Delayed fellowships, low budgets, lack of support making PhD scholars lose interest

UGC-NET JRF-holders are few. Most PhD scholars rely on Rs 8,000 non-NET fellowships or stipends, deal with resource shortage, discrimination.

Research scholars complained about irregularities in disbursement of fellowships, budget cuts for libraries and infrastructure issues. (Image: X/iitbfeehike)Research scholars complained about irregularities in disbursement of fellowships, budget cuts for libraries and infrastructure issues. (Image: X/iitbfeehike)

Sanjay | March 27, 2024 | 01:10 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Feroz Alam is “compelled” to freelance as a proofreader for a private company to continue his research at University of Delhi (DU). From Bihar’s Champaran district, Alam is enrolled in PhD at DU’s history department. He receives a paltry Rs 8,000 per month as “non-NET fellowship” – a stipend given to research scholars that isn’t through the National Eligibility Test (NET). This has affected his research on labour and migration in Indian history.

“I cannot ask for money from my parents at this age to fund my education. I am forced to do freelance jobs to support myself,” he said. Most of his stipend goes into paying rent as Alam did not get a hostel accommodation. “I am unable to purchase books and journals and I fear this may impact my research work. Food, transport, rental charges and other costs are rising but the government is not increasing the non-NET fellowship amount,” he said.

The non-NET fellowships were introduced in 2006 and fetched PhD scholars Rs 5,000 per month. It was later raised to Rs 8,000 in 2012 and has remained unchanged.

Research scholars across state and central government-run universities complained about irregularities in disbursement of fellowships, budget cuts for libraries and infrastructure issues. They also complained about discrimination in PhD admissions and malpractices in publications for appointment in higher education institutions. Professors countered saying there is lack of seriousness and motivation among students.


Currently, PhD admissions do not follow the same criteria across universities. Candidates who qualify the University Grants Commission (UGC)’s National Eligibility Test are admitted on the basis of personal interviews.

In November 2022, the UGC discontinued the research preparatory degree programme, MPhil, following the recommendations of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. In December 2023, it again asked universities to stop admitting to MPhil. As per the revised PhD eligibility criteria, students with a four-year undergraduate degree with a minimum of 75% marks or equivalent grade will be eligible for PhD.

The National Testing Agency (NTA) conducts the NET twice a year to select candidates for ‘assistant professor’ posts in Indian colleges and universities as well as the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) which fetches Rs 37,000 per month.

A total of 9,45,872 candidates registered for the last UGC-NET held in December 2023. Of them, 6,95,928 appeared and 58,794 qualified out of whom only 5,032 were shortlisted for both assistant professor posts and the JRF. Of the 6,988 candidates who qualified the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) UGC-NET exam in December 2023, 1,932 secured JRF.

Scholars from the historically-marginalised Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are also eligible for scholarships specifically earmarked for these groups.

Without the JRF, Indian research scholars rely on the non-NET fellowship of Rs 8,000 per month, unchanged over the last 11 years. These are given to researchers who clear the UGC-NET or the university’s entrance exam for PhD. A total of 15,397 PhD scholars in 40 central universities were granted non-net fellowships during the 2022-23 academic session, according to UGC.

In November, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor urged the government to consider a stipend hike of non-NET research fellows, asserting that their contributions are pivotal to advancing the country’s development.

Also read After NEP 2020, scholarship and research fellowship funds declined by over Rs 1,500 crore

Not enough resources

The NEP 2020 identifies the “lesser emphasis on research at most universities and colleges, and lack of competitive peer-reviewed research funding across disciplines” as a major problem in higher education. It also suggests several measures, including infrastructure improvement, streamlining of funding and other, to improve the situation. But researchers are still struggling.

Nilotpal Kant, third-year researcher at School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is studying migration in the US. He gets Rs 37,000 per month as holder of a National Fellowship for OBC (NF-OBC). “Because of irregular disbursements of fellowships, our fieldwork gets affected. If an Indian researcher visits Nepal and another, the US, UGC pays both the same amount. However, the costs vary widely and I want that research funding be based on topics and research areas,” he said.

Kant also complained that the libraries of most central universities, including JNU, do not have subscriptions of reputed and high-quality national and international journals. “We do not have access to quality data because we cannot afford to purchase it. We are forced to use second-hand information and data. Because of UGC’s budget cuts, libraries are unable to get subscriptions,” he said.

A research student working on health communication in the central Mizoram University, said: “Because of poor connectivity via roads, a researcher spends more on fieldwork here. Compared to other universities, researchers here are not trained by university officials well. We are also lacking the facilities of accessing quality databases and lab journals [and] have limited workshops and seminars.”

