Prof Meena T Pillai of the University of Kerala has resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala (CUK) to protest instructions issued by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development regarding the choice of theses of PhD candidates.
Prof Pillai, who teaches at the Institute of English at the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram (which is different from the CUK), was an external member of the Board of Studies.
At a meeting called on December 15, 2018 to discuss performance indicators of the Memorandum of Understanding that all central universities have to sign with the Government of India, the Higher Education Secretary issued a set of instructions to the universities.
One of the instructions read: “Discourage research in irrelevant areas. When Fellows are being admitted for PhDs, the topics for the thesis should be in accordance with the national priorities. Allotting privilege topics to the PhD students should be dispensed with.”
On March 13, CUK issued a circular in line with the Ministry’s advice, asking Deans and Heads of Department to draw up a list of projects “considering national priorities”. Students would be allowed to carry out research only on these listed topics, the circular said.
As the process stands now, researchers propose a topic of their choice at an interview with the university, and are required to defend it before the panel. The panel either approves the proposal, or makes some changes to it, but students are in general allowed to pursue the research they want.
Prof Pillai has questioned the attempt to pre-decide for researchers what is relevant or irrelevant, and described the move as an attack on academic freedom.
CUK has subsequently clarified that research in accordance with “national priorities” implied research that was useful to society.
Central universities are established under an Act of Parliament, and are separate from state universities, deemed universities and private universities, which too, are controlled and approved by the University Grants Commission, the higher education regulator under the Union HRD Ministry.
There are 40 central universities under the Ministry, including the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Visva Bharati, Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, North Eastern Hill University, etc.