An advisory issued by the human resource development (HRD) ministry to central universities on the choice of topics for research is an attack on researchers’ freedom to choose their area of study. The advisory has prescribed that research done at universities should be on topics that are in accordance with “national priorities”. The Central University of Kerala has already issued a circular to its deans and heads of departments to discourage “irrelevant’’ research and to limit it to “priority” areas. The government has explained that the advisory is in response to the concern over “irrelevant’’ research, expressed by some vice-chancellors at a recent meeting in Delhi. The implications and consequences of the advisory are very clear. Though it is called an advisory, it is bound to be taken as a directive by the universities because it comes from the government.
If the advisory is implemented, research students may henceforth only be able to choose a topic from a list prepared by universities. This denies the student the freedom to choose a topic in which she is interested, which she thinks is important and for which she is best equipped. Such a choice is part of academic freedom, which is essential to keep the intellectual life in universities alive. To deny students that right would amount to denial of the right to question and dissent. Very often, students, who are usually young, follow non-conformist ideas, think differently, and challenge established notions and concepts in every field. This is how knowledge is renewed and society moves forward. It is only in authoritarian societies that such freedom is denied. It is also a move that undermines the autonomy of universities. They have till now had the freedom to allow students to choose their research topics and did not have to look up to the government or political parties for their views and preferences in the matter.
The argument in defence of the advisory is that research in “irrelevant” areas should be discouraged. It is also stated that research topics are often repeated across universities. It is true that standards of research need improvement. But that cannot be achieved by sticking to topics in line with “national priorities”. Who will decide these “national priorities”? The government? That gives the game away. The new move is similar to a 2016 directive of the Gujarat government to the state’s universities, providing them a list of 82 topics, including the welfare schemes of the state and central governments, for research by doctoral students. Academics and students have protested against such moves. The latest advisory should be withdrawn in the interest of academic freedom.