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What is ‘lota’ doing in PhDs? Why UGC is worried about Indian research

The enrolment in PhDs jumped 50% between 2011 and 2017, leading UGC to invite proposals for a six-month study to assess the quality of theses in the past decade.

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New Delhi: The University Grants Commission (UGC) is worried about the quality of PhD research in India, and it has good reason to.

A PhD or Doctor of Philosophy signifies the highest degree of academic qualification, and is meant to encourage original research to yield new insights in one’s area of interest or study.

However, an investigation by ThePrint of PhD topics between 2010 and 2017 — in humanities and pure science — across Indian universities shows that topics are often hyper-theoretical without much empirical studies, or historical without any contemporary currency.

With the enrolment in PhDs jumping 50 per cent between 2011 and 2017, the UGC last month invited proposals for a six-month study to assess the quality of theses in the past decade.

Research in humanities

Some of the recent PhD topics in humanities included — ‘Tribal movements of Gujarat in 19th and 20th century’, ‘Colonisation and development problems in Kerala — a case study of evolution and nature of public action 1850-1956’, ‘Widows and widowhood in the colonial Punjab’ and ‘A survey on the condition of working women in the coal field and steel plants in Jharkhand since 1947’.

Dissertations under the history category include disconnected and tangential topics like the lives of historical personalities, studies on social and political movements and women’s role in them, religious reforms, architecture and archaeology, and cultural studies on districts and their significance. Some of them are ‘Life and works of Dara Shikuh’, ‘History of Amreli municipality’, ‘Study of tribal fairs in Gujarat’, and ‘Study of fertility deities in Karnataka’.

One of the studies under folklore focused on ‘Rangoli kale mathu samskruthi (art of rangoli and its culture)’. In Hindi literature, ‘Hindi sahitya me lote ka mahatva‘ is a PhD topic chosen by many, with some researching the vessel’s importance in poetry, and others in prose.

Under political science, in 2010, PhDs from Manipur centred on such broad themes as ‘Politics in Manipur’ and ‘Parties in Manipur’. In 2015, many people chose the Karnataka Lokayukta as the subject of their PhDs. In Odisha, students have researched the role of district collectors in the state.

Meanwhile, research subjects at Brown University, US, for example, have included ‘In this together: An ethos of sustainability for a greener globe’ and ‘Mobilization through antagonism: Populist identity formation in Trump’s America and Kirchner’s Argentina’, topics rich in contemporary relevance.

Political science research, according to Brown University Professor Ashutosh Varshney, suffers from an “odd malaise”. “Unlike universities in the US and, to some extent, the UK, Indian universities have been dominated by political theorists, who frown upon empirical research,” Varshney said in an email response to ThePrint. “The latter is neither comprehended as a serious form of research, nor promoted as a mode of inquiry.”

There is an institutional implication to this problem.

“The most systematic empirical research on India’s politics has, for all practical purposes, emerged outside the university system, not in the university departments. A lot of it is located at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (research institute based in Delhi),” said Varshney.

“Because this kind of empirical research is emerging in some research centres, it is not easily reproducible,” he added. “Reproduction, at the very least, requires training PhD students. I do not see how India’s political science can move forward and become internationally respectable until a whole range of empirical methods of research are systematically taught to PhD students in addition to political theory, and serious empirical research beyond case studies is valued and promoted in leading university departments.”

Also read: 50% jump in PhDs since 2011, govt wants study on how good many of them actually are

Literature research often repetitive

Indian researchers’ dissertations on English language mostly delve into the literary works of famous authors and poets, including the likes of William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Khushwant Singh, Rabindranath Tagore and Salman Rushdie.

For example, ‘Novels of Amitav Ghosh: novelist and anthropologist’ and ‘Critical study of Amitav Ghosh’s novels’ are PhD subjects that have been pursued repeatedly through consecutive years.

