By Rohit Kumar
Under the Twelfth Plan, the government "strives to diversify higher education opportunities, not only to meet the needs of employers, but also to offer a wide range of paths to success for our youth."
Scholarship endowments most certainly have a necessary role to play in this attempt. In addition, scholarships/fellowships are crucial assistance to students who otherwise would find it extremely difficult to pursue further studies. These students go on to become the populace that influences our tomorrow.
Investing in studentsâ€™ education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels is investing for a brighter tomorrow.
It goes without saying students/researchers should be held accountable for assistance(s) they receive, however, scholarship/fellowship endowments, too, should be in consistence with rising costs and cater to the increased demand of quality education.
Granting fellowships/scholarships is not just about sponsoring a student to pursue education. It is sponsoring the capacity building of the society.
It is sponsoring upward social mobility of the disadvantaged. It is sponsoring the growth and development of human-capital. It is sponsoring specialisations, both in terms of quality and quantity, to meet the growing needs of the nation. It is sponsoring knowledge itself.
While financial assistance does enrich the lives of young aspiring minds, it also fuels innovation and socio-economic growth of the society at the same time.
In governmentâ€™s own words, "In order to achieve and maintain high growth rate of the economy, it is essential to broaden the base of the system of higher education in the country and simultaneously ensure maintenance of requisite standards." (Lok Sabha Starred Q. No 228 answered on 05-08-2015).
However, the state of research in the country remains abysmal.
According to UGCâ€™s annual report, the overall enrolment in all courses and levels in regular streams for the academic year 2013-2014 was 237.65 lakhs, including 105.52 lakhs (44.40%) female students. Of this, a miniscule 0.85% of students were enrolled in research degrees.
In a country where overall research infrastructure is inadequate and lags decades behind global standards, scrapping fellowships would only discourage and dis-incentivise students from engaging themselves into research work.
In effect, the government should increase the total number as well as amount of scholarships, across various schemes, to magnetise the best and the brightest from varied disciplines of study towards research work.
In doing so, the government would be creating an enabling atmosphere in higher educational institutions for individuals to be able to devote themselves to research and innovations crucial to the overall growth of the nation.
A human mind is equipped with the ability of logical thinking. However, "critical thinking" requires training, which in turn, requires an enabling environment, peace of mind, and fewer financial concerns. While research degrees (M.Phil, Ph.D etc.) are imperative towards this training, fellowships/scholarships provide researchers with the much needed breathing space to carry out their research.
More often than not, the researches produced in the process are a significant addition to the curve of critical knowledge generation, and contribute towards formulating decisive policy recommendations.
A crucial aspect of providing fellowships, which often goes unnoticed, is it endows parents with the opportunity to provide for quality education to their younger child(ren), knowing their older onesâ€™ needs are well taken care of.
In a very subtle way, this creates a chain reaction which only aids the government in its attempt to percolate quality education to the wider section of the society.
Coming to the recent controversy around University Grants Commissionâ€™s (UGC) decision to scrap non-National Eligibility Test (NET) Fellowship, the very nomenclature of this scheme is erroneous.
It has nothing to do with the NET exam.
Researchers enrolled in M.phil and Ph.D degrees at central universities universally receive financial assistance of Rs. 5,000 and 8,000 per month, respectively under this scheme. It should also be noted the fellowship is awarded only to those scholars who are not in receipt of any other financial assistance from any other source, and the same discontinues as soon as they qualify for/obtain some form of financial assistance. Calling it University Research Fellowship would rather do justice to its universal nature and rationale.
Additionally, discontinuing fellowships goes against the very policy of the current government, which promised increasing public spending on education from 4% of the gross domestic product to 6%. In doing so, the government would make education further inaccessible to a number of students, especially for female and economically disadvantaged candidates. Besides, the government would risk losing support of a large population.
Additionally, such decisions would not be in harmony with governmentâ€™s earlier decisions to increase, to the tunes of 55%, the fellowship/scholarship endowments under 14 different schemes, and bring OBC researchers under the ambit of Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship.
The debate and discussions surrounding fellowships should not end now that the Ministry of Human Resource Development has decided to constitute a review committee to look into the issues related to research fellowships provided by the UGC, and assured that "all existing fellowship, NET as well as Non-NET, would be continued."
On the contrary, the opportunity should be used to address the larger issue of improving research infrastructure in the country, and to engage in a wider debate regarding research as a viable career option and employment opportunities post research degrees.
Rohit Kumar is a Junior Research Fellow and M.Phil candidate at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.