By Arjun Jayakumar
In this op-ed, Arjun writes about the accommodation crisis currently being faced by our institute’s research scholars.
To everyone’s surprise, towards the middle of September, the Research Affairs Secretary sent an email to the mailing list of MS and PhD students which read “The committee comprising of HoDs, Deans and Director has come up with a new policy that states as follows: To provide hostel accommodation only on twin sharing basis for the M.S and Ph.D scholars who stay beyond 3 years and 5 years respectively”. This came as a real shock for the research scholars. Why are they doing it? Is it a kind of punitive action? Why only scholars? What about professors? So does that mean scholars are having a sweet time in campus with the hostel facility and are not contributing to research? Are there two grades among scholars: the ones who finish within the stipend period and the ones who exceed it?
These were the kind of questions that ran through the minds of scholars. There were internal discussions in student groups, department mailing lists, and so on. More than the decision, what I was able to observe in the scholars was the anger towards the authoritarian way of decision making by the administration, as always. Many of the scholars were emotionally moved and there was a cry for having a protest. After repeated meetings with the administration by the RAS and scholars, it was decided that there will not be an immediate implementation of the policy, even though it still stays as a policy.
It is now time to sit back and attempt an analysis of this problem.
How does a PhD work?
For most scholars, research life only starts once they are done with the mandatory comprehensive viva exams, which usually happens after one year of admission. In some departments, it is almost obligatory to attend viva exams twice, which will consume another six months. After compre, you are expected to jump into the sea of research, a sea of uncertainty where you have to learn to swim alone and where your research guide may or may not act as a compass. So one thing about PhD is that it is highly uncertain and highly unpredictable. The scenario with MS is also not very different. A lot depends on the problem you choose or are forced/obligated to choose, the facilities available in your lab and institute, the availability of funds and of course, the major deciding factor: your guide. Sometimes you have to change the problem you are working on, sometimes you may have to even change your guide. Even a single small mishap can delay your research by months. If your imported instrument has broken down, well, even God will be helpless. A PhD is a multitude of uncertainties and unpredictability. So, there is also a luck factor in finishing your PhD within the planned time.
These are not new things; research has been always like this. In fact it would be strange if our HoDs, Deans and Director don’t know about this. Maybe they should watch the PhD movie or subscribe to PhD comics. The life of PhD students has proved a hit in Pod,da and in the T5E comic series Abnormal Distribution!
Some statistics and problems
As per an RTI filed towards the end of September 2016 (reproduced at the end of this section- see below), 226 MS scholars who have joined in Jul-Nov batch of 2013 are yet to graduate. These 226 scholars constitute over 70% of the scholars admitted for the MS programme in both July 2013 and Jan 2014. This percentage goes up if we consider the July 2013 batch alone. Also, a considerable number of students would have converted to the doctoral programme. The RTI also shows that while 172 PhD scholars joined IIT Madras in 2010 and 2011 combined, 97 of the 2010 batch of PhD scholars are yet to graduate and are currently in their seventh year of PhD – a large proportion by any account.
Married scholars who are not receiving fellowships are now being asked to vacate their quarters and new allotees are forced to sign an affidavit agreeing to the same. The implementation of the current policy even on PhD scholars who have completed six years and MS scholars who have completed three and half years will effect a minimum of 300 scholars. This means that more than 50% of scholars will be affected by the policy during their stay in the campus.
Now, the common response may be that the delay in obtaining degrees is the fault of the scholars in question. However, it is clear from the figures that this delay cannot be brushed aside by placing the entire brunt of the delay on the scholars themselves. This is because a large proportion of the problem lies in the procedural and bureaucratic delays involved and this is where the solutions to the problem must start from. For example, in most cases of purchase from vendors outside Chennai, the shipment of the product or fabrication of the same will start only when the vendors get full or advance payment. A delay of five to six months in payment is common in most departments, therefore purchasing alone can carve out a solid amount of time from your research period, leading to days of futility.
Things turn even worse if you are making your purchases from abroad. Giving fabrication work to central workshop is one of the greatest nightmares for scholars, and delays are assured. (In reality, some of the workshops are about to shut down due to lack of permanent staff). In some departments, infrastructure and the facilities are so poor that the students have to wait for many days and sometimes months to get a single measurement slot. In addition to this, a few central facilities are now open for industries and outsiders on a payment basis, which limits their access to IITM students. Many scholars send their samples abroad to get the measurements done because of the scarcity of the facilities here or due to limited accessibility.
Coming to the institute faculty, a large number of professors have enormous workloads including considerable administrative duties. There are many professors who are guiding over 20 scholars each in addition to undergraduate and postgraduate projects and consultancy projects. As per a government report annexure on the quality of teaching in government institutions, there is a shortage of 33% with respect to IITM faculty. When things are this bad in the institute, it is more than unfair to penalize (only) scholars.
“Nothing happens in isolation, that everything in universe is interrelated”. Even though Madeleine L’Engle said this about interconnectedness, in the context of science, I think it is quite applicable to the events happening around us. The 50th IIT council meeting held on August 2016 concluded in a decision to increase the intake of students across IITs from the current 72,000 to to 1,00,000, which means an increase of around 39%. This increase in intake will be applicable for undergraduate, postgraduate and research programmes.
Another piece of news that can be read in connection with this is the opening up of both JEE and GATE for foreign students from eight countries starting in 2017, for which 10% supernumerary seats have to be created. Our director has prepared a comprehensive system to attract foreign students. It seems that IIT directors are desperate to place Indian institutions in top 100 rankings, where IITM is currently occupies the position of 249 according to the QS world rankings. One of the indicators where we score zero points is the number of international students, which is considered a serious one by the IIT council.
Why is it relevant to break into the top 100 by investing in the parameters set by an external agency? IIT as a name is already recognized by the world. Increasing the intake of foreign students may be an easy way to go up in ranks but it seems that the underlying problems which restrict research in IIT are mostly left unaddressed in the IIT council meetings. It also leaves an open question of whether India is done with the nation-building process for which IITs were established. This being the case, administration will have to boost up the infrastructure facilities including hostel seats. Considering the funding and other restrictions on IITM, the building of new hostels is almost impossible and the easy way to get through this is to make students share rooms. The increase in intake without improving facilities and opening of institute resources on a payment basis are all in line with achieving the goal of financial autonomy of IITs. This is seen as something that will ensure the ‘leveling of the playing field’, an important commitment as per the 2000 provision on inclusion of education to tradable commodity in GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Service). When the administration has “big” plans, must students always bear the “inconveniences”?
Fig. 1 (above): Page 1/2 of the RTI
Fig. 2 (above): Page 2/2 of the RTI
What should be done?
The decision for room sharing must immediately be frozen. Instead, steps must be taken to minimize bureaucratic delays and facilities should be improved and properly maintained. A balance must be struck between fresh admission and number of graduations. The central workshop and other fabrication facilities should be streamlined and supplemented with a greater number of staff. The guide feedback form should be implemented with appropriate weightage during promotions. As most of the fresh scholars will be new to research, proper exposure and guidance should be given during the initial stages of research life. For research labs or professors having more number of scholars, Post-Doctoral Fellows should be recruited to share their expertise and help reduce the stress faced by scholars. These changes can only be achieved by changing the current decisionmaking structure of IIT Madras to a democratic one, where the opinion and views of students and their representatives are given prime value, rather than reducing the representatives to a bridge between the student and administration.