In subjects like business administration, commerce, sports and economics, most studies are based on surveys. Rather than creating new information, researchers have based their thesis on some survey conducted earlier. For example, “An analytical study of diamond industry of Junagarh district” is the subject of an economics PhD, while another in commerce is “A study on job satisfaction among sales forces in pharmaceutical industry of Andhra Pradesh”.

Dissertations under geography are mostly from less-recognised universities in smaller areas. Analysis-based geographical studies include subjects like agriculture, environment, population, resources, urban poverty, tourism, and crop culture in different states.

‘Rigorous’ process to choose PhD topics

Talking about the types of PhDs being pursued in India, Furqan Qamar, the former secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities, which keeps a record of all the PhD theses submitted in India, told ThePrint that the topics were not decided by the candidate or the guide alone: The choice involves a rigorous process that takes into account the views of a number of people, he said.

The topic first goes to the Board of Research and Board of Studies at the university in question, then for endorsement to the School Board and Faculty Committee at each institution. It then goes to the academic council, which includes teachers and experts. It is only at the end of this process that the PhD topic is passed and the candidate begins work.

“Choosing a PhD topic is very rigorous exercise… If even this is not able to ensure quality in PhDs, then what else will?” asks Qamar.

Also read: India likely to benefit as UK lifts limit on PhD level work visas

‘Don’t judge research by topic’

Experts say the topic of the PhD alone cannot indicate its relevance. “If many people are researching Shakespeare, this does not mean that the thesis is repetitive. Each research might talk about different aspects of his writing,” said a senior faculty member of Delhi University.

“In pure science, people expect that every research will be path-breaking, but all research does not have to be path-breaking,” the professor added.

“There has to be some new knowledge-creation with every piece of research. Many people are still researching Einstein’s theory, and some people have reached a conclusion that his theory is correct and others have deduced that his theory is not correct.”

“Research should be relevant in a way that it leads to betterment of our lives,” the professor said. “Also, it should be relevant to the needs of the specific country. Sometimes, research is based on contemporary needs, sometimes it could be futuristic as well.”

Research in science

In areas of science and technology, experts pointed towards the lack of research infrastructure and industry-academia partnership. New ideas are not brought to the table and most people keep researching issues that no one is interested in, they said.

“The quality of PhDs is maintained in institutes like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) because we have a certain standard below which candidates will not even qualify for getting a PhD,” said Professor Ramagopal Rao, the director of IIT-Delhi.

“At second-rung institutions, facility is sometimes a problem. For example, at IITs, we have spent Rs 100 crore in the last 18 months alone to improve the research infrastructure, but how many of the second-rung institutions will be able to do that?” he added.

According to Rao, the faculty at such institutes were often not up to date with the latest technology, which affected the quality of research.

Talking about the overall quality of PhDs in India, a senior official in the Ministry of HRD said, “We certainly need to improve the quality of PhDs being produced in India currently, but that will not come from external control. In order to produce good PhDs, the only people who can exercise control is the teaching fraternity.

“To make that possible,” the official added, “we need to make sure that we hire quality faculty at teaching institutions from the beginning.”

A small-town fascination?

Obtaining PhDs as a trend seems to be popular in tier-2 and tier-3 cities like Meerut, Rajkot, Patan, Bhagalpur, Shimla, Rohtak and Sagar.

“Demand for admission in PhD is also led by lack of opportunities. Doing a PhD is a way of getting employment for many people in smaller towns,” said Qamar. “Commitment to research is not the point for them, they are only looking at employment.”

People in small towns are able to submit their thesis in regional Indian languages, which is an advantage.

Mixed response among those who moved to foreign shores

Scholars who moved out of India after initial research have mixed observations about the quality of research in India.

“It is much better than what it was earlier, but still poor by global standards, except for those in elite institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc),” Dr C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, US, said of science research in India.

Tariq Thachil, associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, US, said there are “many fine institutions in the country that produce excellent PhDs with very learned and capable professors at the helm”. “And the quality of graduate research will be highly variable within any country, not just India,” he added.

