The University Grants Commission (UGC) recently issued a series of guidelines (see box) to ensure tougher screening of PhD aspirants. The push for quality control comes at a time when the government has announced a substantial hike in the salaries of teachers in universities. The objective is obviously to attract bright students to the teaching profession. However, thanks to the new guidelines, scholars will now have to demonstrate superior research before they can be awarded doctoral degrees.
According to the new UGC rules, students will have no say in selecting supervisors, a practice that is followed in many institutions across the country. The guidelines also stipulate that the number of scholars studying for a PhD under a particular supervisor should not at any point of time exceed six. Institutions are also required to conduct pre-advertised entrance tests to select students to PhD programmes, and at least one semester of course work will have to be undertaken after which they will be evaluated once again.
Both academicians and students agree that the guidelines are a commendable effort on part of the UGC. However, some worry that setting uniform rules for educational institutions that are of varying standards may have its own disadvantages. Academicians who work to frame rules at any educational institute in any state are generally experts who can be relied on. There is usually a sincere attempt on the part of each institute to better itself by coming up with its own guidelines, says Pradip Narayan Ghosh, vice chancellor, Jadavpur University (JU), Calcutta. Going by the one-size-fits-all theory may curb an institutions freedom to formulate rules to improve and maintain its standard, he adds.
UGC authorities would, of course, like to differ. There are many loopholes in the present system. The process is informal in nature and less democratic and transparent. The guidelines will be mandatory for universities receiving grants from the commission. This will improve the quality of PhD research, says Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman, UGC.
Its good to have general guidelines, but they cannot be mandatory, especially in the case of autonomous institutes, argues Ghosh. However, individual universities can certainly consider them while redrafting their own rules. We have, for instance, our own regulations with regard to PhD students. When we seek to modify them, we will certainly look at the UGCs guidelines, he adds. Ghosh also points out that what applies to one subject may not be suitable for another. Engineering and science graduates, for example, cannot be expected to follow criteria set for arts students, he says.
Agrees Samir Kumar Bandyopadhyay of the department of computer science and engineering, University of Calcutta (CU). These are issues that must be decided on by individual universities in accordance with their own rules and regulations, he says.
Moreover, academicians point out, some of the UGC guidelines are not practicable. For example, the rule that a student cannot choose his or her supervisor will be difficult to enforce. Much depends on the popularity of a teacher. It happens in the best of institutions worldwide some supervisors find students for PhD, some dont. Students are the best judges they should be free to choose whom they want to work with, feels Ghosh.
Students too are of the same opinion. We should be allowed to choose our guide, says Arnab Saha, a PhD student working in the field of statistical mechanics at the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences (SNBNCBS), Calcutta.
The new guidelines also require PhD aspirants to take an entrance test conducted separately by each institution. Currently, several tests are conducted centrally. To begin with, there is the CSIR-UGC National Eligibility Test (NET). Qualifying in this makes one eligible for lectureship as well as entitles one to a scholarship to do research at an institute or a university. Many teachers and students feel there should not be too many entrance tests. There is another exam called the Joint Entrance Screening Test (JEST), which is jointly conducted by 21 institutes. Students can specify their preference for any of the participating institutes. Theres an interview following the test, and institutions select students who satisfy the eligibility criteria. Apparently there are no takers for JEST among the state universities. Then there is the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), which is conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).
Says Jayanta Bhattacharya, dean of academics, SNBNCBS, Subjecting a student to several tests is not reasonable. If required, the authorities should raise the standard of NET so that there is tougher screening. Too many control systems are not desirable.
Students too feel they shouldnt be saddled with too many requirements, least of all more than one exam. Wheres the need for so many tests to prove our mettle, asks Saha. There can be a viva voce exam. We may also be asked to deliver lectures from time to time. But we shouldnt be overburdened, he says.
Bhattacharya feels that there should be one nationally conducted PhD entrance test after post graduation. All institutes and universities across the country can then select students on the basis of their performance in this exam coupled with their graduate and postgraduate track record, he adds. Different universities can have different cut-off marks in keeping with individual standards. Moreover, the test may follow the GRE format, that is, have two sections a basic aptitude test and another that tests a students knowledge of his or her field of specialisation, he says. NET more or less follows this format. But there is scope for improvement.
The new guidelines also state that the entrance test conducted by each institute should be followed by an interview. Bandyopadhyay of Calcutta University welcomes this because it will help indicate the actual willingness of a student to pursue rigorous research. Conducting interviews will go a long way in ensuring quality research. Institutes are usually more selective about choosing their PhD students, and interviews form an important part of the selection process. But universities seem to be a bit lax in this respect, says Bhattacharya.
Towards better research
Ghosh, however, maintains that JU has a rigorous interview process for PhD candidates who have not qualified NET. Doctoral candidates who have passed NET or GATE are eligible for scholarships. Other candidates mostly part-time students who take up doctoral programmes while working elsewhere are subject to tests or interviews, he says.
So what are the other things that should be looked into to raise the quality of doctoral research? More funds need to pumped into PhD programmes at universities. Apart from Council for Scientific and Industrial Research support, a doctoral student has nothing to fall back on at the university level, says Bhattacharya. Student scholarships should be revised. There has been no notification in this regard, he points out.
The UGC guidelines also state that doctoral theses should be defended by students in viva voce exams. In most universities, theses are examined by external examiners after they have been scrutinised by internal examiners. Many feel it would be better if examiners get a one-on-one interaction with students before they actually submit their theses. JU will soon introduce a board of examiners comprising both internal and external examiners for doctoral programmes. Students will have to defend their work before the board. If the board is satisfied, only then can they submit their work. Such a measure would be helpful. The UGC guidelines dont pay much attention to this, says Ghosh.
Then there are other requirements, such as publications by researchers. A doctoral student should have at least one published paper in a standard journal, feels Bhattacharya. It should be a single-author (at least for theorists) article. For experimentalists, there can be an internal committee for assessment or a peer group review. If these suggestions are implemented, the standard of research will automatically improve, he says.
what the ugc wants
No supervisor should have, at any point of time, more than six PhD scholars.
Every year institutions should decide the number of doctoral students and place advertisements accordingly
Doctoral students to be admitted through an entrance test conducted by each institution
An interview should follow the entrance test
There must be a formal mechanism in a department to allocate supervisors
Students cannot choose their supervisors
Students must undertake course work for at least one semester
After course work, students must sit for an exam to determine whether they can write the dissertation
Students who clear the exam must prepare a draft monograph for the department which will be open for comments by all faculty and other research scholars
The monograph must be presented before a UGC panel
The dissertation must be defended in a viva voce exam