Non-NET fellowships stagnant since 2006; scholars demand hike

Research scholars who are pursuing PhD programs without appearing for UGC-NET share their ordeals of having a stagnant fellowship and lacking the privileges that JRFs have 
Here are the details | (Pic: EdexLive)
Here are the details | (Pic: EdexLive)

On Thursday, June 15, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) wrote to the University Grants Commission (UGC), requesting that the non-NET (National Eligibility Test) Fellowships be hiked, among other things.

Scholars who have entered PhD programmes without appearing for the UGC National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) are allowed a scholarship of Rs 8,000 per month in Social Sciences and Arts subjects, and Rs 10,000 in the Sciences. In the letter, JNUSU says that non-NET fellowships haven't been hiked since 2006, that is, over 10 years. 

The letter reads, “As you may be aware, the government of India has traditionally revised the research scholar fellowship every four years as per previous norms and guidelines in December 2018. However, we would like to draw your attention to the non-Net fellowship, which has remained unchanged at 8000 rupees since 2006.”

The Student’s Federation of India (SFI) also wrote to the Union Minister for Education Dharmendra Pradhan on June 13, demanding a revised research scholar fellowship in India, including those for non-NET scholars. 

Additionally, the All India Research Scholars Association (AIRSA) had also reached out to UGC Secretary Prof Manish R Joshi seeking an urgent appointment to discuss the issue of a stipend hike for Non-NET fellowship scholars.

Non-NET Fellowships: Stagnant despite inflation
Similar to other fellowships in India, the scholarships for non-NET scholars are yet to see a hike. However, it is worth noting that they have remained stagnant since their introduction in 2006 and have yet to be subject to four-yearly revisions, unlike other fellowship programmes. 

JNUSU’s letter elaborates, “Indian researchers are currently facing challenges due to inflation and increasing living costs annually, which impacts their ability to focus on research and development efforts. The non-revised fellowships are causing unnecessary hardship for many research scholars who require this support to continue their research.”

“The fellowship amount received by non-NET scholars is barely enough to cover their mess and hostel expenses. They are left with barely enough money to carry out research,” says Anagha Pradeep, a Research Scholar in Political Science and Councillor of JNUSU. She elaborates that while the tuition fees and the cost of living are increasing, the fellowship remains stagnant. 

Bureaucratic red tape and late disbursals compound financial stress, says Chinmay Kumar Jena, a first-year PhD in Chemistry from Benaras Hindu University (BHU). “After you join the programme, it would take time for the university to process and confirm your scholarship. Because of this, we do not receive the fellowship amount until the first seven or eight months, which is challenging. We are constantly worried about money,” he says. 

Along with an increase in fellowships, JNUSU also demands timely disbursals. “Irregular disbursals are a problem at the university level,” Anagha says. “While the universities receive funds from the government for non-NET fellowships, their disbursal gets delayed severely, which worsens the financial burdens on the scholars,” she explains. 

No respite for state universities
In an article published in the Economic & Political Weekly journal, Researcher Vishnu Achutha Menon writes that non-NET fellowships are “currently limited only to 50 institutions, including central universities and those with the potential for excellence.” As a result, scholars pursuing research from state universities cannot benefit from them. 

Sudheer Paul, a PhD scholar in Environmental Science from Andhra University and National General Secretary of the All India Research Scholars Association (AISRA) says, “Research Scholars in state universities do not even get a single rupee as fellowship when compared to central universities. I see it as nothing short of a wage theft,” he says. He further adds that the governments and the universities expect scholars to produce top-class research output, but are not willing to support them financially. 

So many research scholars are working part-time jobs as tutors, teachers, and even delivery boys in the evenings and at night just to be able to fund their research, Sudheer reveals. “Many people I know had to sell off their vehicles and other personal belongs for money,” he adds. 

In a representation sent to the Telangana State Government in 2021, the Osmania University Research Scholars' Association (OURSA) states that since 2017, about 5,500 students appeared qualified for PhD in the NET as well as the State Eligibility Test (CET). However, only 1,200 of these students have been benefitting from fellowships from the central government.

The representation further urges the state government to introduce a "State Fellowship Scheme," under which PhD scholars in universities run by the state would be given an allowance of not less than 16,000 per month for five years to fund their research. 

"Despite getting verbal assurances from the state government, nothing has happened yet," says Dr Nivas Shyamala, a member of the OURSA.

Lack of financial means impacts research 
Non-NET research scholars say that without the right financial support, pursuing their research interests becomes especially hard for them. 

“Science scholars incur more expenses than those from Humanities and Social Sciences,” says Ravindar Ponakanti, a fifth-year PhD scholar in Chemistry from Osmania University. 

