Very recently, the HRD ministry organised a discussion on conducting basic and applied research in pure science, engineering, technology, social sciences, humanities and other disciplines. It was felt that these should be designed to respond to societal needs and must have a high quotient of applicability to address national challenges across sectors.

The ministry had launched two schemes and web portals in October 2018 ~ (a) Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC) ) in science and technology with IIT Kharagpur as the coordinator, and (b) Impactful Policy Research in Social Science (IMPRESS) with ICSSR as the coordinator. Funds to the tune of Rs 450 crore for project-level support in each of these two schemes were sanctioned together with preferable area/field of investigation.

This announcement immediately triggered a furious debate and there is a conundrum. A section of academics and intellectuals, who love to be regarded as “free thinkers”, cried that this policy of “imposition from above” will kill the spirit of creativity and innovation with propensity to destroy the dispassionate ambience needed for the pursuit of knowledge. The issues pertaining to the social relevance of academic research carried out in the eco-system of higher education and questions about its relevance to the needs of the nation for faster socio-economic growth hardly figured in the perception of academics, professionals, and those who frame higher education policy in India.

Even the concept of University-Industry Partnership has generally been viewed with the suspicion of interference and external control, except in institutions of engineering and technology. In India, in contrast to developed countries, there has been no clear policy guidelines on the pursuit of research goals as far as societal needs, implications of outcome for changing lives of the people and national priorities for faster economic growth are concerned. The choice of areas or fields was left to researchers depending on their attainments. Scientists in India have, therefore, often been accused of living in their ivory towers and doing research that has no immediate applicability to societal needs.

But one cannot blame the scientists alone for being self-centred or individualistic when the system itself is not designed to recognise the outcomes as tools of national development . We know that the Indian university system functions in heterogeneous conditions comprising social, linguistic, regional, economicl, locational , infrastructural and aspirational diversities prevailing across the country.

These diversities are reflected in the student and teacher composition that influences teaching and research. activity. The quality of research in India has to be examined in this complex perspective. Another dimension for the deterioration in the quality of research can be attributed to the growth of doctoral research leading to Ph.D. degrees in the university eco-system during the last few decades. PhD enrolments, as revealed by data available from the HRD ministry’s All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) are indeed a goose-bump.

The number of students admitted to Ph.D. level research programmes doubled from 77,798 in 2010-11 to1,61,412 in 2017-18. increasing at the rate by 10 oer cent per annum. The primary reason for this surge is mainly due to making Ph.D., as one of the pre-requisites for faculty positions in universities/colleges and also for career advancement. i The discipline-wise composition of Ph.D. enrolments highlight the fact that the maximum number of Ph.D. students are enrolled in Science, Engineering and Technology streams followed by Social Science/Humanities.

It is very conspicuous that the percentage of Ph.D. enrolments shows a declining trend in State Public Universities, Institutes of National Importance and Central Universities whereas it is on the rise in Private Universities and Deemed Universities. This may have a reflection on the quality of research. The Ph.D. degrees actually awarded increased at the rate of 7.26 per cent per annum during 2012-13 to 2016-17 from the base level of 23,630. There is a consensus that, barring a few exceptions, the overall quality of university and college level research in India is far from satisfactory, besides their low potential of application and patenting.

Cases of corruption and instances of Thesis for Cash have been widely reported. Indeed, in many institutions, the quality of research is alarmingly poor and even dubious. These do not conform to international standards and hardly make any significant contribution to the theoretical or applied aspects of a given discipline. The lack of qualified human resources for research guidance, poor physical infrastructure and inadequate funding could be the principal factors.

The institutional framework such as the emphasis on teaching over research, porous rules for selection and admission of Ph.D. candidates, lack of inter, multi, and trans-disciplinary culture are also serious impediments to quality research. Yet another major blow to quality comes from publication ethics and poor review culture. The mandatory requirement of publications in peerreviewed journals for award of doctoral degrees and as a matrix to evaluate the faculty performance have resulted in a proliferation of predatory journals where even peer reviewed research papers can be published at a cost of a few thousand rupees.

Indian academics have contributed 35 per cent of all articles published in various fake journals between 2010 and 2014. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has identified over 11,000 fake journals during the five-year period (2010-2015). Studies have found that from a total article volume published in predatory journals, the large share of “Research Papers” are in engineering journals, followed by those in bio-medicine and social sciences.

Plagiarism and data manipulation are issues of great concern. These damage the credibility of research emanating from our institutions. The UGC has stipulated screening of dissertations with plagiarism software before accepting their submission. Despite such centralised rules and regulations, imposed across a large and diverse higher education system, the predators have invented ways and means to circumvent regulations . Hence, it is apparent that only regulations cannot serve as a substitute for strict and vigilant internal academic processes at our institutions.

Given these diversities in which the higher educational institutions operate, the strengthening of research output requires multi-pronged strategies beginning with a bottom-up than a top-down, “one-size-fits-all” approach. The imperative must be to build up a culture of research by integrating the P.G. curricula with robust classroom pedagogy, methodology, laboratory / library project works, field surveys (in social sciences) designed to arouse intellectual curiosity among students and the drive towards developmental goals. This would necessitate thorough replacement of the present teachinglearning processes of rote learning and the inadequacies of assessment / examination by an open-ended, problem-driven learning process.

It is imperative too to break down the rigid boundaries to pave the way to inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and even trans-disciplinary research. Research and social connect should be viewed as two sides of a coin, if our Institutions are to find respectable positions in QS Global Rankings and even India Rankings now being conducted by MHRD under the NIRF Scheme. It is essential to make the community of researchers from all major streams of knowledge and various academic and regulatory entities, including the funding bodies, sensitive to the idea that the social, ethical, and legal aspects of their research activities are of emerging concerns, not only nationally but also globally.

Recently the UGC, pursuant to MHRD guidelines, constituted a committee for “Improving the Quality of Research by Faculty and Creation of New Knowledge and Strategies for Improving Research Culture in Colleges/Universities”. Based on its extensive deliberations and consultations with representatives of the academic community, the committee has only recently made important recommendations for promoting and improving the quality of research in our universities and colleges. The measures suggested need to be implemented in the short as well as long terms, while revamping the curricula and teaching methods.

(The writer is former Registrar, University of North Bengal. He can be reached at [email protected])