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UGC is cutting non-NET grants. Perhaps, it should junk NET itself

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 5 November 2015, 16:35 IST

The UGC wants to limit research grants to NET qualified students. If you want to know how myopic that is, try answering the following questions.

  • What is the percentage fixed by the constitution regarding the strength of the ministers, including the chief minister in a state?

  • To Kautilya, the concept rupadarshaka means? Beautician, magistrate, inspector of coins, zamindar.

  • For whom "all existence is simply a matter in motion"? Plato, Hobbes, T.H. Green, Rousseau.

These were some of the questions asked in a political science paper for NET, which selects candidates for research in universities.

So, what's wrong with such objective, or multiple choice, questions?

Inadequate test

They test a prospective researcher's memory, and little else. "For someone looking to work on their research degree, these objective questions are not really the best means to gauge a scholar's ability," says Prof Neeladri Bhattacharya of JNU's Centre for Historical Studies School. Many academics agree.

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"Such questions do not give you any idea about the potential of a student to do research," Prof Bhattacharya argues. "You are getting a test of memory. Such questions don't tell you anything about the candidate's capacity to think creatively, be original and imaginative and pose interesting questions for research."

"Good researchers often fail the exam."

'Our best students haven't been clearing NET for years. What it is they want to ask isn't clear'

To deprive such students of grants, which, Prof Bhattacharya points out, don't amount to much anyway, is unjust. The move could also compel the students to look for scholarships abroad, he adds.

The UGC gives scholarships of Rs 5,000 a month to M Phil students and Rs 8,000 to PhD scholars

UGC's logic for stopping the grants ran thus: non-NET students are not eligible to teach in universities, then why fund their higher education? Tying fellowships to NET qualification, it has argued, would help maintain quality of teachers in universities.

Academics counter that the issue is not of quality-control but finding a robust mechanism to assess a scholar's competence for research. NET, in its current form, doesn't seem to be up to the task.

"There are a lot of issues, particularly with humanities subjects. Some of our best students haven't been clearing the test for years. What it is they want to ask isn't clear," says Prof Nandita Narain, president of the Delhi University Teachers Association.

"A lot needs to be done about transparency in the test. We need to have greater discussion about the kind of questions that should be asked. These are serious problems, especially when it's made out to be the be all and end all of everything."

So, how can this be fixed?

Defective system

One big question on NET's credibility concerns those who set the test. "If the people who set the paper don't understand the subject themselves, how will the papers be qualitative," asks Prof Kamal Mitra Chenoy of the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, JNU.

"The UGC isn't a body comprised of noted academics like, say, ICHR. The people running it are basically bureaucrats. The only way they know to set a paper is to test you for your memory."

That's a recipe for disaster, Prof Chenoy adds. "The problem with our higher education system is that it is understaffed and underpaid. Central universities are the only remaining islands of excellence, whose students they are now trying to chase away."

UGC: Since NET is mandatory for teaching in central universities, why fund non-NET students?

Another argument against having NET as a criterion for giving scholarships is that M Phil and PhD degrees aren't meant for just those students who want to teach.

"Those who don't qualify NET are pursuing higher education also to get into, say, journalism or archeology," says Najaf Haider, an associate professor at JNU. "UGC's presumption may not be well founded."

Meanwhile, though the government has appointed a panel to review UGC's research grants, the agitating students and teachers are refusing to back down until the decision is revoked. They are, in fact, planning a pan-India protest against the move they claim is meant to bring private sector into higher education.

The stalemate, it appears, will test the resolve of both UGC and the students.

First published: 5 November 2015, 16:35 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.