According to a circular issued on the 13 March, 2019 by the Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Kerala (CUK), Kasargod, PhD students of the CUK have been directed to choose research topics from a given set of projects, a shelf of PhD topics “in accordance with the national priorities”; they will no longer be allowed to work on “irrelevant research”. The departments have been asked accordingly. The circular came in sequel to and at the directive of a meeting of Secretary Higher Education, of the Union Human Resource Development ministry, Chairman, University Grants Commission and Vice- Chancellors of 11 Central Universities, held on 15 December 2018. The meeting advised the Central Universities to “discourage research in irrelevant areas” and to ensure that PhD topics “should be in accordance with the national priorities”. So in letter and spirit, the CUK circular faithfully followed the Union HRD Ministry. (The Wire 16.3.2019). In April 2016, the Gujarat government had also issued a similar directive, listing 82 topics of ‘relevance’ for PhD research in state universities. (The Wire 19.3.2019) However, the universities there have thus far stayed clear of elaborating on what it considers ‘irrelevant research’. In any case, the Union HRDM’s ‘advice’ and the CUK circular stand out as shameless transgression upon academic autonomy. Let us elaborate.
The purpose of research is to develop knowledge and knowledge has no national boundary. The universities must have the freedom to pursue knowledge regardless of immediate gain or loss; they must be free from external interference. As Albert Einstein, the renowned scientist, spelt it out: Academic freedom is the right to search for truth. Any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among people and thereby impedes national judgment and action. Therefore, those who want to limit research on national priorities are either ignorant or motivated. Research has to happen in an atmosphere where one can think freely, dissent and ask question.
The circular which is no better than a diktat is thus totally against freedom of pursuit of knowledge and development of free thinking. Outright, it curbs academic autonomy of the educational and research institutions which undertake research and is thus naked intervention upon academic freedom of teachers and researchers. On the contrary, it imposes control of administration- bureaucracy over academic affairs. It is the responsibility of the government to see that researches and studies must not face any difficulty from dearth of funds or administrative hazards. But on no plea, can the academic autonomy and freedom of pursuit of knowledge be curtailed.
Besides, the pertinent questions are: what do national priorities mean and how it should be judged? Who is going to determine which topic or issue is nationally significant or not and on what ground? Will it be the government or the market-demand or any other power that be, which will decide the issue, according to their own respective perceptions? Can that be allowed at all in academic world? Will it mean that any academically vital, fundamental and theoretical research without any direct bearing to so-called national issues of day-to-day life, will be deprived from having any grant to support it? It is totally unacceptable for any sane person who may desire to see the country develop in the quest of knowledge and epistemology, which is one of the goals of carrying out researches. Besides, in a class-divided society like ours with a handful of capitalists ruling over overwhelming majority of oppressed and exploited toiling people, both cannot have the same priority. The bourgeois- petty bourgeois parties in power, either at the Centre or in the states, act as the subservient political manager of the ruling capitalist class. Obviously, they tend to choose national priority, to fit the interests of their master, the monopolists and their market economy. With the help of the directives as above, they try to curb the autonomy and academic freedom and streamline education or research in accordance with their need. On the contrary, toiling people need the freedom to continue their quest for truth in unhampered way. Hence, the prime issue is that the freedom to choose topic or issues of research, that is the freedom of pursuit of knowledge and freedom of thoughts must not be guided by any such criterion as “national priority” determined overtly or covertly by any authority. A research student and his or her guide must have the full freedom to select the topic or issue. For sanctioning the necessary grant, the choice must be judged from the academic point of view and viability in the set-up in which it will be carried out.
Fortunately, as it appears, no university other than the CUK has implemented the directive. Rather, the move has been strongly criticized by academic circle. Dr Meena T. Pillai, Professor at the Institute of English and Director, Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Kerala, has even resigned from the board of studies of English and Comparative Literature protesting against the “suicidal” decisions adopted by the University. She has raised the questions: When you do research on a small tribal community in Attapadi, which is a remote part of Kerala, would that be a national priority? She said, a certain kind of history is being erased because it is not considered by the powers-that-be as a national priority. And on top of that, you have to choose from the shelf project. This is a clear transgression upon academic autonomy of teachers and researchers and suicidal for higher education of the country. Prof Pillai also smells the hand of corporate agenda behind this circular. That may lead up to a scene to produce what the market demands. So free thought would be destroyed. This is against the spirit of education. We should not be regressing, we should progress.
In the face of protests, in a 25 March Press release, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has denied issuing any directive to restrict choice of subjects for research. It has put the onus on a section of media. But the minutes of the December meeting are there laying emphasis on “national priority” and relevance-irrelevance issue. So the press release is nothing but a damage – control move to make people believe that the Union government stand in favour of freedom in research. Repeated instances of naked attempts at curtailing of autonomy of educational institutions as well as democratic rights of all sections of stakeholders, teachers-students- employees bear enough testimony of how serious the ruling RSS-BJP combine is in upholding freedom of speech and activities. So here too, the Union HRD Ministry cannot evidence of their attempt to push through their agenda of curtailing academic freedom. It remains with education-loving people to keep their vigil and build up effective and strong resistance against this attempt.