Kerala Central University professor Meena Pillai resigns protesting HRD diktat saying PhD only in 'national priority' areas

The HRD order is the second big blow over the past few months to fundamental research areas.

A University of Kerala Professor has resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature as of 20 March in protest against a perplexing new decision by the Union Human Resource & Development Ministry. The vice-chancellor of the Central University of Kerala (CUK) in Kasargod issued a circular on 13 March directing its faculty to build a bank of projects for doctoral (PhD) programs "in accordance with national priorities" without any exceptions.

The circular had asked vice-chancellors (V-Cs)of central universities to "discourage research in irrelevant areas" in a meeting December last year.

"When Fellows are being admitted for PhDs, the topics for the thesis should be in accordance with the national priorities. Allotting privilege topics to the PhD students should be dispensed with," the minutes of the meeting read, according to The New Indian Express.

Following the circular, CUK sent notices to all its Deans and Heads of Departments ordering them to make a "shelf of projects... considering national priorities". Incoming students to CUK's doctoral program can now only choose from among the topics in this new list.

Kerala Central University professor Meena Pillai resigns protesting HRD diktat saying PhD only in national priority areas

Professor Meena T Pillai, the academic who resigned from her post in the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature, speaking at the Indian Film Festival-Kozhikode in 2016. Image courtesy: IFFK

So far, prospective PhD students have had to propose a topic for her/his thesis during a university interview after which they are grilled on the area and topic by a select interview panel including their potential thesis supervisor(s). Based on their responses, the panel either approves, rejects or amends the project. But at the end of it, doctoral students were given the freedom to pursue research in areas they wanted to on subjects they were interested in pursuing.

Prof Meena T Pillai at the University of Kerala (not the same as CUK), resigned from her post as an external member of the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature in protest of the university’s decision.

"Who decides what is relevant and irrelevant? To bring in specific classifications and categorisations in research is against the very spirit of higher education," Pillai told Express. "The moment you start deciding what areas of research one should limit oneself to, where is the academic freedom of the researcher?"

CUK University's V-C issued the circular on the Union HRD Ministry's behest. Image: Collegedunia

CUK University's V-C issued the circular on the Union HRD Ministry's behest. Image: Collegedunia

CUK issued a clarification to its earlier 13 March circular this week, saying that by "national priorities", the V-C meant research in economics, technology, food security and social issues that were useful to society. A 25-year-old student will not know what the country needs. So it is better to give him/her ideas,” he told Express.

Dr K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific advisor to the government, told The Wire that the registrar's notice could have been worded slightly (!) better to capture the spirit and purpose on this matter.

"Today’s young are sometimes in the straitjacket of the routine, doing an incremental advance on what their predecessors did," VijayRaghavan said. He suggests that "universities develop a list of broad challenges in each area. Scholars should be free to use these as possible areas from which specific questions can be developed... or develop completely new questions that they consider important."

Dr VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government at a DBT event. Image: Department of Biotechnology.

Dr VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government at a DBT event. Image: Department of Biotechnology.

The HRD Ministry's order, while still vague and ambiguous, curtails the freedom of researchers to critique, dissent and ask questions as they see best. Even more worrying than that is the fear that some students have expressed about what they think the real intent is behind the notice — curbing their voice, particularly students from marginalised communities.

"Even now, some departments have a certain level of dislike for students who are doing [studies] on Ambedkarism and Dalit issues,” a PhD scholar at Kerala University told The News Minute. "Students from social sciences stream constantly question the university and their wrong-doings. As far as we can comprehend, through this circular, the authorities do not want to take any more students who voice against them," the student added.

The order is the second big blow over the past few months to fundamental research. The first one — the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship — awarded Fellowships to students from an arbitrary selection of universities to work on projects of their (the students') own interest. The trouble with that? 130 of the 135 awardees won the Fellowship in the applied (and not fundamental) sciences.

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