Today's Editorial

05 November 2016

Regulating research



Source: By Paromita Ghosh: The Statesman



The University Grants Commission has notified its regulations regarding minimum standards and procedures for the award of M.Phil and Ph.D. degrees in the Gazette of India dated 5 July 2016. Institutions of higher learning are examining the document and trying to devise the modalities of implementation. There are several provisions in the regulations which will help researchers. For instance, women researchers will be allowed 240 days of maternity or child-care leave and transfer of their research across universities. Course work was introduced in the M.Phil and Ph.D. programmes a couple of years back and the same is expected to be streamlined with the latest regulations. This is welcome because coursework prepares candidates for conducting research.


Archiving soft copies of M.Phil and Ph.D. thesis on the internet was also started a few years back; the current regulations recommend continuation of the practice. The database thus generated will help investigators to review the dissertations. Moreover, it will help check plagiarism.


But a few features of the regulations have left the academic circuit in a quandary. Stringent measures have been recommended to improve the quality of research. M.Phil and Ph.D aspirants will have to appear for an entrance test. Half of the questions will assess the candidate’s grasp over methodology and the other half will evaluate one’s knowledge of the subject.  Those candidates who secure at least 50 per cent in the test will be called for interview, where they will be asked to discuss their research proposal. Also to be assessed is their potential to undertake the proposed research. Selected candidates would be enrolled for M.Phil. or Ph.D programmes. After enrolment, research students will have to engage in coursework and qualify.  The evaluation of the researcher’s performance in the coursework will be monitored not only by the department, but also by the institution’s research advisory committee.


The new regulations stipulate that researchers will have to present six-monthly reports on their progress to the Advisory Committee for assessment.  In a word, researchers will have to be on their toes. Before submitting the thesis, researchers will have to discuss the highlights of their investigation in a seminar attended by members of the Research Advisory Committee, other faculty members, and research students.  The suggestions of these experts are expected to be incorporated by the researcher in the thesis. Satisfactory performance by the researcher in defence of the investigation will facilitate submission of the thesis. Of course, the pre-submission seminar is nothing new, but the continuation of a rational exercise.


Besides, the researchers will have to fulfil certain other conditions before they are permitted to submit their thesis. M.Phil candidates will have to produce evidence that they had presented at least one research paper at a conference or seminar. Aspirants for Ph.D. will have to testify that they have published at least one research paper in an academic journal of repute, and have presented at least two research papers in conferences or seminars. Evaluation of the Ph.D. thesis would be done by the research supervisor and two examiners belonging to institutions other than the one to which the researcher belongs. One of the two external examiners might be from abroad. If the external examiners find the thesis satisfactory and recommend the conduct of viva-voce, the researcher would be permitted to face the viva in an open forum. This examination has to be conducted by the research supervisor and another examiner who does not belong to the same institution as the researcher. In the viva-voce, the researcher would be asked questions based on critiques of the investigation. It will be attended by members of the research advisory committee, other faculty members, research students and experts.


After meeting these challenges the researcher is awarded the M.Phil or Ph.D. degree. These regulations are desirable as the aim is to ensure diligence of researchers and improve the quality of research. But the quality of guided research does not depend wholly on the performance of researchers. The role of research supervisors is crucial. The regulations notified by the UGC seem to falter on that score.


According to the regulatory authority, a full-time regular teacher of a recognised university or academic institution can supervise M.Phil/ Ph.D research. This in effect excludes retired teachers from research guidance.  Why should a seasoned research guide, who has phenomenal knowledge and is in good health, be debarred from supervising the work of M.Phil or Ph.D. students? The UGC must reflect on this decision. Retired academics with proven track record of research and physical fitness are in a position to devote more time to research guidance than those in service. Ignoring this pool of talent would be detrimental to the cause of learning in the larger perspective. The  UGC has declared that apart from universities or institutions of higher learning, colleges with post-graduate departments and research laboratories of the central or state government could also run M.Phil and Ph.D programmes provided they have at least two teachers or scientists with Ph.D. degrees. The UGC needs to specify whether only academics engaged in post-graduate teaching and research will be entitled to guide M.Phil and Ph.D research. This loophole in the notification needs irgently to be addressed.


Moreover, the UGC has stipulated that Professors or Assistant Professors with Ph.D degree and credited with at least two research publications could serve as research supervisors. These requirements can be met very easily. The UGC must raise the bar to ensure excellence in research guidance. Otherwise, inept guides will flood the higher education segment. To enhance promotion prospects, they will be anxious to increase scores in terms of academic performance indicators. The high quality and rigorous process of research, which the UGC is aiming at, will not attain fruition if research supervisors lack expertise.  The academic careers of many researchers would be ruined if they are not supported suitably by supervisors who are themselves active in research. Just as the UGC wants researchers to work hard, it should ensure that guides are equally committed. A mechanism to evaluate roles of the guides must be in place.

The UGC’s ambitious endeavour to nurture excellence in guided research will fail if guides do not serve as path-finders and role models they ought to be. Research supervision is both a science and an art. Instead of handing over the responsibility of guiding research to individuals who lack the wherewithal to do so, the UGC must allow them time to prepare. More publications, more paper presentations, and more projects will obviously figure prominently in the preparation. Besides, hands-on training by veteran research guides would be useful. Orientation and refresher courses should include modules pertaining to research supervision. Novices could begin by guiding M. Phil. students and later graduate to supervision of Ph.D candidates in collaboration with other guides. Only when the reasonably elevated benchmarks are attained by academics, should they be allowed to guide Ph.D. candidates independently. If the UGC realises the lopsided nature of its regulations and initiates a course-correction, can we expect research work that is marked by brilliance and scholarly rigour?