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What is wrong with the UGC Notification on Seat Cut for M.Phil/PhD at Indian Universities?

By Arvind Kumar

The implementation of University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.PHIL./PH.D Degrees) Regulations, 2016 in JNU has resulted in massive seat cut for upcoming academic year 2017-18. This year university will admit only 102 students in MPhil and PhD courses in comparison to the last year when the university admitted 970 students for the mentioned courses.

The Para 1.2 of this notification says:

They shall apply to every University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act, or a State Act, every affiliated college, and every Institution Deemed to be a University under Section 3 of UGC Act, 1956.

This means that there will be a drastic seat cut in universities across the country in upcoming academic years, so far as research scholars are concerned.

The core objective of this article is to critically examine the methods and justifications through which drastic reduction of seats is going to be materialised.

Methods of Reducing Seats

The UGC Notification of 2016 has adopted two methods for reducing seats in MPhil/PhD. First is fixing scholar-teacher ratio; and second inserting the idea of hierarchy in supervisor. With the objective of maintaining parity and standard in research education, the first method was introduced in UGC Notification 2009 but the second method is AN invention of THE UGC Notification-2016.         

Published in The Gazette of India on May 5, 2016, the Para 5.2.1 of the Notification states that university would ‘decide on an annual basis through their academic bodies a predetermined and manageable number of M.Phil. and/or Ph.D. scholars to be admitted depending on the number of available Research Supervisors and other academic and physical facilities available, keeping in mind the norms regarding the scholar-teacher ratio (as indicated in Para 6.5), laboratory, library and such other facilities’. But Para 6.5.1 of the Notification qualifies:

A Research Supervisor/Co-supervisor who is a Professor, at any given point of time, cannot guide more than three (3) M.Phil. and Eight (8) Ph.D. scholars. An Associate Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of two (2) M.Phil. and six (6) Ph.D. scholars and an Assistant Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of one (1) M.Phil. and four (4) Ph.D. scholars.

As mentioned earlier, the introduction of scholar-teacher ratio is not a new invention of this notification. The previous notification of the UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Awards of M.Phil./Ph.D. Degree) Regulation, 2009, notified in The Gazette of India [No. 28, Part III- Section 4] for the week July 11-July 17, 2009 too had provision of teacher-scholars  ratio. The Para 7 of Notification of 2009 states:

All Universities, Institutions, Deemed to be Universities and Colleges/Institutions of National Importance shall lay down and decide on annual basis, a predetermined and manageable number of M.Phil. and doctoral students depending on the number of the available eligible Faculty Supervisors. A Supervisor shall not have, at any given point of time, more than Eight Ph.D. Scholars and Five M.Phil. Scholars.

This Para of UGC Notification-2009 comprises of two propositions. The first proposition empowers universities to decide the number of intake seats for students according to their logistic arrangement including teachers; and the second proposition qualifies the power of universities in terms of deciding number of intake students by fixing a cap on the maximum number of scholars per teacher (not more than Eight Ph.D. Scholars and Five M.Phil. Scholars at a given point of time).

The first proposition of the Para 7 of the old notification which empowers universities for deciding total number of seats according to their logistic arrangement including teachers has been incorporated in the new notification without any major change. But the second proposition of old notification which qualifies the power of universities to decide total number of intake of students by putting cap on the maximum number of scholars per teacher has been incorporated in the new notification with drastic change. Under the old notification, every supervisor, irrespective of his/her designation as an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor or Professor, was allowed to supervise not more than Eight Ph.D. Scholars and Five M.Phil. scholars at any given point of time. But the new notification makes the post of supervisor hierarchal, according to his/her designation as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor or Professor and fixes scholar-teacher ratio accordingly. Under the provision of new notification:

A Research Supervisor/Co-supervisor who is a Professor, at any given point of time, cannot guide more than three (3) M.Phil. and Eight (8) Ph.D. scholars. An Associate Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of two (2) M.Phil. and six (6) Ph.D. scholars and an Assistant Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of one (1) M.Phil. and four (4) Ph.D. scholars.

To examine the implications of new notification on total number of intake students, a hypothetical ideal situation needs to be imagined, where a department/centre has only one teacher for supervising whose designation is Professor. The rational for choosing professor as a unit of analysis is that under the new scheme of scholar-teacher ratio, only a professor can have highest number of research scholars at any given time. This imagined department would admit 13 students (05 M.Phil.+08 Ph.D.) under the provisions of old notification, and 11 students (03M.Phil.+08Ph.D.) under new notification. This simple equation demonstrates how the UGC Notification 2016 reduces number of seats in universities.

Questioning the Logic of UGC Notification-2016

The broader justification of these sea changes in UGC notification is to standardise research education in India. Now the question is: what is the objective of standardization? The response of the government is that for improving productivity of universities and for producing quality research, standardisation is demand of the time. But one must ask the question: how would standardisation help to achieve the above mentioned objectives when standardisation is only meant for measuring productivity? Is the measurement only reason behind low productivity of Indian universities?

It should be worth noting here that on the one hand the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is setting hierarchy in educational institution, on the other hand, the UGC Notification is standardising the institution. How can both processes go on simultaneously?

