Although the new UGC regulations for research appear to change the face of higher education in India and encourage institutions to compete with world-class universities across the globe, their implementation is bound to be shoddy without proper reflection and spade work. A critical rethinking on the part of the policymakers is the need of the day for improving the quality of PhDs in the country. Simple cosmetic changes and juggling around with existing structures cannot bring any positive reform in the quality of higher education, especially research in the country.
The UGC, on November 7, 2022, notified the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022. One of the prominent and notable changes it made to the existing regulations was in relation to the evaluation and assessment criteria for the award of the PhD degree, where it proposed to waive the need to mandatorily publish a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal before submitting the thesis to improve the quality and standard of research. I fail to understand how the standard and quality of research will improve. In the West, it is always said: “Publish or Perish“. Further, the PhD programme has been time-based i.e., 3 years. If the work is not completed, research scholars will have to take special permission for the extension of the period. Similarly, one can not submit his/her work before 3 years. I personally feel that research is an ongoing continuous programme. The PhD thesis should be assessed for quality and innovative work. In the prevailing system, we have PhD scholars, not Research scholars. It has become a course – job oriented only. The universities are recognised on the basis of their syllabus and research Moreover, the regulation recommends, in line with the recommendation in the National Education Policy 2020, the complete abolition of the Master in Philosophy Degree (M. Phil), which has been a gateway to the PhD programme. The eligibility criteria for admissions to the PhD programme too have been drastically revised. A candidate can register for the PhD programme after completing a one-year (or two semesters) Master’s degree programme after a four-year (or 8-semesters) bachelor’s degree programme. Alternatively, s/he can do so after completing a two-year (or four-semesters) Master’s degree programme after a three-year bachelor’s degree programme with at least 55% marks or its equivalent grade from universities/institutions recognised by UGC in Humanities (including languages) and Social Sciences, Computer Science & Applications, Electronic Science etc.
Further, in the new PhD regulations, anyone who has completed a four-year bachelor’s degree programme in any discipline with a minimum of 75 per cent marks in aggregate or its equivalent grade is eligible for pursuing a PhD programme.
Candidates who have completed the M.Phil. programme with at least 55% marks in aggregate or equivalent grade on a 10-point scale or equivalent qualification from a foreign educational institution accredited by an assessment and accreditation agency which is approved, recognized or authorized by an authority, established or incorporated under a law in its home country or any other statutory authority in that country to assess, accredit or assure quality and standards of educational institutions, shall be eligible for admission to the PhD programme.
Further, for those who have qualified for admission to PhD programme after having passed the NET/JRF examination, the selection will be based on interview/viva-voce.
For candidates who have passed the entrance test, the selection shall be evaluated in the ratio of 70 (written test) to 30 (interview). The UGC now also allows part-time PhDs, a practice that was disallowed under the 2009 and 2016 regulations.
There were the UGC regulations 2016 prescribing minimum standards and procedures for awarding M Phil/PhD degrees. These regulations of 2016 superseded the UGC regulations of 2009 for M. Phil./Ph.D. degrees. Thus, the regulations of 2022 are the third in a series, in nearly 13 years. Each revision is driven by the concern for improving the quality of a PhD degree. Nevertheless, with the minimum duration of the PhD degree programme being three years, frequent changes are liable to have an adverse impact. What is significant to note is whether these frequent amendments to the UGC PhD regulations will help improve the quality of the PhD degree.
Academicians have expressed a cautious response to the UGC’s latest regulation which says that students who have completed a four-year undergraduate course can now directly pursue a doctoral degree. Academics say these students will have no research experience and will be lost in the first few years of their studies.
Another argument raised by academicians was that the implementation of the four-year undergraduate programme, as devised under the NEP 2020, has not been brought into effect in all universities. Since this undergraduate degree is a prerequisite for direct entry into the PhD program, students will have to continue to pursue a Master’s degree to be eligible for the same.
The four-year UG programme, although appears to change the face of higher education in India and encourage institutions to compete with world-class universities across the globe, its implementation is bound to be shoddy without proper reflection and spade work. A critical rethinking on the part of the policymakers is the need of the day for improving the quality of PhDs in the country. Simple cosmetic changes and juggling around with existing structures cannot bring any positive reform in the quality of higher education, especially research in the country.
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In the Indian higher education system, every programme serves a particular well-defined purpose. The Bachelor’s programme is aimed at introducing the student to a subject/discipline, a Master’s programme offers them a specialisation, an M.Phil degree provides them interim training to conduct research, and then, ultimately the PhD programme helps them to establish himself/herself as an expert in that particular discipline. The latest regulations as recommended by the UGC disrupt this structure.
It seems that the UGC is trying to emulate the American system of an integrated PhD but it stands to do more damage than good. Without specialised knowledge in a discipline, no student can write a doctoral research paper, be it a ‘humanities’ or a ‘science’ student. A cursory glance at the model syllabi proposed by the UGC for the four-year undergraduate programme reveals that a student is expected to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. The first three semesters of a UG programme are entirely focused on providing the students with a jumble of various disciplines like Indian history & culture, basic sciences, mathematics, IT skills and so on, irrespective of the major discipline she has chosen. So, a student pursuing a four-year degree programme is left with almost no time to ‘specialize’ and thus stunting his growth as a prospective researcher.
Research is a serious activity and any casual approach without proper reflection and spadework is bound to misfire. Already the research scenario is dismal in Indian higher educational institutions and such experimentation without a reality check shall prove to be disastrous. What Indian higher education needs is a vibrant research ecosystem that can be systematically constructed so as to instil critical thinking, observatory power, analytical aptitude and specialization before jumping into the arena of research.
There are also concerns over diminishing scholarships and fellowships to support PhD scholars. The best available scholarship for research students who qualify NET examination is the Junior Research Fellowship for General/Unreserved/General-EWS Candidates who must score a minimum of 55% marks in the post-graduation (master’s degree) in the concerned subject or any equivalent exam from UGC recognized institute or university. A few scholarships are also given by organizations like ICSSR, ICHR, ICPR etc. Some universities also provide scholarships to their enrolled research scholars from their own resources. But these scholarships are very few in number to encourage quality research. Moreover, since according to the UGC regulations, UGC NET/CSIR NET/ICAR NET is required to become eligible for becoming an Assistant Professor across India, the students pursuing PhD after 4 years of the undergraduate course will not be eligible for the post of an Assistant Professor. The UGC must, thus, revise the guidelines for PhD registration and curriculum.
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About the author
Prof. Ashok Kumar is former Vice-Chancellor of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya University, Gorakhpur (U.P.) & CSJM University, Kanpur, (U.P.), Nirwan University, Jaipur, Rajasthan, and Shri Kallaji Vedic University, Nimbahera, Rajasthan. He is President of the Social Research Foundation, International Society of Life Sciences.