woodpecker-detail-william-morrisWhen William Morriss wrote the words Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell in his 1888 novel, The Dream of John Ball, he could hardly have imagined that this aphorism would resonate so strongly among the graduate students in India in the present decade.

Of course the Morriss quote meant something quite different in its context: the Fellowship is a brotherhood, and the lack thereof, the hell, is professional isolation. Nevertheless it is telling that the quote applies so appositely to the manner in which Ph. D. studies are supported today in our system of higher education.

For the most part, Ph. D. scholars need institutional support. For one thing, at the age when most enter the Ph. D. programme, they can scarcely rely on others financially. And furthermore, research scholarship is a national need: across the world, governments support their research scholars. Except that in India, this support is intermittent for the most part.

The intermittency is most evident in the manner in which the funds finally reach the research scholars. Without exception, what unites Ph. D. scholars across the length and breadth of the country is a continuous concern about financial support, waiting for funds to arrive, paperwork to be done, and the fear that for some new reason, things will be delayed… again. Except in research institutes where the fellowships are given directly by the research institutions (and where it must be acknowledged, the numbers are fairly small), and in the IITs and IISERs.

The problem is not unsolvable, but as the years pass and the number of national scholarships increase, it seems that they get more and more difficult to manage. There was a time when the fellowships were only given by the UGC, and then by the CSIR, and then… Today, the DST, DBT, CSIR, UGC, ICMR, ICHR, ICSSR, ICPR… There are many more agencies involved, each with their own modus operandi, their own scales, entitlement and so on.

As research supervisor, I have frequently seen university students suffer- support does not arrive for months together, and then there are months of plenty. Years of famine, years of abundance, so to speak. Contingencies are not paid for years, and then they vanish altogether. And the sheer indignity of it all, having to prove time and again and to various officials, that they are bonafide students. Research is difficult enough without these hurdles to cross.

And this is not a problem that is easily solved by university administrations either. Over the past few years, funds have indeed dried up. The problems and delays are quietly transferred to the administration’s doorstep, and for the most part, this is a body that is ill-equipped to deal with it.

So in the spirit of trying to find a solution, here is a Modest Proposal for Preventing the Research Scholars From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.

1. Have a single scale for the Ph D scholarship. No disparities between the different agencies, no disparities in ancillaries such as contingency or house rent allowance.

2. Have a common code. If a Ph. D. takes five years on average, fund for five years. Not for four (as the UGC non-NET does) or for any length of time (as many institutes do). Or have a proper (and uniformly applicable) funding protocol: Rs. N1 for the first year, N2 for the second, and so on. Put a ceiling: one may be entitled to state support for a research studentship for M years at most.

As it happens now, there are many different levels of funding operational in one institution- some get funded for four years, some for five, and the amount of money can vary widely, even when it is the same funding agency! The point here is that there is a common source: our taxes. And some sensible planning should make it possible to respect all disciplines and fund them equally well.

3. Link the fellowship to the individual in a more transparent manner. Have them register with a unique ID- some state governments use the Class X mark sheet- and monitor the entitlement directly. Each person should be able to avail the support only once. (Today, there are many examples of people hopping between fellowships in an unmonitored way, simply because Agency X does not talk to Agency Y.) So if one takes the fellowship for 2 years at one university and moves to another, one can only draw on the balance number of years (M-2), not the full M again.

4. It might be simpler if the funding agencies would communicate directly with the student. They fund, and they should trust, or at least learn to trust. And also to take a breach of this trust as a serious and punishable offense. As it happens there is a small number of students who will abuse the privilege of being supported for the Ph D by not taking the enterprise seriously in one way or the other- not working with integrity, not completing a study, or by willful fraud. And a similar small number of research supervisors are culpable as well. However, to tar every scholar with the same brush and put in place a tortuous set of rules is a case of agencies being unnecessarily overzealous. Ultimately, this has hurt the cause.

index5. Universities could take some of responsibility as well. Today, given the level of funding of the public universities, once students are admitted to the Ph D program, they are left to the not-so-tender mercies of the funding agencies that can take a year or more to simply “verify” papers. University funds are also typically insufficient to cover an “advance”, especially when it not clear when or if the agencies will pay up: the amount of monies owed by the agencies to our public universities are fairly substantial.

The fact of the matter is that research needs to be supported publicly, and it should be supported well. Not just in the declared amount of fellowship, but in the manner of its delivery as well. The present methods adopted by the funding agencies almost conspire to ensure that none but the most dedicated will pursue research in a public institution. I’m sure the above proposal – modest or otherwise – will not find public favour, but it is worth making all the same. Today’s research translates into a better tomorrow, and we need to recognize and respect that.