Gujarat’s proposal for PhD scholars is truly bizarre
Given how a country’s politicians and bureaucrats are often starved of new ideas, it naturally helps if there is some high-quality academic research in areas that they are engaged in. Academic research on the role of large retail—and, within this, FDI—in boosting farmer income will, for instance, serve as a useful input while making a case for hiking FDI in multi-brand retail in the case of a country like India. Good analysis of US barriers to Indian businesses, from the high duties on goods that India exports to visa restrictions on software professionals from India, similarly, will be of great use to trade diplomats. The way to get this useful input, normally, is to give research grants to think-tanks or universities or top-end professionals. What the Gujarat government is doing, however, is to try and foist its research needs on PhD scholars, unmindful of the fact that it is not the job of PhD scholars to act as researchers for the government, it is to break new ground in subjects of their interest and come up with new theories/explanations—the government may think the research is irrelevant, but that is the way knowledge gets built up in universities and societies across the world.
As part of a new directive, the government has asked universities to recommend 82 ‘preferred’ research topics—broadly focussed on the state government’s welfare initiatives and some central government initiatives started by the Modi-led government—to doctoral candidates and ensure that at least 5 of these topics are chosen by candidates every year. The suggested topics include research into the design and implementation of Kanya Kelavani, Swacch Bharat and a comparative analysis of the Sardar Patel Awaas Yojana and Indira Awaas Yojana. If this was just mere suggestion to guide students into doing work in ‘relevant’ areas, that would still be okay, though doing research to arrive at a suitable PhD topic is itself an integral part of the programme. But by deciding how many PhDs are to be done each year in ‘relevant’ areas, the number of seats available to the pool that is looking at other research areas also shrinks since there is no plan to increase the overall number to accommodate the mandatory research.
Indeed, this seems to be part of the Gujarat government’s plans to exercise greater control over universities in the state. A law passed by the state assembly last month grants the government the power to overrule academic and administrative decisions in universities, and makes teaching and non-teaching jobs in these varsities transferable. Transfers of teaching staff could also get in the way of research, given it would leave scholars guided by a particular professor in the lurch if she is transferred, particularly if she is a subject-matter expert. Other than that, transfers and powers to overrule university administrations could become instruments to make universities toe the official line instead of being academically independent. At a time when the central government is supposedly trying to free up universities in order to create centres of excellence, such a proposal is a big step backwards.