Much ado about nothing

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Much ado about nothing

Monday, 19 February 2018 | CB Sharma

The HRD Ministry’s fellowship scheme is lucrative but will not help it emerge as the leader in the education sector. Several issues remain to be addressed

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced a very attractive Prime Minister Fellowship scheme for 1,000 present or former BTech and MTech/MSc students of IISc, IITs, NITs and IISERs, who wish to pursue doctoral research. The research fellows will be paid a sum of Rs 70,000 for the first two years; Rs 75,000 for the third year; and Rs 80,000 for the next two years. Besides, they will also receive two lakh rupees every year as research grant to pursue research at the IITs or IISc. Union Minister for HRD claimed that this will stop brain-drain and convert it into brain-gain. Absolutely, India needed no two opinions to announce a big-ticket fellowship to emerge as the big brother in education sector but a number of issues seem to emerge from this decision.

The fellowship is very lucrative, compared to the present schemes within the country, not globally. Indian students will still aspire to get a commonwealth scholarship or go to work in the US or the UK as returns will be much higher, both in terms of quality of life abroad and also the quality of institutions and research culture in the destination institutions. Researchers travel abroad to work under renowned scholars and decorated professors. Supervisors, who are able to attract scholars from abroad, must also be suitably remunerated. This is a standard practice in leading universities. The fellowship will not be able to dissuade graduates from migrating to developed nations because of the hefty amount, as per our standards, of the fellowship. Commonwealth scholarship pays half the scholarship amount to the spouse and 10 per cent of the scholarship amount for each of the children. The Prime Minister Fellowship scheme does not have any such provision. So, those who are looking for jobs abroad, will not really change their decision because of the handsome amount and those wishing to return home will not be attracted by this amount. Therefore, is the fellowship destined to promote mediocrityIJ

The idea that only science is important and research in sciences needs to be promoted is erroneous. We often make policies on immediate concerns which are not sustainable in the long-term. Soon after independence, we put all our resources into higher education and engineering. It was only after 40 years that we realised that most deserving children drop out during primary education because of lack of quality elementary education. Since Jomtien, we completely switched our focus on elementary education and let the higher education dry up. Now, the focus seems to be on research in engineering and technology. Social sciences may not look so return-oriented but they have the capacity to change the culture through one solid argument or theory. Research funding only to engineering students cannot be justified. let's not be oblivious to the fact that a large number of social scientists from the london School of Economics and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of london, come from India. The Ashoka University, Sonipat, has already set standards and is disseminating ideas which are getting currency.

One view is that the fellowship should have been opened only for the citizens of neighbouring South Asian and Asean countries, for whom this would have been a very attractive scheme, but not for the Indian ‘genius' that the fellowship aspires to retain. We could have got the best brains from the neighbouring friendly countries and returning scholars would have become our ambassadors, just as our foreign educated Indian scholars are of the fellowship awarding countries. This has been a major factor behind awarding scholarship.

One of the attractions of fellowships is the quality of life in the best research institutions. We need to look at the hostels and the facilities they provide to research students. Our university hostels, even in the best of our institutions, are nowhere comparable to the hostels in the US, the UK or other developed countries. Research students are not expected to be bachelors so, the stay facilities need to be for the family. Also, support facilities like the recreation centers of our universities are just not comparable to facilities in good universities abroad. It is much more desirable that such facilities be created and more than that, they need to be maintained. Even the facilities created are ill-managed. The Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs prefers to create sports facilities outside academic institutions whereas the youth is expected to be on these campuses. Ministries do not look eye-to-eye in deciding on schemes and spending.

last but not the least, our campuses are constantly under turmoil on one pretext or the other. The chief executive is not able to command respect as most heads of institutions are seen as undeserving political choice. We need to repose the respect in the office of the vice-chancellor, failing which, no fellowship will be able to reverse

brain-drain and will also not be able to make such schemes fruitful.

While the decision is welcome but it will definitely not serve the purpose the Minister claims. Instead, we need to spend on research labs, on supervisors and infrastructure. Graduates aspire to work under a decorated supervisor and not just for scholarship because only those who know the importance of sitting at the foot of the learned decide to pursue research as a career. Simultaneously, research schemes and facilities to research supervisors must be reviewed. Everybody likes to spend in buildings and procurements but no one likes to maintain the infrastructure created. But congratulations anyways to the HRD Minister for showing the concern about research after decades of neglect.

(The author is Professor of Education at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal)

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