“In Chemistry, especially, our labs do not have all the chemicals or experiments needed to conduct our experiments. We have to purchase them from a third party and conduct our experiment in labs outside our campus. We also have to submit our findings for analysis to a third party. We have to bear all these expenses by ourselves. Without a fellowship, we find it extremely difficult to do so,” he explains. Ravindar further revealed that he had to pause his research this year, as he was unable to bear the expenses. 

The fellowship amount is barely enough to cover food and living expenses, says Chinmay. Due to this, he and his fellow scholars are not able to access important material, like books, journals, research papers and articles that may aid them in their research. “We are constantly thinking about how to make sure that there is enough money for the next day. It is a source of constant psychological stress for us,” he says. 

Research scholars who cleared the NET and are under the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), in addition to a higher stipend, receive benefits such as allowances for travel and accommodation, which come to aid for fieldwork. However, non-NET scholars do not receive these benefits. 

“Conducting fieldwork, and attending workshops and training sessions related to your subject can contribute to your research heavily. Non-NET scholars would not be able to afford to do any of these,” Anagha says. 

Furthermore, without enough funds, scholars also struggle to get their research papers published. Naga Maddilety, a third-year PhD scholar in Physics from Rajasthan University says, “If a scholar has to publish their paper free of cost, it would take longer. They need to pay about Rs 10,000 to fast-track the publication. I submitted my paper one year ago, but it is still unpublished, as I receive no fellowship and cannot afford to pay.” 

Arbitrary attacks on fellowship programmes 
In 2016, the Ministry of Education, then called the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), proposed to scrap all non-NET fellowships. Protesting this announcement, student groups and professors from central universities across India, including Ambedkar University, Delhi; Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Milia Islamia University, Hyderabad Central University, Aligarh Muslim University and others came together for the Occupy UGC movement. 

Following nationwide protests, the then Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani announced that the non-NET scholarships would remain as they are. 

However, in the past two years, many erstwhile non-NET scholarships began listing NET as a qualification. A recent example of this is the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship, which is for SC/ST students. “Now, the name of this scholarship has been changed to National Fellowship and has been divided into separate scholarships,” Sudheer Paul says. 

Moreover, scholars who cleared NET prior to 2019 are no longer eligible for the JRF, says Ravindar. 

“Despite clearing NET in 2016, I did not apply for any fellowship as I initially funded my PhD by myself. However, when I tried to apply for a scholarship in 2019, I was told that I was no longer eligible,” he continues. He also adds that from having a lifetime validity, NET became valid in the period it was conducted, that is, every June and December. 

However, even if he attempted the NET today, he clais that there was no guarantee that he would be eligible for the JRF – as the fellows are selected in an arbitrary fashion. “Amond marginalised communities, only SC and Minority students are being selected. ST and BC category students are being sidelined,” he alleged.

Lack of funds from the government is the cause, scholars say
Scholars allege that stagnant non-NET fellowships in central universities and the lack of them in state universities is part of a bigger issue – that of systematic disinvestment in public education by the government. 

“If we look at the Union Budget from 10 years ago, about 10% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was allocated to education. Now, the case is different,” says Sudheer Paul. “Compared to foreign countries, our spending on education is extremely low,” says Chinamaya.

According to Anagha, this became more apparent during the pandemic. “Soon after lockdown, several socially and economically backward students started dropping out. However, instead of incentivising students to stay and continue their education, the government started scrapping existing scholarships and incentives,” she claims.

She further alleges that the National Education Policy (NEP 2020) was instrumental to this. “The NEP calls for “institutional autonomy,” which means that the Central government is no longer obliged to support public universities,” she claims, adding that the universities have no choice but to increase fees. 

“On one hand, the fees are being hiked. On the other hand, the campus infrastructure is crumbling, the fellowships are low, and the environment for academic research is non-existent. Won’t it deny opportunities for higher education to marginalised students? Won’t this push students to private colleges?” she opines. 

Further, this lack of funds prompts public universities to indulge in extortionist and exploitative practices. “Recently, JNU’s administration directed non-NET scholars to return the fellowship amount to the university. After we challenged this in the Delhi High Court, it was revealed that the university had no right to ask for a refund of fellowships. Such practices are unbecoming of an institution such as JNU,” Anagha explains. 

Scholars opine that the only fix to this is more funding and more decentralised fellowships. “We, from AISRA, have proposed an alternate nationwide scholarship for students not eligible for JRF,” says Sudheer Paul. He further states that the ordeals that non-NET fellows go through should be treated as a humanitarian issue and not just as an academic issue.

Moreover, it has been stated by many students and academics alike, that more fellowships would encourage more students from lower socio-economic communities to pursue research. 

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