But he said a 50 per cent jump in PhD enrolments in just six years was unlikely to have taken place unless there has been a significant dilution of standards. The requirements to produce top-quality research cannot be produced overnight, without rigorous instruction, curriculum, learning materials, and intellectual and financial support, Thachil added.

A PhD scholar undertaking research in the US said the system in India was not conducive to promoting quality research.

“I felt that some of our senior scientists were not getting the recognition and students to help do their research that they deserved,” said Yudhishtar Singh Bedi, who is pursuing a PhD in biological sciences at A&M University, US.

“A lot of promotions were seniority-based and a lot of good junior scientists were frustrated and started looking for jobs in the US where they were easily picked up,” he added.

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  1. You are right in your statement Naimbhai, however in this case a candidate who has both qualified NET and been awarded a PhD degree will be better than the other two candidates as you have mentioned

  2. In my opinion only NET qualified candidates can not guide and teach to Graduation Students and Post Graduation.A Ph.D(In Accordance with Minimum Standards Procedure) and Regulations -9 and Regulations -16 is must which is done by UGC for appointments of Assistant Professor will improve the quality of output in Higher Education i.e students.
    A Ph.D always be a better person over NET qualified candidate.

  3. मुझे योग में topic चुनने में मदद करे वर्तमान में किस तरह का शोध समाज के लिए हितकारी रहेगा ।मेरे सामने एक सबसे बड़ा प्रश्न हमेशा आता है कि आखिर में शोध में किया क्या जाता है जब तक मेरे इस प्रश्न का मुझे संतोषजनक जवाब नही मिलता तब तक मे कैसे शोध शुरू कर सकता हूँ उचित मार्गदर्शन दे

  4. PhD for sale in some state
    And Mphil. What I come across is the candidates left at night and returned with Mphil. Certificate in the morning . Not only PhD don’t have quality but also now a days
    PhD for sale
    just they buy ph.D for appointment

    One way it is of no use PhD
    Because one who want get appointment along with these degree they should keep 30 to 40 lakhs to get appointment

    All the appointment and PhD should be centralised for.
    The hard workers are not getting job

    Now a days the appointment and PhD registration are on the basis of caste based

  5. I would like to say UGC is the main culprit.
    Isn’t NTA NET enough?? Aren’t this new selection policy a bullshit where graduation marks are getting more valuations than master’s marks? When you’re telling that PhD is compulsory for application for the post of assistant professor in UG colleges then why the hell are you guys running after the good academic records instead of judging a candidate upon his/ her thesis paperwork only? A person with good memory can easily get handsome marks in his past career but that doesn’t mean that he or she may have a good scientific approach where the syllabuses of the different universities are different. Why UGC is not enforcing credit points for selection on the basis of the national examinations ranks instead of university examinations (graduation or master’s )? Let me tell me you why… Because most of the teachers ( some are in IITs and research institutes too) are brain dead zombies.. They don’t love to hear any new ideas , during the time of interview they are only interested in hearing about why you have gotten bad grades . Is not this process stopping a thousands of good aspirants of PhD from walking further? Your PhD guide would force to choice such a topic where plenties of works have been done before . Because in that way you would be able to make new papers ( I mean plenty of new papers ) , this would help you to get a job. Because in the country of 1.3 billon where no one is interested about solving the problem of unemployment it would be better if you listen to your guide and do the copy paste research. Because here no one is going to give you a funding for doing research further if you’re not a university proffesor nor the people of India is eager to hear about new ideas.

    I don’t know whom blame. I don’t know where to complain . But I think the education system should be revised. At least all the recruitments should follow the real excellence..

    • Ye sab Harami soch hai kewal ak test pass karke 5 years ke research tatha ugc ki Aukat ak Neech mansikta dikhata hai?

    • Ye sab kewal ak test pass karke 5 years ke research tatha ugc ki Aukat ak Neech mansikta dikhata hai?

