By the end of May, Supriya Ranjan will have to vacate his room in Tapti hostel and leave Jawaharlal Nehru University. When he had arrived in the summer of 2015, he had expected to stay at least seven-eight years, the time it took to get a PhD in political science. Now, after two years and just the master’s degree part of his academic plan accomplished, he is looking at an uncertain future. The Centre for Political Science at JNU has no seats for MPhil this year.

“People who come to JNU make long-term plans but now it feels like I have reached the end of the road,” said Ranjan, 22.

In May 2016, the University Grants Commission introduced a new set of regulations to govern research programmes in universities. It has restricted the number of researchers, in MPhil and PhD, a faculty-member can supervise at a time. A professor can supervise three MPhil students and eight PhD ones. For associate professors the maximum numbers are two and six and for assistant professor, one and four. Earlier, such decisions were left to the universities and departments.

In JNU, where some faculty-members were already supervising far more researchers than the new regulations permit, the policy has meant no intake in research for the year in some of its best-known departments, including political science, history and English. In other centres, there is a drastic cut in seats.

Consequently, hundreds of students studying for their master’s degrees are in the same boat as Ranjan, prompting multiple protests, some at the University Grants Commission’s central-Delhi headquarters. JNU students unsuccessfully challenged the notification in the Delhi High Court and the Left-group, Students’ Federation of India, has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court.

Long-term plans

Ranjan was not the only one planning ahead. Jyoti Kumari, 23, opted for South-West Pacific and Russian Studies papers in her second year of MA in international relations, thinking it would help her secure a MPhil seat in the corresponding departments. But there will be no intake at all in the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies or the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies this year.

“I am still hoping seats will increase,” said Kumar. “After the new regulations made it compulsory to frame 50% of questions in the entrance test [for MPhi] on research methodology, many of my classmates signed up for that paper.” There are about 110 students in Kumar’s class and she said most were hoping to join MPhil. They will compete for just 11 seats spread over three of the School’s 13 centres to remain in JNU.

More despairing are the students in MA history. The Centre for Historical Studies, in the School of Social Sciences, will not admit any students into MPhil this year either. “Everyone is worried but they have lost all hope,” said a student, requesting not to be identified. “Most of them are considering other options.” She added that students in some departments are so dispirited, they have stopped going to protests. The last date for online application is April 5, 2017.

Other options

Ranjan’s classmates “are either applying elsewhere or are now in UPSC-mode”, he said, meaning they are preparing to write the entrance tests for the civil services.

For those still keen on research, Delhi University has suddenly become more attractive. But, as several students pointed out, the cost of living rises sharply outside the JNU campus. Many of them are from other states and in Delhi University, there is already an acute shortage of student residences.

“It is hard enough to get our families to accept our choosing studies over employment at our age,” said Kumari. “It is especially hard for women. We cannot ask our parents to continue to spend on us.” She comes from Champaran, Bihar, and “a family in which education is not really promoted”.

Students protesting against the seat-cuts in research at the University Grants Commission (Photo: Amir Malik)

But Delhi University students are wary of the developments in JNU and about their own fate too.

Prasenjit Kumar, 24, and in the final year of MA in history in Delhi University, hopes there will not be any cut there. “There were few seats to begin with and now competition will be intense,” he said. Hoping to study labour history in Bihar, he appeared for the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test for a junior research fellowship in January. “Even if get it, I do not know if there will be seats,” he said. The son of a farmer in Darbhanga, Bihar, he is the first one to get this far in academia. Ranjan and Kumari were too.

Akanksha collected a master’s degree in English from Delhi University but could not secure an MPhil seat last year. “I wanted to try harder and make it this year,” she said. “But it looks like Delhi University is my only option now and competition will be intense. Moving to another city would mean having to manage 15 other things along with research.”

Kumar also pointed out that there are very few public institutions of repute that have departments of international relations.

UGC does not understand

The student of history complained that the University Grants Commission “does not understand how things have been done in universities so far”. “They do not get that in JNU, MPhil and PhD were integrated or that JNU’s admission policy includes affirmative action that goes even beyond [the government-mandated] reservation in helping students from backward areas and marginalised background get in,” she said. Another student asked how reservation can be implemented where there is just one vacancy.

Research will suffer

Ranjan also pointed out that in JNU, seat availability has been computed “at the centre-level”. This has massively disrupted the functioning of the centres. Researchers attached to teachers guiding more than the maximum number allowed are being moved to other supervisors mid-course.

Brinda Bose from the Centre for English Studies at the School of Language, Literature and Culture studies described the chaos in social media post. She wrote that students who had to submit their dissertations next semester “now have to find someone else to supervise them”. They are reduced to “foraging and pleading among faculty who may not remotely share their research areas” and teachers “now have the unenviable task of telling some that they must fall off our lists with no warning to either them or us.” There are zero vacancies in English this year.

“Neither your research interest nor the teacher’s area of expertise matters anymore,” added Ranjan. “What you study will depend on who is free and research in general will suffer.” He had hoped to study the informal labour sector. “But I have not applied anywhere else yet,” he said. “I am just not being able to figure out what to do.”