Judging JNU for having ‘older’ students reeks of a lack of understanding of academia

You don’t usually become an academician at the age of 25-30 unless you are some freak genius.

WrittenBy:Srivastav Ranganathan
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Some discussions on the Jawaharlal Nehru University protest issue seem half-baked and lack nuance. For example, on NL Hafta last week, one of the panel members said the “luxury” in these places is uncalled for and makes others jealous.

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As per the Indian Twitterati and a Hafta panellist, the primary reason for students being on campus in their 30s is to freeload on these amenities. I want to offer a rebuttal to two common arguments and point out how this is symbolic of what ails Indian academia and our relatively poor performance in global rankings. 

 What are you doing here in a non-permanent position in a university in your mid-30s? Must be a free-loader.

Academia has a timeline that is entirely different from other professions. Someone with a PhD could have a decade of research experience and yet be considered a relative novice when it comes to universities hiring them. 

As someone who is currently looking for faculty positions in “good” research institutes in India (also the norm in the West), one needs to have a minimum of three years of post-PhD research experience even to be eligible for an assistant professor position. So, that means six years of PhD (on average) and three to five years of post-doctoral research experience. 

Assuming you have no “gap years” and do all of this in one breathless go — as most do — you’d be in a non-regular position in a university in your early 30s (often working as a research assistant under a professor). 

So, this “uncles in JNU” is a lame argument that reeks of a lack of understanding of the academic world in general. Also, the situation would be no different if you look at the demographic even in science and technology like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, or the Indian Institute of Science. 

Just let that sink in: 10-12 years of academic work still isn’t enough and merely qualifies you to be an assistant professor. This is not me lamenting about it but just pointing out that most people do not get the difference between the eligibility criteria for a lecturer position (not that I look down on it) in a college and that of a university professor.

 In a nutshell, you don’t usually become an academician at the age of 25-30 unless you are some freak genius. None of this is JNU-specific — JNU gets more love from the aam janta because of the false labelling and the constructed narrative of the “Tukde Tukde Gang”.

What does JNU or any Indian research organisation have to show for the funding they receive? Why should we waste taxpayers’ money if you cannot make it to even the Top 100?

First, a glance at the university ratings tells you how lopsided the funding battle is between Indian universities and their foreign counterparts. 

Universities like Harvard and Weizmann alone have a bigger budget than (or comparable budget to) the entire Indian research budget. Let that sink in for a bit. No matter how noble and pure an exercise one might consider research to be, it is a costly affair. You do not expect significant research in biology or particle physics if you have to fight for access to state-of-the-art equipment. Experimental design and project proposals are shaped by how many resources you have access to, or how achievable your objectives are in a reasonable timeline.

On top of that, unless you publish, you won’t be able to raise grants in the future and eventually perish. Hence, the lack of funds is REAL. The fact that our universities make it to even the Top 200 is a miracle. Also, even among those that make it (usually the IITs, IISc, JNU) to the Top 200-ish range, the trend is clear. They have more funds than the rest. 

Unless institutes have the money, they cannot hire more post-docs (who are generally more independent as researchers than graduate students or PhDs) or retain the bright minds in their PhD programmes. This means that a lot of our PhDs opt to go abroad for their post-docs — not because they don’t want to stay back but because they have minimal choice. When these same folks do well overseas (primarily because the other pressures are lifted), we celebrate them in India as our own without understanding what results in this entire phenomenon. 

Yet, the solution that often gets pitched is to restrict funds, make it competitive, and streamline funding. 

Our problem is actually that of under-participation (read the factors mentioned above) in higher education due to a myriad of factors, many of them social. Modern-day Indian society often has very little respect for scholarship and the act of creating new knowledge unless something tangible (money, product, visible glamour) comes out of it. 

Hence, the narrative of what does one gain by studying “the co-relation between socio-economic markers and the prevalence of malaria in African populations”. The answer to this question is generally not a sentence (or a paragraph). Who has the time for such nuance in the 240-character world of Twitter? Somehow, we are very quick to label something as useless just because our limited minds cannot perceive the utility. We are ready to judge an MSc in Physics as someone who couldn’t get into engineering. 

Therefore, even when we talk of STeM in India, we only respect the engineers (who follow the safe path of B.Tech + MBA = Infosys/consulting firms) and doctors. The metric for success in their cases is tangible (monetary). The perception issue is far worse if you are a researcher in humanities.  

For a nation of a billion plus people, India has only about 100,000 full-time researchers. What this means is that for every 10,000 people, we have four researchers. This number for China is 18 and a whopping 79 for the US. Even Kenya (definitely not better off economically than us) has a number of six. 

The reason for more innovation coming out of the US or the West is not because all their labs are uniformly excellent. The act of scholarship of even the most obscure kind is not frowned upon or ridiculed in those societies. The higher the number of people you engage in higher research, the better the chances of producing innovative research. Since excellence is such a low-probability game, you have a very low shot at great innovation if you do not have the significant participation the other big countries have. 

You will never have a scenario where you only support five research projects (streamlined as per a few minds), and three of them result in innovation. The reality is that you often have to fund 100 such projects to get innovative output out of three of them. 

Our governments pay lip service and hence the appalling funding for research. You cannot go around complaining about university rankings on the one hand and then not invest even a fraction of the funds available to their counterparts. This argument is as valid for JNU as it is for the IITs. 

Also, we often tend to miss that these university rankings don’t just factor in the output. They look at factors such as faculty-student ratio, international faculty and students, etc. — all of which have nothing to do with the research output. Even if subsidies in education mean that a few privileged ones might have access to these facilities at a low cost, it is not the problem we should be addressing. If JNU has “luxury” at a low price, so be it. We should aim at that being the norm and not an aberration. Therefore, we don’t need to disinvest but invest more in the research of all kinds.  

I want to end this on a personal note. As someone who has pursued research for a decade in India (IIT-B) and then a couple of post-doc years in Harvard, I can assure you that it is not because we in India are over-privileged or lax that our rankings aren’t high. The ground reality is precisely the opposite. 

For an average Indian researcher, he/she has to fight twice as hard to get the job done in India. If you are in the queue for a long time before you have access to computing facilities, you start becoming less ambitious in your research objectives. The same folks who pursue their PhDs in India suddenly have a better publishing track record during their post-doctoral tenure despite most of the training having come from their PhD back home. 

I’m not even talking about other constraints in publishing such as a higher chance of a paper getting reviewed if it’s from an established lab in the Ivy Leagues versus a nascent group in India. In science, like in most other fields, the more prominent you become, the easier it is to succeed (funds, publication acceptance, etc.). Also, the social norms of the “right time” for everything doesn’t help anyone pursuing higher research with a free mind. 

Twitter and popular media narrative is thus garbage, and I expect Newslaundry to offer a more nuanced take on this whole issue through their Campus specials. Remember NL being the only news media house to cover the fellowship hike protests in 2015.

Keep up the excellent work.

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Note: This piece was a letter sent on NL Hafta by a subscriber. You can hear the NL Team’s discussion on the letter here.

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