For most of this week, students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi have been on strike to protest the University Grants Commission’s new policy that has drastically reduced the number of MPhil and PhD seats available for the coming 2017-2018 academic year from 1,000 to 194.

The higher education regulator’s new regulations, notified on May 5, restricts the number of research scholars a faculty member of a university, central or state, can supervise at a time. At the Jawaharlal Nehru University – which is primarily a post-graduate and research institution – teachers are already supervising more research scholars than the maximum number they are allowed under the new rules. On Tuesday, the university released its prospectus effecting the seat cut, as a result of which the intake of students at several of its centres for this session is zero.

On Friday, the JNU Students Union took their protest to the University Grants Commission’s office in Central Delhi.

Campuses across the country share the institution’s concern. Academics based in central universities in Gujarat, Hyderabad and Puducherry, which have incorporated the new regulations in their rule books, said the policy would impact access to research programmes and even funding for decades to come.

New regulations

The regulations cap the number of MPhil and PhD students a professor can supervise at a time at three and eight, respectively. Associate professors can supervise two MPhil and six PhD students, and assistant professors one and four, respectively. The number of research positions available in a university will, therefore, be determined by the number of teachers with the required qualifications available.

The practice till date was for universities and departments themselves to decide on the number of seats.

Teachers have joined students in opposing the policy. “It should be left to the teachers and departments,” said K Laxminarayana of the department of economics at Hyderabad Central University. “You cannot impose a common structure on everyone. Some teachers may have time and be willing to take on more.”

He said his university’s academic council had resolved to adopt the regulations this week, but some teachers were still opposed to it. He added that the university has assured them that it will be recruiting more teachers, arguing that this would automatically take the number of MPhil and PhD seats up again.

Faculty recruitment may not help

The Jawaharlal Nehru University administration has put forth the same argument. It issued a statement saying it has “advertised about 300 faculty positions this year” and once filled – though there is no guarantee that all of them will be filled – the “number of seats in coming year for research scholars will substantially increase”.

The Central University of Gujarat adopted the regulations on March 6 and a senior administration official conceded that it was looking at a seat cut. “Naturally, there is a drop but we had to comply,” he said. “Some of our senior faculty members were already guiding more scholars than now permitted. But over January and February, we recruited 29 more. That should raise the number of seats.” He added that in the long run, it would be the institutions that do not fill their vacancies that would be most affected.

Laxminarayana disagreed. “There will be a reduction in seats overall and every university [will be] impacted for decades because the number of scholars per supervisor is being restricted,” he said. “Without a cap, there would have been many more research positions. Faculty should have been recruited as a matter of course anyway.”

Funding to suffer?

Sony Kunjappan of the Centre for Studies and Research in Social Management, Central University of Gujarat, said each of the 18 centres of the institution earlier admitted 10-15 students annually. He believes the regulations are aimed at cutting funds for research students. “They wanted to scrap the stipend central university researchers were getting,” he said. “They could not pull that off and are now reducing seats. In a country like ours, that means reducing access to research programmes.”

Kunjappan is not alone in wondering if the regulations are linked to a withdrawal of funds. N Dastagiri Reddy from the chemistry department of Pondicherry University, where teachers have received a circular informing them that the new policy has been adopted, said funding for research in his discipline has been shrinking in recent years. “The general atmosphere is not conducive to research anyway,” he said. “It is already getting harder to find funds from government agencies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for our research projects. This will impact the young most. No one wants substandard PhDs but this will affect everybody.”

Another aspect that has alarmed the science departments of universities is the policy on admission of candidates who have won Junior Research Fellowships through the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test. The notification says universities “may decide separate terms and conditions for PhD entrance tests” – as also for MPhil tests – for fellowship holders. “Chemistry teachers here [Hyderabad Central University] pointed out that for these candidates, no test was conducted before,” said Laxminarayana. “Introducing one may deter them from coming to the universities at all. They may choose standalone research institutions outside the university system that do not require any tests.” And that is a problem, he pointed out. “Because these students bring a lot of funds through their scholarships to the department, which help other scholars.”

JNU worried

Apart from the seat cut, the new regulations have dealt a crushing blow to the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s unique admission policy of awarding deprivation points to applicants from backward areas and marginalised communities. With the change, this policy is now restricted to masters programmes.

Students and teachers have also opposed the move to reduce entrance tests to mere qualifying tests, making the interview the deciding factor while drawing up the final merit list. Students argue that this dramatically increases the scope for discrimination.

“The cull is not just of the few hundred PhDs that would have resulted from the admissions this year, but of the very idea and ideal of the public university itself,” the JNU Teachers’ Association, which is supporting the student protests, said in a statement. “For the thousands of Dalits, SCs, STs, OBCs [Scheduled Castes, Schedules Tribes, and Other Backward Classes], and minorities who write the exam each year, this new admission policy… is another act of exclusion and discrimination.”