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Tamil Nadu: Research scholars’ row

EducationWorld March 2024 | Education News Magazine
Shivani Chaturvedi (Chennai)
IIT-Madras

IIT-M doctoral scholars: workload objection

The top-ranked Indian institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) has introduced a controversial mandate (January 15) requiring PhD scholars to publish a paper every semester. This policy change has sparked a backlash from students. Over 300 scholars staged a demonstration on the IIT-M campus on January 17 protesting the administration’s unilateral implementation of new academic regulations for M.Sc and PhD students.

According to the protesting students, the IIT-M circular contradicts UGC (University Grants Commission) guidelines for PhD students. New UGC guidelines permit any student who has completed a four-year undergrad degree programme to register for doctoral study. Moreover in November 2022, UGC abolished the compulsory requirement of scholars getting research papers published in peer reviewed journals before submission of their final thesis. Subsequently in January 2023, the commission mandated the publication of at least one research paper in refereed/peer reviewed journals. Another gazette notification of November 7, 2022, (adopted by the Academic Council on April 6, 2023) stipulated that five research papers in refereed journals are required from PhD students.

Against this backdrop, the one research paper per semester stipulation of IIT-M has come as a rude shock to the institute’s doctoral students. Numerous telephone calls and emails to the IIT-M management to clear this confusion elicited no response.

In this connection, it’s pertinent to note that IIT-M’s Ph D ‘students’ are not students in the ordinary sense of the word. They are postgraduate scholars awarded generous — by Indian standards — scholarships ranging between Rs.12,400-37,000 per month to conduct research to add to the stock of national knowledge. In developed OECD countries where close collaboration between the academy and industry is normative, innovative research studies are converted into commercial goods and services valued at billions of dollars.

However, one of the biggest rackets in Indian higher education is of unemployed/unemployable graduates being inducted into doctoral research programmes and spending years researching arcane subjects such as African studies and Hindi development, while drawing large monthly research grants plus free-of-charge campus accommodation.

According to IIT-M insiders — the IIT-M management from Director to PRO refused to talk to your correspondent — this directive has been issued to ensure that PhD scholars “don’t fritter away taxpayers’ money by enjoying a prolonged paid holiday”.

Criticism of IIT-M’s new research paper mandate has intensified amid growing reports of a rising number of suicides of PhD students enrolled at the prestigious IITs. In early January, students at IIT-Kanpur held a candlelit vigil to mourn the death of a woman doctoral student — the third suicide at the institution since December. Likewise, IIT-Delhi reported three student suicides and one by a PhD scholar earlier in 2023. And last November, IIT-M took the unprecedented step of suspending a professor in the wake of the death of a mechanical engineering PhD student, bringing the total number of suicides at the institute since 2018 to 12.

“Doctoral scholars typically publish one or two papers before submitting their thesis. The new system requiring PhD scholars to publish papers on regular basis will impose great pressure and stress on students. This could also result in the focus of scholars shifting to quantity over quality, compromising the rigour and significance of their research. Further, research in certain fields may not lend itself well to frequent publication,” says Rajendra Bhoopathi, professor emeritus and former head of mechanical engineering at Anna University, Chennai.

Meanwhile, a former Director of IIT-M questions the legality of the new circular. “Rules governing publication of number and periodicity of papers published by doctoral students are stipulated by UGC and a joint council of all IITs. IIT-M’s requirement of a paper every semester is of doubtful legality,” he says.

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