Policy planners typify mid-course corrections to ensure that a designed policy delivers the desired result. This is as true in the case of higher education as in other realms. They are, however, expected to be progressive rather than retrograde.
A case in point relate to the selection and recruitment of the faculty in higher education at the entry level. They are crucial as they remain in the system for a long period and move up the academic hierarchy, in due course of time, to mid and senior level, and finally feed the leadership channel. They, thus, decide the destiny of higher education.
Until 1989, the minimum qualification for appointment as Lecturer in colleges and universities used to be a Master’s degree with consistently good academic records. People with MPhil or PhD were, however, preferred. Since then, the National Eligibility Test (NET) has been made a mandatory requirement for entry into the academic profession. However, those with PhD were exempted from qualifying NET. People with MPhil or PhD, are, however, given one or three advanced increments respectively.
To be fair, those who had completed their PhD before the introduction of NET were declared exempt from the requirements of NET. Since then, the cut-off date for this exemption was repeatedly extended now and then, on one pretext or the other. Those in academics are witness to the massive rush for registration and award of PhD degrees in universities every time the deadline for exemption was extended. Seemingly, the faculty aspirants felt that it was easier to get a PhD degree than qualifying the NET examination.
Nothing caused more harm to the quality of PhDs produced by Indian universities than this flip flop about the NET exemption for PhD degree holders. So rampant was the proliferation, and consequent deterioration in the quality, that the UGC had to come up with a regulation in 2009, probably for the first time in the 150 years of history of modern higher education in the country and much to the chagrin of many academics.
This regulation made it mandatory for universities to select PhD students based on a rigorous entrance test or from amongst the JRF/NET qualified candidates. It introduced coursework for PhD students which they must qualify before commencing their research work. It also restricted the number of research scholars that a faculty could supervise at any given point in time.
The eligibility conditions for appointment as supervisors were made more stringent and the procedure for the appointment of external examiners was streamlined. Further, it also declared that PhD degree holders would be eligible for exemption from NET only if their degree was awarded per the 2009 regulation.
Continuing the reform, the 2016 regulation of UGC governing the admission and award of PhD degrees made it mandatory for PhD scholars to publish at least one research paper in a peer-reviewed refereed journal, and make a minimum of two presentations in the seminars and conferences to be able to submit their thesis.
Realising that this was leading to spurious publications in poor quality publications and predatory journals, the UGC undertook to specify the list of the approved journals, which is now known as the UGC Consortium for Academic Research Excellence (CARE) List of Journals. Although, the list of journals was revised several times.
It appears that the UGC now feels that these measures have failed to fructify and the quality of PhDs produced in the country has remained poor. Strangely, however, the new measures proposed by the draft UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022 may end up doing just the opposite of what it purports to do.
Forcing universities to admit only 60% of the PhD students from amongst the JRF/NET qualified candidates and the remaining 40% through the university level entrance test is bound to lower the intake quality of students. Doing away with the obligatory publication requirement of research papers in UGC listed journals would be a double whammy as it would make it easier for the research scholars to get their PhD. It would lead to the mushrooming of non-JRF/non-NET qualified PhD degree holders in the country.
As the UGC is poised to make PhD the minimum eligibility condition for appointment of assistant professors effective from July 2023, it is important to ensure that universities produce PhDs who are adequately trained to be teachers and researchers. The Ease of Doing PhD does not augur well.
Spurious publications, predatory journals, and pay and publish are all genuine concerns and must be addressed urgently. But freeing research scholars from the requirement of published work as a precondition for the award of the PhD may be akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The proposed change may have many tangential implications. The same UGC regulation prescribes that no assistant professor can supervise a PhD unless (s)he holds a PhD degree, has a minimum of five years’ experience, and has published at least three research papers in peer-reviewed or refereed journals.
The faculty members are also required to publish for promotion and appointment. Even otherwise, the supervisors and their scholars invariably publish jointly. They are, thus, as much susceptible to the lure of predatory journals. Will the UGC then do away with the publication requirements for the faculty as well?
The solution, thus, lies in propping up the research culture in universities/colleges and in creating an ecosystem where peer pressure promotes pride in publishing high-quality research papers. There is also a dire need to encourage initiatives for publishing high quality non-commercial academic and scientific journals to save researchers from the tyranny of long waits and high rejections and thus falling prey to the predatory practices. Universities, on their part, must, reward quality rather than being contented with counting numbers alone.
Furqan Qamar, Professor at the Faculty of Management Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia, is former Adviser (Education) in the Planning Commission of India. Views are personal.
Taufeeque Ahmad Siddiqui teaches at the Faculty of Management Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia. Views are personal.
The quality of PhDs produced in the country has remained poor. Strangely, however, the new measures proposed by the draft UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022 may end up doing just the opposite of what it purports to do. Forcing universities to admit only 60% of the PhD students from among the JRF/NET qualified candidates and the remaining 40% through the university level entrance test is bound to lower the intake quality of students. Doing away with the obligatory publication requirement of research papers in UGC listed journals would be a double whammy as it would make it easier for the research scholars to get their PhD. It would lead to the mushrooming of non-JRF/non-NET qualified PhD degree holders in the country.