The University Grants Commission (UGC) has been witnessing huge protests by students, mostly belonging to Left parties, who have been demanding a categorical assurance from the government that the Non-National Eligibility Test (NET) fellowship scheme shall not be discontinued and the allowances would be enhanced, given the high inflation. The agitation has taken a political turn and various political groups are using the issue to score brownie points over one another. The Human Resources Development Ministry, apparently under pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), has already stayed the implementation of the UGC decision to scrap the Non Net fellowship scheme despite the fact that it currently did not affect any candidate deriving benefit from it. The Ministry has also appointed a five-member Review Committee to go into the merits of both the NET fellowships and Non-NET fellowships and submit their recommendations by December to enable the government to take a considered view on the subject. However, the Left parties and their student wings are least impressed and have declared that the protests would continue till the Review Committee gives its report and once the ministry continues with the status quo.
The NET scheme was formulated in 1994 to assess the aptitude of candidates and their eligibility for teaching and research assignments in the chosen area of study. The non-NET Fellowship was introduced in 2006 and is open only for Central universities and 11 state universities known as Universities with Potential for Excellence (UPE). Thus it is available only in 50 universities. Currently, about 35,000 students are availing the benefits. If the HRD grapevine is to be believed, the non-NET fellowship was introduced because the son of a senior functionary at that time could not clear the NET fellowship programme. The scheme, as per the UGC interpretation, is viewed as some kind of unemployment allowance given indiscriminately to all without proper quality screening.
It is comprehended in government circles that the object of quality research was not being fulfilled through the scheme even though the expenditure has been rising. The argument going around also is that how can a candidate who fails to clear NET can be deemed suitable for teaching and research despite the fact that the NET is held bi-annually. A pertinent point to be made here is that the final year students of the Master’s programme are also eligible.
In the opinion of senior functionaries of the ministry, there has been a clamouring rush for PhD registrations in select universities on repetitive and insignificant topics during the last decade since the Non-Net fellowships were implemented, contributing little to the sphere of knowledge in any specific stream. The scheme became counter-productive as it attracted students with average academic record to enrol in research just for the purpose of availing the scholarship till they could find a suitable job.
The point made by the UGC is that the university authorities faced immense problems in monitoring admissions for research. Student bodies pressurised the university administration to maximise admissions (one teacher can guide a maximum of a dozen students for MPhil and PhD programmes) in research. In most cases, the administration succumbed to these pressures and allotted research students to even newly recruited or temporary lecturers who lack the insight and competence to supervise quality research work.
It is further argued that the Non-NET scheme is being run on reimbursement basis, without any UGC control on quality for students or outcomes in comparison to the NET fellowships, where an all India test for Junior Research Fellows ensures quality and equality of standards. In this case, universities were using their own screening procedures, which hugely vary from university to university in terms of both quality and efficiency. Moreover, since the amount for non-NET fellowships is reimbursed to select universities, it cannot be run on Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) mode, which is against the current policy.
Another financial argument is that the UGC incurred an expenditure of Rs 99.16 crore in 2014-15 and that too only in 39 Central universities. Once 16 new Central universities operationalise their 20 departments, this expenditure would rise to about Rs 200 crore. And, with the proposed hike of 55% and increase in a number of beneficiaries, it is going to cost 15-20% of the Plan budget of the Central universities, thus curtailing their development activities.
However, the government should not lose sight of the fact that in the absence of jobs, the amount allocated to some of the Non-NET fellows is used to sustain their academic life. At the same time, the standard of research should not be compromised in any manner and the emphasis should be only on merit and excellence. There cannot be differential policies for research so why two streams—NET and Non-NET? The NET seats can be increased. Unlike universities in the West, our universities have not produced Nobel Laureates and pioneers in research. Even the term “NET fellowship” is very misleading and the government must seriously consider changing its nomenclature to National Research Eligibility Test (NRET), thereby clarifying its objective. The students who are agitating are not affected by any decision, so they should negotiate with an open mind, without bringing in politics. Between us.