    “In Hindi literature, ‘Hindi sahitya me lote ka mahatva‘ is a PhD topic chosen by many, with some researching the vessel’s importance in poetry, and others in prose.”
    Are You serious?
    Please give reference. I think, its a joke.

  7. PhD research outcome standards measurement has to be centralised with a common policy by the UGC and we need to remained all PhD guides to improve their guidance standard before they talk about researchers quality work. Ph.D supervisors need to update themselves with global research standards and advanced analysis tools. So they can ensure the quality work from a researcher.

  8. Only focussing on PhD would not help to improve the quality of research in our country. Complete revamp of existing education policies right from graduation level is required. The eligibility criteria of the teaching faculty members & the students alike should be purely on merit basis.Treating PhD like a job is not going to help the cause.
    Reservations (govt institutes) & good financial ability of the students(pvt institutes) are the two most diluting factors in the quality of education today in our country. Policy makers have to take some bold moral steps.

  9. We should look at the reasons for falling standards, before commenting on the existing situation. Who made Ph D compulsory for recruitments? Decisions such ad this, and 55 pet cent as the cut off mark, etc have really brought our standards low. This has led to acdemic inflation. The students today demand certain percentage of marks as a matter of right rather than earning it. We, as policy makers are responsible. Let us not blame the system, let us focus on people involved and rectify the situation.

  10. UGC needs to focus on the quality of PhD. Why does it count PhD as just a degree for min. qualification to enter teaching progression. Evaluation of PhD program in India is worsening day by day. This picture is now eye opening by the critical cases of duplicacy or plagiarism. In my view, evaluation of highest degree must be the toughest parameter. It should not be dependent on the bulk of the thesis pages and time spent for getting the degree. Worst rules of UGC has resulted in unemployment to good PhD holders. One can easily judge it by the list of approved journals by UGC. There must be blind review of the research by experts undisclosed to even VC and there should be grading or marks distribution based on novelty, non-obviousness, and induatrial applicability/societal benefits to a PhD awardee. Publication in a high impact journal could be a misleading trend if it is not going to reach the industries or society for betterment of mankind.

  11. It is an expected outcome because UGC formulates rules/regulations but does not have the eyes and ears to know whether the rules are followed by the universities. In fact PhDs are ‘sold like brinjals’ by universities where is the question of quality especially in humanities and social sciences? It is true that people do PhD since it is mandatory for certain posts and hence quality is compromised. The same thing holds good for guides/supervisors also because they have to add this in their CVs. In the end UGC wakes up as if it is not aware of all this and tries to blame the universities which is not right. Actually UGC is the real culprit for this mess.

  12. Private universities have made it a business to enroll students for PhD and making millions out of it. They are not even conducting entrance exam or 6 months course and awarding degrees to morons. UGC should take a bold step to curb this practice than only it’s worth.

  13. For decades now. humanities research has been “curve fitting”: Take data, apply ideology (mostly Marxist), ignore facts that don’t fit, and come up with a hypothesis. There is very little original research or actual data collection. In the west, the people who generate the actual data are the ones who have the most credibility to analyze it. In India, that is not the case. People like Romilla Thapar, Bhanu Pratap Mehta, Shiv Visvanathan, Ashish Nandy, Zoya Hasan, Irfan Habib, just to name a few, are deeply rooted in ideology. Most of their work is interpretive. Their prominence has nothing to do with actual field work. Even the Center for Developing Society that is mentioned in this article suffers from the same problems.

  14. The one and only reason why research in India lack standards is, Ph.D made compulsory for teaching. So that teachers are doing Ph.D in a rush (lacking standards) simply to get a job or to get promotion. But if Ph.D is not made compulsory, then only those people who are truly enthusiastic in research will get do research and get elevated. I have seen most people commenting the similar issue, hope this reaches the MHRD and respond immediately for the good of Indian education system and for betterment of nation.

