Research students in India need better grants; financial security essential to prevent brain drain

Last month, the central government created a buzz with its announcement that it would provide Rs 70,000 as monthly fellowship to researchers doing their PhDs from IITs or the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). This amount is currently Rs 25,000 per month. The idea behind this steep pay hike is to give meritorious students an extra incentive to not leave the country to pursue lucrative jobs with MNCs.

As part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's research fellowship scheme, only 2,000 research students would benefit. And while this is good news for the ones selected, it does raise pertinent questions about the fate of other research students enrolled in MPhil and PhD programmes in other universities or other disciplines.

Currently, very few research students across disciplines are recipients of a full-time fellowship. This is because the pass percentage in National Eligibility Test (NET) is barely 4-5 percent annually. Out of this small group, only the top 15 percent are eligible to avail junior research fellowships. So, on an estimate, around 1,500 people get this fellowship every year. Compared to the thousands of students who are enrolled in research programmes or aspire to get enrolled, this is a very small number.

Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Most of the badly-hit students are from humanities. While science and commerce students get various employment options once they are done with their post-graduation due to better availability of technical and skill-based jobs in the market, students from humanities are left with very few choices.

By the time, a person is done with his/her post-graduation, s/he is around 23-24 years of age. By this time, one would need to seriously start trying to become financially independent, and not be a liability on their families. For humanities students, the situation is again much worse; most of them either are preparing for governmental competitive exams like UPSC, SSC, banking, state PSC exams, etc, or the NET or State Eligibility Test, in order to become eligible for the post of university lecturers. A small minority would take up jobs in the NGO sector, think-tanks or in journalism.

The crux of the matter is that everyone is looking for some financial security. Coming back to the point above — that many students of humanities do aspire to get enrolled as research students — this is why they appear for the NET, in the hope that they would make the cut for a Junior Research Fellowship. Since most of them don't get any fellowships, a large proportion of these students tend to ignore their research in order to focus on competitive exams. Many of them even leave their research to join government jobs which pays them and makes them financially secure. Even those who do get fellowships are often lured to become lecturers or teach as ad-hoc faculty in colleges which pay more than double the amount than they'd get in fellowship.

This has four implications. Firstly, many aspiring research students don't actually get enrolled in MPhil and PhD, because they don't see financial security there, because the Non-Net Fellowship given to research students in general stands at a palrty Rs 5,000 per month. In fact, at many universities, even this is not given.

Secondly, research students who do get enrolled in MPhil/PhD programmes are always on the lookout for financial security, either by constantly preparing for competitive government exams or for NET/JRF, so that either they become eligible for college lecturership, or they get Rs 25,000 per month as fellowship.

The third implication is that candidates who do clear the NET but fail to make the cut for JRF keep giving the exam repeatedly, till the time they crack it, or they eventually become a permanent teaching faculty at some college.

And finally, even those candidates who do get JRF keep looking for positions as permanent faculties in colleges and universities, because it would pay more than double the amount than they'd get at fellowships.

But in none of these four circumstances can students be fully devoted to their research, which is necessary to produce good results. One can argue that in the fourth case, the students can give full attention to their research, considering that they are receiving a full-time fellowship. But again, as in the case with IIT students who are lured to attractive MNC jobs, the situation with these fellows is the same. This is essentially because people in general want to be more financially secure than they are at present.

The ideal solution would be to provide each and every research student with a fellowship amount which makes one financially secure. Furthermore, those who are receiving JRFs and other fellowships should also be provided with incentives, so that they are not lured by jobs in universities as ad-hoc or permanent lecturers. The incentives could be like what has been done in the case of students from IITs and IISC.

However, the possibility of providing Rs 70,000 as fellowship to every research student would be unrealistic. What could instead be done is to select students from universities which have proven themselves consistent in their research work. And with the HRD ministry coming out with rankings of universities across streams, this selection process becomes easier. Students from universities who make this could be provided with more incentives, like increasing their fellowship amounts. This will create additional incentives to other universities and departments which couldn't make the cut. It would also create a healthy competition among universities to strive for better, in order to get more incentives from the government.

To sum up, every research student in India needs to be given a scholarship, fellowship, or a decent monthly amount which makes one financially secure and lets one concentrate on his/her research work whole-heartedly. Scarcity of funds is the one reason why despite producing so many doctoral researchers, India lacks quality research.

A good step has already been taken for IIT and IISc research students, but would the government do the same with other streams, like humanities, or would these students continue to be children of a lesser God? Only time will tell.

Published Date: Sep 16, 2017 04:01 pm | Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 04:04 pm