The story so far: The University Grants Commission (UGC) has made sweeping changes in its latest regulations governing the award of PhDs. Important changes such as abolishing of MPhils, relaxing course work for obtaining PhDs and allowing candidates to register for a PhD after finishing four years of a graduation programme, have been seen as steps that could lead to diminishing academic rigour as well as impediments to inclusivity in higher education.
The UGC on November 7, 2022 notified the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of PhD Degree) Regulations, 2022. One of the notable changes it made was to the evaluation and assessment criteria for the award of the degree, where it has waived the need to mandatorily publish a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal. This is accompanied by completely abolishing MPhil, which has been a gateway for PhD programmes, in line with the recommendation in the National Education Policy 2020. The eligibility criteria for admissions too have been revised, and a candidate can register after completing a one-year (or two semester) master’s degree programme after a four-year (or 8-semester) bachelor’s degree programme or a two-year (or four-semester) master’s degree programme after a three-year bachelor’s degree programme with at least 55% marks or its equivalent grade.
There are also important changes to course work. Earlier, the description of course work candidates needed to finish was more detailed, with at least four credits assigned to courses on research methodology. Candidates were also required to finish this either in the first semester, or by the second semester. Only candidates who were awarded MPhil or had completed their MPhil were exempted. But the new regulations leave it more open ended and says that all PhD scholars “shall be required to train in teaching/ education/ pedagogy/ writing related to their chosen PhD subject.” They can also now be assigned 4-6 hours per week of teaching/research assistantship for conducting tutorial, or laboratory work and evaluations.
The UGC now also allows part-time PhDs, a practice that was disallowed under the 2009 and 2016 regulations.
PhD scholars will be required to undertake research work after completing their course work, make a presentation and produce a draft dissertation or thesis. If the evaluation of the submission is satisfactory, the candidate will have to defend the thesis in a public viva voce. They will not have to publish a research paper in refereed journal and make two paper presentations in conferences or seminars before submitting the thesis. The Chairman of UGC M. Jagadesh Kumar says that while publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal is not mandatory anymore in order to curb unethical practices such as pay-to-publish or plagiarism, students should be motivated and trained to publish in peer-reviewed journals and present at conferences. He says that a one-size-fits-all approach is not desirable as doctorals in computer science prefer presenting their papers at conferences rather than publishing them in journals. Former UGC Chairman and Ambedkarite, Sukhdaeo Thorat, welcomed the move to discontinue publishing papers in journals as it would often lead poor candidates to pay to get published like their peers, as well as put them at a disadvantage as they wouldn’t have contacts to get published. However, Jamia Milia Islamia Professor Furqan Qamar says that while these concerns are valid, there is a need to provide enhanced and cost-effective opportunities to the researcher to publish as there is a limited availability of quality journals but far more researchers. He cites from the Scopus database of scientific publications for 2020 to point out that India accounted for only 4.52% of total research papers in the world though it accounts for 12% of the global faculty pool.
Experts like Professor Thorat say that discontinuing MPhils, along with the introduction of four-year BA course and 2-year MA course with multiple exits will hurt socially disadvantaged groups who may not be able to pay for longer-duration courses and may have to exit earlier, which will put them at a disadvantage in the job market. He adds that while a four-year Bachelors course will allow some students to pursue Masters abroad without studying for one more year, others will be discriminated against. Though UGC says the move is intended to attract younger students for research.
There are also concerns over diminishing scholarships and fellowships to support PhD scholars as well as severe shortage of teachers, impacting the number of research supervisors available.
“Until the 2009 regulations were notified, the award of PhDs, their evaluation, course-work was not regulated. Part-time PhDs were also widely prevalent. In 2016, these were strengthened and publishing a paper in peer-reviewed journals was made mandatory. However, the changes being brought in the latest regulations take us back to the pre-2009 era,” says Professor Qamar.