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Doctoring doctorates

india Updated: Aug 26, 2010 23:52 IST
J. Sri Raman

Kapil Sibal may congratulate himself on managing a ‘stalemate’ with Viswanathan Anand after the chess champion offered to accept the honorary doctorate even if he had declined earlier. Perhaps it’s time now for the minister to think hard about an issue pertaining to higher education.

One should not have needed an Anand to set Sibal thinking about doctorates, honorary or otherwise. Anand was not the first to have declined an honorary doctorate. Lalu Prasad did the same in 2004. The point is not about the leader saying no to the degree. It is about Yadav’s refusal being an exception. There’s a rush of politicians and others to ‘earn’ an honorary degree. Our centres of higher learning, on their part too, have never fought shy of conferring the coveted doctorates on ‘personalities’.

Honorary doctorates can be wrangled from foreign universities as well. Earlier this year, former Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Jerusalem, Israel. It was announced that a private trust had ‘approached’ the university for the honour. The story was that this was a parity-seeking exercise in response to Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa being awarded an honorary doctorate from a US University.

Indian universities can be influenced more easily than foreign ones. Doctorates are considered the divine right of CMs in a state like Tamil Nadu. Both M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa sport their ‘academic’ prefixes before their names. Outside politics, from Sania Mirza and Yash Chopra to Amritanandamayi Amma and Baba Ramdev, a flurry of honorary doctorates has been given on personalities representing fields ranging from sports and cinema to spirituality. What must strike Sibal, as he reflects on the abundance of honorary doctorates, is the contrasting status of non-celebrity doctorates.

Here are some points for him to ponder over. India is seventh among nations in terms of the total annual volume of research papers submitted for peer review. The country contributes less than 3 per cent to world research. Only 1 per cent of students who complete their undergraduate degrees opt for doctoral studies in India. Thirty-eight per cent of papers produced in India never find a citation elsewhere. Sure, let us honour extra-academic achievers by giving them honorary degrees. But how about getting real doctorates for meaningful research?

J. Sri Raman is a Chennai-based writer The views expressed by the author are personal.