Published: 04th June 2022
Is UGC's push for research-centric higher education supported by infrastructure?
In a bid to streamline the process of issuing scholarships and fellowships, the UGC has launched an online portal that aims to put students in charge
The University Grants Commission has long battled with complaints from students about the delayed issuance of scholarships and fellowship stipends. So much so that when we asked a student if they receive their fellowship on time, or know anyone in their university who does, the answer was an emphatic "no".
This week, scholars of the Delhi Technological University (DTU) went on strike, demanding that their pending regular five-year fellowship be released by the UGC. Students from the All India Research Scholars' Association (AIRSA) have claimed that there is no 'infrastructure for research in India'. Among their list of demands is to act on administrative delays in file processing.
Lalchand Viswakarma of AIRSA says that the PhD programme at DTU is being run "ram bharose". "They have reduced the minimum tenure for the PhD from five years to three. This means that students will not get funds after three years. The scholars haven't received funds for years now and that has led to them going on strike with a list of demands," he adds.
The process itself is one that students have to undertake on a monthly basis. Scholarship/fellowship stipend request letters have to be written and submitted to their respective supervisors. Not just that, those students who stay off-campus also need to put in separate paperwork for House Rent Allowance (HRA).
Then it is passed on to the Head of the Department. From there it makes its way to the Registrar of the university. The nodal officer of the university then escalates it to the UGC. The requests have to be submitted between the first and fifteenth days of the month. After the end of that period, the UGC consolidates these requests and presents a cumulative amount to the Ministry of Education for the release of funds. It is after the release of these funds that the amount is transferred via a direct bank transfer system to the student's account.
There have been instances when the fellowships have been delayed by a period of five months at UoH, according to a scholar. For those who depend on their stipends to take care of their daily essentials, electricity and rent, these delays make the fellowship an unreliable concept. If students fail to submit the application before the fifteenth of the month, their stipends and scholarships will not be processed until the next month by the university.
And the reasons behind these delays, based on what one scholar tells us, might at times be legitimate as well. For example, they might be out on fieldwork or their supervisor might be unavailable to sign their paperwork. This process happened offline up until last year, says UGC Chairman, M Jagadesh Kumar. During the pandemic, a portal was opened in order to allow students to "confirm" their applications online.
However, according to a source, this was purely symbolic; in place only to make the scholars feel like they are doing something. Students were still required to submit their paperwork physically. Once they "confirmed" their application request, the university would still be required to process it as before. "The portal was created to track the payments that have been made. It did not show us the status of the payment. It would mark our payment as 'generated' and, after that, it would take anywhere between a few days to a few weeks for us to receive the payment. Then, a log would be made on the date of the payment. That portal didn't allow us to initiate any kind of process," said a student on the condition of anonymity.
Other scholars, including Lalchand, who completed his PhD in 2020 from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, say that the fellowship activation process once the students join the programme itself is tedious and can take anywhere between four to eight months. "We receive complaints from hundreds of scholars that their funds have been pending for six to nine months. They borrow money to support themselves and running from pillar to post over their stipends and scholarships leaves them with little time and energy to focus on their research," adds Lalchand.
On June 1, 2022, this week, the UGC launched an online scholarship disbursal portal in partnership with Canara Bank. This was done with the aim of reducing paperwork. A crucial feature of this portal is that students are able to track the status of their request at any given point, claims the Chairman. In fact, if the student notices that their application is stuck at any of the levels, they can directly send an alert notification email through the portal to the concerned individual at that level.
At the launch of the portal, 40 PhD students watched a demonstration of the system and submitted their inputs and feedback. These have been incorporated in the portal says the Chairman and the scholars will return in a couple of months for a review. "It is of utmost importance to us that scholars get their deserved scholarships/fellowships on time. I have come across many complaints about the delay in issuance of the scholarship amount on sites such as Twitter and it is concerning. We want to address these complaints and ensure the process is stress-free and streamlined for the students," said the UGC Chairman.
One of the issues in the timeline of issuing the scholarship is the fact that they are issued only after the 15th of the month after the UGC accumulates requests from across the country. The Chairman says there is not much they can do about that. "We would love to have done it case-by-case, but it will become difficult to handle. What we are doing is that we have reached out to the Registrars of universities. We are showing them the portal and we are sensitising them that there should be no delays from their end," says the Chairman.
When asked about the nature of delays on the university front, the UGC Chairman said, "Scholarship processing is a routine activity and I do not see any reason why they should be cleared with undue delays. With the new system where students are empowered to track the process, I am sure that delays may be eliminated. That is the reason why we are conducting awareness programmes for the university officials."
However, issues with this portal are also coming to light. Scholars are still required to submit the paperwork online now. Students who don't live on campus and have to claim HRA are required to submit a non-boarder's certificate. This requires the electricity bill for the residence they are renting, which they receive only after the month ends. This means that they can apply for their stipends only a month later. The portal, on the other hand, gives students the option to apply only for the current month. When this was brought to the attention of the UGC Chairman, he assured that the matter will be looked into and the team will work on enhancing the portal.
Research scholars suggest that the mechanism for providing students with stipends be amended to match that of the Doctor of Medicine (MD) programme, where funds are blocked for students for three years and are provided periodically. This would reduce the burden on students to file paperwork every month, and relieve them of the uncertainty of when they will receive the money. UGC Chairman Jagadesh Kumar, on the other hand, is of the opinion that this will be tricky to implement because students complete their PhDs at different times and blocking the funds would not bear fruit if they drop out of the programme mid-way. "The process is already streamlined and this online portal will help the students with the issues they are currently facing," he insists.