India’s University Grants Commission recently invited proposals to retrospectively assess the quality of PhD theses awarded by the country’s universities over the past 10 years. In this post Santosh C. Hulagabali, outlines the potential impacts of this review on Indian universities and scholars and highlights the role of this review in signalling the quality of Indian research.   

In the past few years, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) has taken bold steps to reinvigorate the quality of Indian research and publications. From revamping educators’ performance evaluation procedures, to compiling a massive UGC-approved list of journals and initiating the UGC-Consortium for Academic Research and Ethics, the UGC has set itself on a war footing to revive and sustain research quality and now it has thesis evaluation in its sights.

In a recent announcement, the UGC issued a public notice inviting proposals for a study on the quality of PhD theses awarded by Indian universities over the past ten years. The approved third party will carry out a pan-India study and submit the findings to the UGC within six months. Within less than a month of the announcement, the UGC received more than 150 proposals to conduct the study.

Why now?

The UGC has maintained that it aims to know the “ground realities” concerned with the quality of theses, identifying inconsistencies and devising remedial measures to sustain research quality. The other likely reason, is to address the rampant allegations and concerns being raised globally over the quality of published papers and PhD theses of Indian researchers. The review has sent a strong message to all the stakeholders in PhD level education and will likely have ramifications across the Indian higher education sector.

Wider Impacts

Beginning with universities, the proposed study will focus attention on India’s 851 universities, potentially resulting in a research quality index/matrix of individual universities or clusters of universities. An adverse finding will not only highlight any malpractice, but also expose the institution to India’s statutory accrediting, ranking and funding bodies (NAAC, NIRF and RUSA).

Universities that have not implemented basic UGC guidelines could potentially be hugely affected. To list a few unfollowed guidelines:

Increased scrutiny will likely force universities to revisit the entire PhD process, from candidate selection, through PhD entrance test (PET) and awarding PhDs. Universities will also have to refocus resources on meeting UGC guidelines in terms of checking theses using plagiarism tools; conducting PhD course work; conducting pre-viva voce and open defences. Ultimately the ability of institutions to meet these criteria and score well on the review’s research quality index will be a deciding factor in their overall standing and NIRF position.

Perhaps the most concerned stakeholders in this review are PhD awardees, current PhD researchers and future PhD  awardees. Although it remains unclear how the study will be carried out and the level of disclosure, if theses are used and cited as examples in the study, or particular institutions are named for having low standards, it could well cast doubt on the integrity and quality of PhD holders. Researchers already undertaking research in such institutions may also suffer from collateral damage bringing the quality of their work into doubt. This criticism may be premature, but the UGC’s move has made one thing clear, that it will take any disciplinary step at any point of time to safeguard the research quality, no matter whether the research is ongoing or completed.

The other ‘stakeholders’ in PhD training who should rightly be concerned are the various private and predatory organisations that provide illicit services to PhD researchers, from ghost writing, to predatory journals and conferences. Such enterprises have proved resilient, but they will most likely be seriously affected by the UGC’s standards based approach.

Academics, or ‘name-sake’ research supervisors, also have reason to be concerned, as the UGC policy will make it harder for them to hide behind students who have been found guilty of plagiarism and copyright infringements. To end this practice, the UGC may make supervisors equally responsible for the poor quality of the theses, potentially linking career progression to PhD outcomes, thereby providing an incentive and recognition for supervisors to be quality conscious and more responsible for their students.

To sum up, UGC has succeeded in sending out a clear message to all of the above parties before it actually finalizes the agency to carry out the study. It is setting a good precedent, but it could go further and consider including MPhil research, minor and major research projects. If not now, maybe in the second phase. It should also continue to take steps to tighten the entire research process, so that such retrospective action over the quality of research works will not be required again.

The most likely outcome of this initiative will be a slight variation in the number of PhDs awarded. In 2017-18, Indian universities awarded 34,400 PhDs. Put in context, in 2010 China awarded almost three times more than India. Considering the UGC’s current moves, it seems UGC is aiming to emphasise the quality of its research over quantity. However, whether or not this concern for quality will be successful depends on how hard the UGC intends to use the results of its assessment to compel universities that are not complying with its guidelines to fall into line. If this is the intended aim, then the UGC should share the findings of the study of each university with the accrediting, ranking and funding agencies for necessary action. If the Indian universities and research community can manage to work hand in hand to achieve this quality objective, then it will have taken a significant step towards dispelling lingering doubts over the quality of some of its research.

Hopefully, that day is near.


About the author

Santosh C. Hulagabali, PhD, heads Library and Information Centre of Khandwala College, University of Mumbai, India. He is actively involved in training researchers and educators on the matters concerning scholarly communication. He moderates Open Interview, a crowd-sourced blog.


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