This problem stretches across institutions and, naturally, beyond central universities – usually the most well-resourced.

Dharmanshu Dhakad, studying representation of castes and communities in political parties at Jiwaji University, Gwalior, struggles to access libraries and data.

Many universities’ systems of managing research create further problems. “Research scholars are allotted different colleges as research centres. This creates a problem in interacting and connecting with each other. We lack debates and discussions among each other which are important,” said Dhakad.

Ashwini Kumari, a researcher at the state-run Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University, Maharashtra, secured provisional admission in research last year but her Research and Recognition Committee (RRC) process is going on.

“After the approval of RRC, I will be registered as a research scholar and start getting a state government fellowship of Rs 37,000 per month from this year,” said Kumari who has been forced to fund her research for one year because of the delay.

PhD admissions: Discrimination, exploitation

Students from marginalised communities allege discriminatory marking in interviews during PhD admissions and exploitation by supervisors who force them to do personal work. Student groups have obtained data through Right to Information applications that hint at a worrying trend of denying seats to candidates from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds.

“Sometimes, supervisors also do not take our work seriously and hence we lack good mentorship. We are also being asked to do invigilation and clerical work assigned to our supervisors. If we refuse, they create hurdles in our research funding,” Dhakad said.

“The discrimination is intended to ensure that OBC, SC, ST students do not occupy general category seats by scoring high marks. Last year, Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) filed an RTI and found that the faculties in the interview panel awarded zero marks to several SC, ST, OBC candidates. Several such students are not assigned supervisors even after three years of registration in PhD courses,” said Ganeshwar, third-year PhD student in the political science department of Hyderabad Central University (HCU).

HCU admission to all the PhD programmes are based on the performance in a written test and interview from which only JRF candidates are exempt.

N Sukumar, professor at DU’s department of political science, said: “Students are forced to do work in their [supervisors’] homes and if they refuse, their supervisors do not sign scholarship and fellowship forms. If a student is vocal about wrongdoings, their papers will not be accepted.”

Also read Bahujan Lives Matter: Strike against low stipend, SC fund 'scam'; ASA makes 16 demands

UGC norms on plagiarism, quality

UGC regulations mandate a point-based system for faculty recruitment and research publications in peer-reviewed journals carry a large chunk of points.

To maintain research integrity, the UGC PhD regulations direct institutions to use “well-developed software” applications to detect plagiarism. In 2018, the ministry of education had notified stringent measures to counter this long-standing problem with research theses. Despite this, problems persist and the rot goes deep.

“In several Indian universities, there are professors and vice-chancellors whose research papers are plagiarised. Research proposals of many students are heavily plagiarised too. It is a nexus of journals, research students and academia. Based on publications of papers in journals, appointments and promotions in academia are happening. There are several UGC-approved journals whose quality is not at par with reputed journals,” said Sukumar.

Provakar Palaka, assistant professor at DU’s Swami Shraddhanand College who is supervising a research student in the university’s English department believes that a major reason behind India’s low-quality research is that research studies have “become a formality” for many students pursuing an academic career, secured through power connections within institution of higher education.

“These days, many students are opting to do research at many universities without any seriousness. I come across so many research papers and I hardly find depth in any but students keep producing papers in journals. I am guiding a PhD scholar. She is a JRF-holder and is seriously pursuing research. I think fellowships and scholarships really motivate people,” he said.

India had 2,273 scientists in Stanford University’s 2022 list of top two percent most cited scientists in the world. China had 7,795.

Sukumar argued that it is unemployment that forces students to pursue research rather than real interest. “Five-six years ago, students used to get some kind of job after completing their masters course, but now there is a deep crisis of employment in India. Now, students think if they are not getting a job, they should enrol in PhD after getting fellowships. We get around 600 applications for 40 PhD seats. Several students with political connections inside the university are occupying PhD seats and the quality of research is degrading,” he said.

Also read Karnataka launches scheme offering unemployment stipend to graduates, diploma holders

Reform, funding in research

Only about 35% of India’s scientific research publications is open-access, even though a large chunk of the research itself is public-funded, an analysis of research data by a team at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has found. It has also found that less than a third of Indian research papers have women as lead authors.

Amidst the lack of access to journals by research scholars, the central government is working on the “One Nation One Subscription” (ONOS) initiative to acquire national licences for e-journal and database subscriptions from most of the prominent STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and social sciences publishers and database providers.

To streamline funding and following an NEP recommendation, the government has established the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (ANRF). The ANRF Act came into force on February 5, 2024. It will serve as an apex guiding body on research across industry and academia and also marshall funds from public and private sources. It aims to have an initial corpus of Rs 50,000 crore with Rs 36,000 crore of it projected to come from the private sector.

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