There was a time when India used to pride itself on having the third largest pool of scientific and technical manpower in the world. What was never made clear, however, was the quality of the people who comprised this pool, and whether all the people in the pool were working in areas relevant to their education. On the issue of quality, the globally accepted yardstick is the number of doctorates or PhDs (research degrees obtained for advancing the body of human knowledge) that a country can produce. It now seems that India is not only slipping on its primary education programme, it is also falling far behind the rest of the world in the area of PhDs. As in the case of the defence services, in the area of post-graduate research also, the reward-to-effort ratio has become so unfavourable that perhaps only one in a thousand students who finish their masters degrees choose to pursue a doctorate. As a story carried in this newspaper recently showed, salaries in the corporate sector have risen so much and so rapidly that there has been a sharp and rapid decline in the number of candidates applying for research programmes that lead to the awarding of degrees. This inevitably leads to the unspoken conclusion that, with only a few exceptions, it is only those who are otherwise unemployable who opt for PhD programmes. This is perfectly rational behaviour, about which one cannot complain.
It would be comforting to be told that this decline in the number of students registering in PhD programmes is confined to the social sciences. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a similar decline in virtually every area, including in the pure sciences, engineering, medicine, law and so on. The short point is that research, at least as conducted in the universities, is not worth the candle. Since this has been the case for close to two decades, a situation has been reached where (once again, barring a few exceptions) even the quality of research supervisors has become suspect. Indeed, university administrations have begun to relax standards to such an extent that there are some universities in India which blindly issue PhD degrees — so much so that a degree can be purchased, readymade, for as little as Rs 25,000.
So India is caught in a double whammy: While the number of genuine or worthwhile PhDs is declining, the number of fake or useless ones may well be increasing.
In purely economic terms, what this amounts to is an emerging crisis in the supply of qualified personnel to man higher education in India. That this is happening just when a concerted effort is being made to expand the number of seats in specialised universities means that, eventually, even the quality of those receiving degrees, whether under-graduate or post-graduate, will also decline. It can be argued that too much emphasis should not be laid on PhDs, and that it is more important for the country to have good post-graduate programmes and for that matter primary education, but the fact remains that if anyone has to ensure good university education, he will find the task impossible without a set of qualified faculty who have good doctoral degrees.
One option might be to try and bring back to the country some of the thousands of students who have gone overseas for research degrees, but no such effort will succeed without improving the academic environment in India’s universities, and offering proper emoluments that may not compare with what is offered by universities overseas but still afford a minimum acceptable quality of life.
6 months ago