Curbing academic freedom PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 30 March 2019 00:00
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Prompted by a Union HRD ministry diktat to central universities, to ensure PhD candidates choose research topics that are “in accordance with the national priorities”, “research in irrelevant areas” is discouraged and “allotting privilege (sic) topics” is dispensed with, the Central University of Kerala recently issued a circular directing deans and HoDs to come up with a list of topics “considering national priorities”. This led to a senior external member of the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature resigning in protest. The episode is a symptom of the rot that is spreading in higher education regulation. Apart from the fact that a nebulous “national priorities” touchstone for research-topics will foster confusion—does India’s military history trump labour as a research topic or vice versa?—this interferes with the academic freedom researchers and higher education institutions should enjoy, something that multiple reports on higher education reform have highlighted. Yet, instead of meaningful regulatory reforms, the HRD ministry would rather micromanage the choice of research topics.

To be sure, some manner of quality-check seems reasonable. Indeed, in 2015, following allegations of rampant plagiarism, including resubmission of the same thesis year after year, the Bihar government tightened the screws in state universities. But, quality check shouldn’t come to mean curbs on research topics. So, even if there is a mind-boggling number of doctoral theses/dissertations on tea plantation workers—the workers would certainly seem the most thoroughly researched cohort in India—if there is a genuine research question that needs be examined, students must be free to pursue this. There are a dime a dozen research topics that may seem irrelevant or merit the “privilege topics” tag. A doctoral student from a state university in Gujarat was recently in the news for researching Narendra Modi’s leadership style as Gujarat chief minister. Given the exchequer foots the bill for research at government-funded universities, many would likely view such research as unproductive use of scarce resources. Even so, academic independence has to be held as sacrosanct if universities, especially the top-rung ones, are truly to become the intellectual powerhouses a nation needs. The Union HRD ministry seems to have taken a cue from the ill-conceived move of the Gujarat government to reserve a substantial number of PhD seats for research on government programmes. But, given the Union ministry’s recent myopia and unbridled interference in the running of universities in the country, this doesn’t seem a surprise. Far from giving universities a free hand and creating the Higher Education Commission of India to replace the mouldy UGC regime, the government has concerned itself with whether university professors are free to air their views or not, asking students to pledge support to the armed forces, batting for the old faculty reservation structure in universities, etc. No wonder then that, despite Indian R&D gaining ground, catching up with a China or other R&D giants seems a distant hope.



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