The introduction of scholar-teacher ratio and hierarchy of supervisor are two instruments for improving productivity of universities, the cumulative result of which is reduction of the intake students. This raises further questions. How minimization of talent pool of researchers would help in improving productivity of universities? This issue further poses more serious questions related to the rationale of fixing scholar-teacher ratio. Are numbers fixed in scholar-teacher ratio merely arbitrary? Or is it based on any principle derived from scientific research? On what principle, hierarchy in supervisor has been introduced? How the idea of hierarchy has been derived? Is there any international norm which has been taken into consideration while introducing these ideas?

There are numerous studies at national and international levels, which provide student-teacher ratio but those studies are applicable only for school education. Has UGC conducted any study or consulted experts before fixing scholar-teacher ratio? The UGC must respond to these concerns by putting all relevant documents in the public domain; otherwise it would be assumed that both ideas – scholar-teacher ratio and hierarchy of supervisor – are invention of bureaucratic rationality. The bureaucratic rationality usually derives principle of supervision from Sir Ian Hamilton’s concept of span of control, which is also known as management ratio. Though the theory of span of control is widely used in bureaucracy, management and military but it has been proved unscientific since ecological, environmental, social, and cultural factors were not taken into consideration when this theory was developed.

Based on the twin principles – thumb rule of superior and hierarchical division of labour (mental-manual; where mental labour is considered higher as compared to manual labour) – the theory of span of control was primarily meant for improving productivity in industry. The productivity of industry was to be increased by establishing thumb rule of superior in decision making, while following this, the supervisor was to perform mental labour (superior) and workers manual labour (inferior). Cntrary to the principles of relationship between supervisor-worker, the relationship between teacher-scholar in university is based on egalitarianism. Therefore, scholar-teacher ratio cannot be determined according to the theory of span of control as this notification seems to be doing.

Impracticality of the notification   

Every university is established with unique objective and purpose; and to achieve those, universities are given autonomy to take the best suitable decision. In his reply to a question related to the new UGC Notification and ongoing JNU controversy in the Rajya Sabha, even the Minister of Human Resource Development has asserted that JNU has autonomy for taking policy decisions to preserve its unique character. Power of maximizing choice is one way to define autonomy, and by reducing the number of students per teacher, this UGC notification reduces choice of universities in terms of taking students, which is nothing but erosion in the autonomy of universities. The universities maximize choices not by totally rejecting the general rules but by adopting them with mutatis mutandis. But the new UGC notification does not give enough space for mutatis mutandis so far as scholar-teacher ratio is concerned, as a result of which, numerous practical problems with potential of jeopardising day to day functioning of universities may arise in near future.

Though universities are primarily meant for teaching and research, certain universities/departments within a university are established exclusively for research purpose. Under the new scheme of scholar-teacher ratio, the teachers of research university/department would have less work load in comparison to their counterparts in teaching universities/departments. In addition to this, research universities/departments is not only producing quality research but also cultivating/nurturing research spirit in scholars which requires long term engagement. Therefore, universities like JNU and TISS have integrated M.Phil./Ph.D. programmes. But the implementation of the new notification in letter and spirit would stop promotion of students from M.Phil. to Ph.D., resulting in harming research scholars in particular and research in general.

In search of better opportunities and convenience, teachers often move from one university to another university, even at the cost of joining at lower rank. The present notification would prevent such teachers from supervising students according to their previous capacity who would be joining at lower rank. In extraordinary circumstances, which might arise due to resignation, termination or death of supervisor, the implementation of the notification would mean that scholars would have to wait for new supervisor unless other teachers have vacancy.

Undermining Social and Cultural Factors in Productivity and Quality 

For improving productivity of universities and producing quality research, the current UGC Notification excessively relies on the technical and mechanical aspect of research. But nowadays, there are studies, which show how productivity and quality also depend on social, cultural, historical, psychological, environmental, and ecological factors. In addition to these factors, incentive, fairness, equity, self-confidence, self-esteem, non-discrimination, and exposure to global research are also motivating factors on which productivity and quality depend. But the new UGC Notification is categorically silent over these factors.

The exclusive dependency of the UGC on standardization of teacher-scholar ratio for quality and productivity having potential of seat cut is sending a wrong signal to the large section of society (lower caste groups, women, differently-abled & sexual minority), whose participation has seen spectacular rise since the implementation of Mandal-2 in higher education. The Mandal-2 was implemented by increasing size of cake in central universities, as a result of which it has opened opportunities for every section of society in higher education. Now students from these communities are vehemently opposing the notification with the perception that it is an attempt to kicking away the ladder.


In conclusion, it can be argued that on pretext of improving productivity of universities and quality research, the ongoing attempt of the UGC to standardization of research in Indian universities is nothing but painting every university/department with the same brush. However, it is a well-established fact that one size does not fit all. This issue might create massive discontent in university campuses across the country. Such a situation would create chaos in university campuses and would further destroy quality and productivity.

The UGC must realise that as enshrined in the Fundamental Duties of Indian Constitution, achieving productivity and quality in every sphere of life including research is a shared/ collective responsibility of every citizen/section of the Indian society. It is not the responsibility of Indian state or a particular machinery of Indian government alone. Therefore, the UGC must consult every stakeholder before the implementation of the new notification, so that the present crisis can be solved.

Arvind Kumar is Research Scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi and Guest Faculty of Political Science at Satyawati College, University of Delhi.


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