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The government is within its right to question the quality of PhD research

One only hopes that open-minded intellectuals and academicians will take proactive action to persuade the government to develop an atmosphere of trust where public funds are optimally utilised to generate useful knowledge in cross-cutting areas

analysis Updated: Apr 16, 2019 12:13 IST
Amitabha Bhattacharya
Amitabha Bhattacharya
The Shodhganga initiative, a reservoir of Indian PhD theses, allows the research to be deposited electronically, making them accessible to all(File Photo)

A recent circular issued by the Central University of Kerala suggesting research at PhD level to be in accordance with “national priorities” has anguished sections of the academic community and the press. It also intended to discourage research in “irrelevant” areas. But the move has been condemned primarily on assumption of the government’s motive, and the human resource development ministry’s clarification that it has not issued any such directive has made little impact.

As it’s election season, such a chorus of protests, characterised by binaries of us versus them and left-of-the-centre versus right-of-the-centre narratives, seems inevitable. The main criticisms of the circular, however, are: it is anti-intellectual and against the spirit of free enquiry; the guiding motive is political; it would saffronise the campuses and incalculably damage India’s knowledge ecosystem; and policing of research will dictate ideas, and go against critical thinking that engages with plurality of ideas. In other words, the purported action will be grossly against national interest.

However, the criticisms, often arising out of exaggerated fear and suspicion, cannot be dismissed as completely invalid. Any restriction goes against the spirit of enquiry and freedom. But in a democratic country, in which government has to allocate scarce resources to competing demands, isn’t it entitled to make reasonable restrictions? Can the State be a helpless witness to the abysmal quality of research that many of our universities produce? While academic freedom has to be valued and defended, should it be allowed to degenerate into a system of zero accountability in which attempts to deviate from the past norms are scoffed at?

Regarding the first charge that it is anti-intellectual in spirit, it is time we analyse the quality of research in the humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that the country produces. How many papers are published each year in the acclaimed international journals?

It is time our academicians do some introspection instead of blaming the State and others for all ills plaguing this sector.

Second, suspecting a political motive is understandable. Any neutral person would be able to observe the dominance of the left-of-the-centre academicians, especially in the social sciences, and more so in Kolkata and Delhi. Within the constitutional framework, it would be natural for its opponents to expand their domain. While the views of the other should be relentlessly questioned, they should be tolerated as well. I hope this conflict helps bring about a more nuanced course that allows space for both the sections.

Third, to safeguard against the government pushing its agenda of monoculture and policing research, the system has to be transparent and accessible to all, and civil society must remain vigilant. Has the government done anything to inspire such confidence?

With the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) as the implementing agency for the Impactful Policy Research in Social Science (IMPRESS), 11 broad thematic areas, from State and democracy to growth, and macro trade and economic policy, have been identified for research by central, state and private institutions through a transparent process. Does it amount to policing of research and restriction of freedom?

The Shodhganga initiative, a reservoir of Indian PhD theses, allows the research to be deposited electronically, making them accessible to all. It’s a huge databank that helps you examine the quality of research outputs. The Impacting Research Innovation and Technology (IMPRINT) India initiative brings the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institutes of Technology and central ministries to work together in key areas for research to “enable, empower and embolden the nation for inclusive growth and self-reliance” (IMPRINT overview). How do such initiatives militate against free enquiry?

Antipathy towards the government should not be so virulent that terms like national priority evoke derision. Can the academic community afford to ignore the flourishing of private agencies and individuals running shops to manufacture so-called theses? Unethical businesses of what is known as thesis making and thesis guidance at affordable costs have sprouted at many locations.

The government is seized with this problem and the Balaram Committee has reportedly submitted recommendations to amend PhD regulations to improve the quality of research. One only hopes that open-minded intellectuals and academicians will take proactive action to persuade the government to develop an atmosphere of trust in which public funds are optimally utilised to generate useful knowledge in cross-cutting areas.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired IAS officer

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 15, 2019 20:45 IST