In October 2015, Purushothama Bilimale joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as head of the Kannada Studies chair and got to work straight away. Over the next year, the professor managed to get a grant of Rs 43 lakh from the Karnataka government, organised seminars and cultural programmes, set up a research library with around 12,000 books, prepared the MPhil curriculum and got it approved from the university. “My plan was to take three MPhil students this year, three next year and three the year after.”
But on March 21, when JNU released its e-prospectus, the professor at the Centre for Indian Languages at JNU’s School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, was shocked: zero seats for the programme. “Which means, I won’t have any students this year. I am blank. Why did I have to do all this? What am I even here for?”
With JNU implementing the 2016 UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/PhD Degrees) Regulations, Bilimale’s story finds an echo across JNU’s 10 schools, whose brick-red structures house 42 centres or departments, and four special centres.
The Indian Express studied the minutes of the December 23, 2016 meeting of the JNU Academic Council, which approved the intake/proposed offers for admission to various programmes for 2017-18, and compared it with the e-prospectus released by JNU. The result: 31 of the centres in JNU’s 10 Schools and two of the special centres — Sanskrit Studies and Law and Governance — will have zero new students, that is, they will see no new MPhil/PhD admissions this year (the admission process closed on April 5). Many of these are exclusively research centres.
The university will admit only 242 research scholars this year, an 82.81 per cent cut from the 1,408 seats for 2017-18 approved by the Academic Council — it includes, among others, the Vice-Chancellor, deans of all schools and chairpersons of centres — and a 75 per cent drop from last year’s 970 seats.
1. Zero admission in the Centre for Historical Studies. An intellectual powerhouse for research and teaching in South Asian history and one of JNU’s oldest, it took 52 MPhil students last year. The School of Social Sciences, of which this centre is a part, has seen a 93.23 per cent seat cut — from 458 seats approved by the Academic Council to 31.
2. The School of International Studies will get 11 seats, down from the 283 seats approved by the AC — at 96.11 per cent, this centre has seen the deepest cut.
3. The School of Languages will see an 86.39 per cent cut — from 272 approved seats to 37.
4. The six schools and two special centres of science will get 146 seats against the 314 that had been approved — 53.5 per cent fewer seats.
For a university that’s arguably India’s best research university — and which on April 3 was ranked the second best university on the HRD Ministry’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), with research one of the key criteria for the award — that’s bad news. JNU watchers and several of its faculty say they worry that the seat cut will affect the university’s standing as a key contributor to India’s higher education staffing.
The JNU administration, however, says it’s only implementing the UGC regulation that puts a cap on the number of students a teacher can supervise: a professor cannot guide more than three MPhil and eight PhD scholars, an associate professor a maximum of two MPhil and six PhD scholars and an assistant professor not more than one MPhil and four PhD scholars. Besides, it says, teachers in JNU anyway exceeded the cap by a huge margin.
“In IIT Madras, which is the No.1 IIT in the country (NIRF rankings), there are 2,471 PhDs on campus and 600 faculty, which makes it an average of 4 student per teacher. IIT Kharagpur has an average of 3.3. It’s much higher in JNU — an average of 8.4. In fact, the distribution in JNU is skewed — there are some professors who supervise up to 25 students and some who would have none,” JNU Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar told The Indian Express, while insisting that “it is not a seat cut”.
“It’s a seat cut when the upper cap is 18 and we say we can only have, say, 10. How can I compare this year’s numbers (of seats offered) with last year’s, which were anyway irregular, and say there has been a seat cut? The university is simply following the 2016 UGC gazette. The 2009 gazette too mentioned upper caps, but JNU did not follow it. Therefore, when the 2016 gazette is implemented, since we already have excess students in many centres and schools, where is the question of seat cut?” he said.
On March 16, the Delhi High Court dismissed a petition by JNU students against the UGC notification, saying the university will have to implement the UGC regulations “without any deviation”. Besides the seat cap, UGC regulations have made the entrance test for the MPhil/PhD programmes a “qualifying exam”, with candidates to be selected solely on the basis of the viva voce or the interview. Many teachers say they are apprehensive about the “subjectivity” that might come in with this, considering that a lot of JNU students are from backward regions of the country.
In a university that has since the sedition row of February 2016 seen a fractious relationship between a big section of the faculty, led by the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA), and the students unions on one hand and the administration on the other, the new rules, especially the seat cap, have only deepened the divide.
“It’s ludicrous. As professor, I am paid Rs 1,40,000. For what? Makhi marne ke liye (to swat flies)? If we don’t have students to teach, who are we,” asks Ayesha Kidwai, who, as president of JNUTA, is among those leading the fight against the cuts.
In her room at the School of Languages, Kidwai says she has 11 students, of whom three will submit PhDs by July, three have written their synopsis and five will soon write theirs. “I would have taken three more MPhils but I will get none.” Anyway, she says, these numbers are “manageable” because students are usually at different levels. “For instance, in the first year (of MPhil), when a student is doing course work, she doesn’t bother me because there is no need for supervision. So I am free to supervise some other student, who, say, is in the second year. So you shouldn’t then be counting that first student against my name because I don’t have to spend much time with her.”
The V-C, however, says “nowhere in the world will you see a professor guiding 30 research scholars”. “Guiding research scholars requires giving individual attention and providing good facilities so that their output is of high quality. In lecture-based programmes such as BA or MA, it does not matter whether there are 10 students or 100. But in research, good mentoring can be provided only if the faculty member is handling a limited number of research scholars,” he said.
Kidwai disagrees. “Why should an assistant professor have only one student? If as a young assistant professor, Noam Chomsky had been allowed only one research scholar, the whole field of linguistic theory wouldn’t have existed today.”
Besides, teachers say, JNU’s new admission policy goes beyond even what the UGC regulations say. They say Clause 6.5 of the Regulations, which specifies the student-teacher ratio, doesn’t mention that it can be applied retrospectively — that is, the teachers say, the existing student load for a teacher should not have been counted when announcing the seats.
The V-C has a different take. “At any given time in the university, the number of MPhil and PhD students cannot exceed the upper cap fixed by UGC. When we say it is not applied retrospectively, it means that students, who have already been admitted in the university before the 2016 UGC rules are applied, have the option of continuing to work with their current supervisors. With more recruitments taking place, the number of students who can be admitted in MPhil and PhD programmes will increase. The system needs a couple of years to stabilise,” Kumar said in a written reply.
Kidwai is not convinced. “The aim is simply to lower standards in this country. I see no other aim. How can the V-C preside over the destruction of the university?” she says.
— (Tomorrow: ‘All I wanted was to do my PhD from JNU and teach’)