble about how but such a cap was required. We have had one professor who would supervise 20 PhDs, another none. In JNU, students are given the freedom to choose their supervisor so it tends to get uneven. One hopes that the 300 or so faculty vacancies are filled so that the intake (of students) goes up next year,” he says.

His centre is among the few that will take in students — 13 of them for its combined MPhil-PhD programme — after implementing the 2016 UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/PhD Degrees) Regulations, which caps the number of MPhil/PhD scholars a teacher can supervise.

The associate professor’s view is echoed by many teachers in the faculty. But one question they all ask is this: What was the method adopted to decide the seat curbs?

“It’s a mystery how they arrived at these numbers. No one knows,” says Ayesha Kidwai, president of the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA).

“Take, for example, the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, which has 17 professors, five associate professors, and seven assistant professors, which means the centre can have 68 students. Even if we were to count the current 53 MPhils, the number of seats up for admission should have been 68 minus 53 — 15. But what does the centre get? One PhD candidate. Can someone please explain this?” says Kidwai.

A teacher in the School of Physical Sciences says the administration’s “refusal to talk to us, give us a hearing” has only added to the confusion among teachers and students.

“For instance, in the sciences departments, an MPhil has little value and MSc students have always been eligible for PhD. But this time, the prospectus says that to be eligible for PhD, applicants need to have an MPhil or an MSc with two years of research experience. Now, there are very few institutes that offer MPhil in sciences, so we won’t get many candidates,” she says, adding that after a “lot of struggle”, the science schools managed to get 48 extra seats for MSc students with Junior Research Fellowship.

The professor says her school, unlike others on campus, may face a unique problem because of “these arbitrary rules” — it may “not even get 10 students this time” for its 22 PhD seats. “All this makes us feel the aim is to simply bring down the numbers (of PhDs) in JNU,” she says.

The university administration, however, believes that even with the seat cap, JNU’s PhD numbers won’t compare too badly with that of other universities. “There are about 800 universities in India that produce about 25,000 PhDs every year and thus, on an average, about 300 PhDs are awarded by each university annually. Given the above situation, about 200 seats in JNU for 2017-18 academic year is still a large number….” states an admission notification dated March 23, 2017, and signed by Registrar Pramod Kumar.

The notification also reiterates the “mandatory” nature of the UGC regulations and points out that the Delhi High Court had asked the university to implement them “without any deviation”.

But professors in JNU refuse to believe the university didn’t have an option. “UGC is such a behemoth. Even if you did interpret it in your own way, the maximum that would have happened is a rap on your wrist at some later stage. No other central university has rushed to implement the UGC regulations the way JNU has,” says a senior professor in one of the science schools.

JNUTA’s Kidwai says a survey they did of 46 central universities showed that no one had implemented the 2016 UGC Regulations “in this chapter and verse manner”.

“Most central universities haven’t implemented the 2016 regulations. And even the few that have done so have made modifications to harmonise the regulations with their statutes and past practices. Everyone, barring JNU,” she says.

The administration, however, points to the “skewed numbers” in JNU to say why it had no option but to implement the UGC regulations. “Nowhere in the world will you see a professor guiding 30 research scholars,” says Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar.

Another senior professor in one of the science schools has this number to add. “Let me direct you to the website of William A Goddard, III, one of the best professors at Caltech (California Institute of Technology). He has 18 PhD students plus countless other associates. For productive labs, these numbers are typical. So there is no way an external agency can decide the precise number of students for a professor. That’s for the faculty and the university to decide,” he says.

“Change isn’t a bad thing and we need to talk about it. But that should be left to us, to the university,” says R Mahalakshmi, professor at the Centre for Historical Studies.

“No university will survive if we believe we are perfect. So it is good to have a debate and look at the system carefully, but certainly not in this mechanistic way when it is a question of people’s lives and careers,” she says.

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