Better-paid Fellows are happier fellows

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The recent boost in the Centre's outlay for research scholars will encourage more graduate students to aspire for PhDs. But there seem to be a few unanswered questions around the new measure.

Rs. 70,000 will go a long way in getting more students to flock to a life of research. But are the logistics behind the move even-handed and ideal? | K.R. Deepak

In a recent announcement, the Union Higher Education secretary Kewal Kumar Sharma said that the Central government would provide 2,000 researchers — hailing from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and the various Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) from across the country — a fellowship of Rs. 70,000 per month. While this may have seemed like a bolt from the blue, an announcement of this nature has been brewing for a while. In August last year, the council of IITs approved a proposal for awarding 1,000 Prime Minister research fellowships (PMRF) annually for B.Tech students studying in IITs and having secured a CGPA of at least 8.5. According to the scheme — as outlined by a written reply by the Minister of State for HRD, Mahendra Nath Pandey, to a question posed in the Rajya Sabha — the monthly fellowship was Rs. 60,000 for a period of five years. Additionally, the council of IITs noted that the PMRF scheme “would be provided to the IITs over and above the Plan grants from the year 2017-18”. At this stage, with limited details available in the media, it is unclear if the recent announcement is a new scheme, or an extension of the scheme discussed in the previous year.

 

At the outset, congratulations are in order for coming up with a scheme to promote meritorious students to stay back and conduct quality research (as an aside, a few months ago, on these very same pages, I had argued that fostering an active post-doc culture is a more pressing need). This announcement has been long overdue and will attract more students into the Indian research milieu.

Rs. 70,000 per month is a big bump up from the existing PhD scholarships — surely the scholars pursuing PhD across India must be looking on enviously at this announcement. Currently, PhD scholars in IITs and IISc earn Rs. 25,000 per month (with an increase to 28,000 after two years and a qualifying exam). This new scheme represents a massive increase from current levels and puts it in range of the salaries earned by undergraduates in campus placements. Students from the top Indian college primarily choose jobs at the end of their undergraduate education as many students become the primary breadwinners of their families straight out of college. Pursuing research for five (or more) years at the present scholarship levels represents a massive opportunity cost, and you can’t fault students for thinking from a financial perspective. Additionally, more than two lakh students made their journey abroad for tertiary education in 2016 alone. No doubt, this boost will help nudge some of these students in a different direction. However, there seem to be several gaps and unknowns regarding the implementation of such a scheme.

First of all, students who don’t hail from IITs and IISc will feel hard done by with this recent announcement. Undoubtedly, the IITs and IISc are some of the top research universities in the country, but their main focus is on Science and Engineering. It must be noted that IITs and IISc have schools of other disciplines (management or humanities, for instance) as part of their system, but a majority of research conducted in IISc and IITs come under the aforementioned umbrella of Science and Engineering. Many talented and bright students do exist outside the IIT and IISc system — in several other top institutions, universities, streams, and disciplines (interested readers could examine the data uploaded in the Central government’s NIRF India Rankings 2017 to compare the research performance of IISc and IITs with other universities across several disciplines). It seems unfair to me that many students doing good research in other institutions will miss out on such a scheme. On a connected note, there is an existing PM scheme for Doctoral scholars open to students of all disciplines and universities where students can earn twice their scholarship — up to Rs. 72,800 per month (with 50% coming from a partner company interested in the scholar’s research) — but only 79 fellowships (out of the allotted 300) were conferred in the first three years.

There needs to be more clarity on how the students are going to be selected as well. The earlier scheme refers to a CGPA cut-off of 8.5, but there is no such information regarding the latest announcement. If we assume that the same criteria still exists, it seems inadequate for a research program which is a long-term commitment posing different challenges compared to the mainly course-based undergraduate program.

Doing well in research requires a healthy dose of interest in a subject, curiosity, strong fundamentals, scepticism, perseverance, commitment, passion, the ability to ask the right questions, frame hypotheses, use relevant skills to perform experiments, obtain and articulate results. Therefore, the skills needed to succeed in research and those required for obtaining a high CGPA in an undergraduate degree are not the same (although there are many overlaps), and it seems a bit strange that CGPA is the only criteria articulated until now. Similarly, an entrance examination score would not be useful as a selection criteria to gauge aptitude for a research program. Ideally, evaluation of research proposals made by students (through their faculty advisors) after they have produced a good research paper during the course of an undergraduate/postgraduate degree, coupled with a moderate CGPA cutoff / entrance exam requirement would take care of both familiarity with research and research aptitude — but this would be difficult to mandate on a large scale immediately.

The other part the scheme is silent about is about the continuance of the scholarship. The announcement talked about the period of scholarship being five years. Will it be awarded in the first year of the PhD program when the student is a junior research fellow (JRF) and mostly doing coursework? Will it be given for five years regardless of the scholar’s performance throughout his/her PhD? Will there be a yearly review of these scholars by a committee with the non-performers’ fellowship being discontinued? If it is discontinued, will it be then awarded to the next deserving scholar in line? Truth be told, it is not entirely a glass half-empty situation: answers to some of the questions in this paragraph are in place for other scholarships, and in all probability will be applied to this scholarship as well.

In any case, the cabinet nod for the proposal is awaited at the moment, and the secretary said that he was hopeful of starting it from the next session. But at any rate, a lot more clarity is needed with regard to the scheme’s implementation before it is rolled out in various institutes.

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