  15. Possible option is to delink Research activity from Job/Post/Promotion/PhD Degrees.

    Because Research is ever ending activity
    and is independent of job/post/position

    Research is ones hobby as Personal Mental activity.

    It is like writing novels.

    Any one can write Novels.
    Government/Society, should find out a policy to encourage Research by rewarding social recognition…

  16. Hi, I would like to point out the author that there is a major mistake in the graph you presented. Look at the numbers for the year 2017-2018. The total is wrong.

  17. Does the officials who set the rules in UGC know what true research is? Then they would have lobbied for more funding in research. And as someone points out, the upsurge in PhD is not due to students interest, rather the requirement of teaching in universities. As you sow, so you reap!

  18. This news report riminded me of what the well known Marathi writer and playwright, Shri Pu. La. Deshpande said about PhDs in Marati language and literature. He said that these PhD theses are nothing but collection and padting together of extracts of other peoples’ theses. It applies to PhD theses in all the disciplines.

  19. PhD is just one qualification like many others.But here PhD is presumed to be the only qualification for teaching.This is like mono cropping spoiling bio diversity. Smartness of a professor is his ability to connect with the students and encourage them to succeed in life as a responsible citizen.Not some cut copy paste reports evaluated subjectively only.

  20. Ph.D is not related with research.
    It is a degree requirement for teaching in higher education institutes. So where does the quality of research comes in? If you mix degree requirement and research, you will get only substandard research in thesis of PhD.
    Professors who get these thesis under their guidance are bothered for number of students guided(misguided). Higher is the number, better are the promotion chances.
    So, such PhD is beneficial for professor as well as students.

  21. So disappointed to see the singular focus on PhDs and research in Higher education. The purpose is only producing PhDs and Research. It should aim to increase human excellence in all walks of life, not just Research,research and research…All these 70 years put together, how many Nobel prize we got…So focus be redefined to enhance quality of human life.

  22. The truth is UGC notification of 2021 will be maing PhD worse and more plagiarized than before. Don’t expect path breaking research because now PhD will be only be for the sake of qualification. You can scratch UGC NET also which UGC now made useless. And for people lwft with no PhD guide private PhD will only benefit financially to private sector earning more and more from poor researchers. If a person giving 6 to 7 lakhs rupees for PhD in private sector how can u expect he/she will spend lakhs on data collection etc!!

  23. The theses will be of worth and quality if the guides are learned. The selection process of the assistant professors does not testify the candidate in research, instead most of them are recruited based on recommendations of a few powerful people. If this is the case, who will ensure research quality at global level.

  24. You did not mention the single most important reason why people get PhDs : the fact that job markets require it. It is getting increasingly difficult to find employment as faculty without a PhD, and the new UGC regulations going into effect from 2021 will only make matters worse. If you don’t want people going into PhDs without good cause, stop asking for PhDs in every recruiment ever.

    Nobody needs a PhD to teach undergrad college classes. The UGC is as much responsible for this trend as are the “scholars”

  25. Sir, I have gone through many Ph. D theses topics on Human Rights Concepts and Practices in India analysis/Sociological/political/Economical and functional analyses ..etc These are 75 to 85 Percentage copied works and merely 15 to 25 percentage cut and paste works by using different language styles..
    In many Laws P h. D theses merely collection and cut and paste works from Earlier theses or Supreme Court Decisions trends used in different language styles. I have seen in all branches of knowledge areas in more than 75 percentage of P h. D degrees holders had not done empirical works or innovative approach or analysis or conclusions .These have been serious alarms in our Higher Educational Systems since 2000-2001 onwards…. Please get settled these cases WEF 2000_2001 onwards and purify our academic systems.

  26. Who asked the UGC to make PhD compulsory for teachers at colleges and universities? Wasn’t the NTA NET enough? The desire to pursue Phd should stem from research acumen and enhancement of knowledge, and never regimental.
    And in this Phd-race genuine dissertations will also take a hit further dampening India’s RnD ecosystem.
    Wake up UGC!

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