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Friday, September 18, 2020

Who needs an MPhil anyway? The degree was meant to act as a filter for PhD candidates. It has become an exit option

Across a wide range of disciplines, PhD enrolments are invariably more than MPhil, yet another pointer that the MPhil degree was anything but a filter. It was an exit option.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: August 14, 2020 9:40:40 am
What is an MPhil degree? Rules and practices vary across countries. (Representational Image)

The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 states: “Undertaking a PhD shall require either a Master’s degree or a four-year Bachelor’s degree with Research. The MPhil programme shall be discontinued.” What is an MPhil degree? Rules and practices vary across countries. But typically: (a) MPhil is a preparatory step towards PhD, with a combination of course work and dissertation. Filters are required to ensure the right candidate goes on to join a PhD programme and I know individuals from my fraternity/sorority who have done PhDs directly after a BA degree. I don’t mean decades ago. There are such individuals even among my contemporaries. In accepting reason (a), we implicitly acknowledge our filters at the MA/MSc level don’t work. Perhaps the numbers are too high. Perhaps MA/MSc programmes have been diluted. We are unable to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. If MA/MSc programmes are tightened and there is something akin to a GRE, we won’t need the MPhil filter and reason (a) disappears. (NEP does mention a National Testing Agency and such tests.)

There is also reason (b). A candidate has submitted a dissertation for a PhD degree, but since this is not of the requisite quality, a lower degree of MPhil is offered. These numbers are unlikely to be significant and in such an eventuality, there can be alternative lower degrees, not necessarily an MPhil.

For both (a) and (b), the terminal goal is the PhD. But other reasons affect, and distort, choice. For instance, (c) — MPhil is necessary to be appointed as a faculty member in a college, or to be promoted, once appointed. I am aware that the UGC’s norms have changed over time and the answer also depends on whether one has a college or a university in mind. However, if there are three possible filters for entry and vertical mobility — PhD, MPhil and NET (National Eligibility Test) — and any one of these suffices, one might expect a spike in MPhil candidates because that’s an easier hurdle to cross. Without getting into the specifics of the UGC norms, you would then expect a spike in MPhil enrolments around 2000 and 2006, and a decline in recent years, such as since 2009. There is reason (d), allied to (c). Choice can also be distorted through public financial aid, meaning something like the JRF (junior research fellowship) scheme. I have nothing against financial aid for those undertaking research. That’s obviously desirable. The point is that the JRF (other than contingency, Rs 31,000 per month) need not necessarily lead to a PhD and a career in research, as reasons (a) and (b) might make us believe. Pursuing an MPhil, while thinking of other career options, such as preparing for civil service examinations, was acceptable.

Stated differently, exit with a publicly-funded MPhil was possible. Obviously, there is not much one can do about this. In other countries too, when financial aid is offered for a terminal and integrated PhD, candidates sometimes drop out after an MPhil/MS. There is no question of asking for a refund of financial aid already offered or asking for a bond in advance. But think of perverse incentives in the following way. Rs 31,000 per month, without paying income tax and with subsidised board and lodging. Joining as a college lecturer with a salary of Rs 35,000 per month, with income tax and without subsidised board and lodging. If incentives are loaded against joining as a college lecturer, one can’t help but feel that there is a systemic problem. If reasons (a) and (b) are the primary ones and not (c) or (d), you would probably expect the ratio of MPhil enrolments to PhD enrolments to be constant over time, across geographical region and discipline, and perhaps even across types of educational institutions.

For 2018-19, we have some numbers from the All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE). In these numbers, there is a stock and a flow. Reported figures are for the stock, though one can derive the flow. In either case, the argument should not change much. In 2014-15, the stock of MPhil enrolment was 33,371 while that for PhD was 1,17,301, a ratio of 0.28. That should raise eyebrows. If the MPhil is a filter (reasons (a) and (b)), the stock of MPhil enrolments should be more than that of PhD enrolments, not less. In 2018-19, the stock of MPhil enrolment was 30,692, while that for PhD was 169,170, a ratio of 0.18. From these trends, it should be obvious that MPhil aspirations were driven by reasons like (c) and (d). Given those numbers, in 2018-19, you would expect the number of MPhil enrolments to be roughly one-fifth of the PhD enrolments, regardless of the state. But there are clear outliers — Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP, Uttarakhand, West Bengal. In this list, all but Delhi and Tamil Nadu have a disproportionately (relative to 0.18) high number of PhD enrolments, compared to MPhil. For Delhi and Tamil Nadu, MPhil enrolments are disproportionately high. This requires an explanation, which, in all probability, will be linked to (c) and (d), and not (a) and (b).

Incidentally, most MPhil students are enrolled in central universities and state public universities. Across a wide range of disciplines, barring defence studies, foreign trade, Tamil, Odiya, and psychiatry, PhD enrolments are invariably more than MPhil, yet another pointer that the MPhil degree was anything but a filter. It was an exit option.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 14, 2020 under the title ‘Who needs an MPhil anyway?’ The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal.

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