What are the UGC’s ‘NET’ and ‘non-NET’ fellowships? Are there any other fellowships that the UGC offers?
The University Grants Commission offers financial support to students and research scholars in higher education through various scholarship and fellowship programmes. The National Eligibility Test-Junior Research Fellowship (NET-JRF) and non-NET fellowship are among them. The UGC awards NET-JRF to 3,200 MPhil and PhD students every year based on their performance in NET, an exam meant for aspiring college teachers. A junior research fellow gets Rs 25,000 per month. Currently, close to 9,000 students are pursuing MPhil and PhD with NET-JRF assistance.
The non-NET fellowship was introduced in 2006 under the 11th Five Year Plan. All bona fide research scholars who haven’t qualified for NET-JRF are eligible for a non-NET fellowship, subject to selection by the university concerned. This programme is limited to MPhil and PhD students of 50 institutions, including all central universities, and those with potential for excellence. Currently, almost 35,000 students are covered under these fellowships. An MPhil student gets Rs 5,000 a month as stipend; a PhD student gets Rs 8,000.
What is the controversy about non-NET fellowships? Why did the researchers protest?
At its 510th meeting held on October 7, the UGC decided to discontinue the non-NET fellowship programme. The decision came to light almost two weeks later, after the Commission made the minutes of the meeting public on its web site. Various students’ groups launched protests, arguing that the move would discourage poor students from pursuing research. Students turned up at the UGC headquarters in New Delhi in large numbers to demand that the regulator not only revoke its decision, but actually raise the stipend under the non-NET fellowship. The dharna made national headlines after police detained dozens of protesting students. Over 200 academics from campuses across India and abroad issued a statement in support of the students and condemning the police action.
What was the UGC’s justification for scrapping these fellowships?
The minutes of UGC’s 510th meeting do not give an official reason. According to government officials, the Commission justified the decision on the ground that there was little transparency in this scheme. The regulatory authority, for instance, spent Rs 99.16 crore on this fellowship programme alone in 2014-15, and had “no way to ensure that it went to quality, meritorious students”.
Officials in UGC, on the condition of anonymity, also attribute this decision in part to a funds crunch. Last year, the UGC increased the NET-JRF stipend from Rs 16,000 to Rs 25,000 per month. It also revised the amount given to beneficiaries of the Swami Vivekananda Single Girl Child Scholarships (SVSGCS) for research in social sciences. While expenses went up, the budget allocation for UGC in 2014-15, however, remained the same as in the last financial year — that is, Rs 3,900 crore approximately.
Why did the HRD Ministry overturn the UGC decision?
The Human Resource Development Ministry stepped into the picture on October 23 after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sought a report on the matter. The students’ protest, at that time, had been going on for 55 hours. The government asked the UGC to assure agitating students that the decision would be referred to an expert panel. On October 25, the HRD Minister announced on Twitter that the non-NET fellowship would not be scrapped, and that her Ministry would form a panel to also bring students of state universities within its ambit. The HRD Ministry issued formal orders to UGC to cancel its October 7 decision on Thursday. It also notified the constitution of an five-member expert panel to examine the feasibility of increasing the reach of the non-NET fellowship scheme. The committee has been asked to submit its report in December.
So, is the controversy now over?
Students have refused to end their agitation — they allege that the fine print says the expert committee has been asked also to consider economic and other criteria for eligibility for non-NET scholarships. Currently, there is no financial or merit-related criteria for this fellowship, and students do not want this to change. They also want the non-NET stipend to be raised, and to be linked to inflation. The agitation, they say, would continue until all demands are met.