Delink PhD from jobs as it kills research

The reported incident of a professor from Karnataka University, Dharwad, demanding monetary favour for awarding PhD to students is despicable to say the least.

It has incensed many and left a large part of the academia embarrassed. It has shocked the students, professors, administrators and the general public alike. Such unethical act in the highest corridors of learning, the supposed upholder of higher moral standards, is difficult to fathom.

However, the fact is this is not an isolated incident. This particular case has grabbed the headlines, only because the students showed rare courage who dared to record and report it. Such practices are known to be rampant in many centres of higher learning including several prestigious ones. If not in cash, demands surely exist in kind. It is a vile nexus between the students, who are willing to give in albeit helplessly or eagerly and the professors who accept it as an entitlement.

Higher education in our country has undergone several changes. Since the time of the independence there has been a tremendous growth in the number of universities and colleges. At present, India is home to 677 universities and 37,204 colleges including 45 Central universities, 318 state universities, 185 state private universities and 129 deemed universities. Almost twenty million students enrol in these institutes of higher learning. Yet Indian universities have often been accused of a lackadaisical attitude towards research, having failed to promote a culture of research among its faculty and students. Research is not pursued with the zeal found in developed and several developing countries. 

However, the scenario has steadily changed. Today there is more number of PhD seekers than ever before. Firstly, with PhD becoming a mandatory qualification for securing teaching posts in colleges and universities, a larger number is aspiring and enrolling for the degree. Secondly, there is increased encouragement and monetary incentives available for research, lately. The University Grants Commission (UGC) for instance provides sufficient sops in the form of increased fellowships and contingency grants.

While it encourages several ardent researchers there are also others who find it a lucrative alternative after having failed to be gainfully employed.  And of course there is yet another category of aspirants, rich and powerful who view earning of this coveted degree as an addition to their kitty of prestigious possessions.

Nonetheless, the aspirants are well aware that earning a PhD is fraught with different challenges; it is unlike any other educational pursuit. For the first time during the course of one’s higher education, student–teacher (guide) relationship takes on a special significance. Right from submitting research proposal, registering for PhD to the award of the same, it is solely the guide who is in charge. This academic order is followed the world over where a research student works under the stewardship of an expert guide. But very often this age old practice leads to an unprecedented power equation with the student assuming almost a servile position.

Dearth of research guides

Present recruitment crunch has led to dearth of research guides in several subjects which has only created a sudden surge in demand. As it often happens in most human endeavor, a wide gap between demand and supply lures many at both ends resort to unethical practices. With corruption being commonplace, the academic power wielded by a research guide often tends to pervade social and economic spheres. Sir John Acton had famously stated that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Eccentricities of research guides and excesses committed by them make for folklore in many institutions. Years back, this author was perhaps among the lucky few to find a guide who subscribed to the highest form of integrity, ethics and academic passion. But most are not as fortunate. Many students have been known to quit midway or worse still commit suicide, unable to bear the harassment by their guides. The students have too much at stake and are too powerless to complain.

It is needless to state that students play a pivotal role in this unholy mess. For many, much before their actual research begins; the focus is on searching for a “suitable” guide.
They are well aware that a wide array of “research wares” is available; they only need to identify the person and place. Right from “surrogate PhD”, “copy- paste PhD”, “ghost writers”, to “ready- to- submit” thesis, one can avail any of these for a price without putting their academic acumen and research zeal to test. Quality being a victim in all such cases does not seem to perturb them. It is time that certain robust system of selection and quality assessment are put in place for research.  Primarily, student selection should be based on assessing their research aptitude. Research calls for certain basic abilities which the prevailing common entrance tests NET and SLET utterly fail to predict.

Besides, to curb the unsavory rush for PhD, it should be delinked from a lecturer’s job. Teaching requires specific skills; PhD in no way guarantees it. In fact, making PhD and NET as eligibility criteria have inadvertently denied many universities and colleges potential good teachers.  Research is a serious venture. Let it be left to those who can and want to do rather than to those who need to, hence forced to do.

In addition, introducing stringent academic auditing, peer reviews, and student interactions will put much needed surveillance in place. This will also ensure transparency, healthy academic environment and discipline fostering higher quality of research. It is not in quantity but in quality of research lies the standard of our higher education.
(The writer is a former professor, author and Director of Eudaimonic Centre for Positive Change and Wellbeing, Bengaluru)

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