The Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry’s directive to the Central universities to ensure that the topics for the PhD programmes are in accordance with ‘national priorities’ reflects needless meddling in the management of higher education. The bizarre order asked the faculty to prepare a ‘shelf of projects’ for students to choose from. This amounts to curtailing academic freedom and stifling the creative pursuits of students. The order means that students are not free to choose the topics for their research but will have to pick one of the topics listed by the universities in accordance with national priorities, which may or may not match with one’s own interest. The order follows a review meeting last December where the HRD Ministry had asked the vice-chancellors of the Central universities to “discourage research in irrelevant areas”. Every university has a board of research studies or a similar mechanism to thoroughly review PhD research subjects. The decision on what is relevant and what is not must be left to the university authorities and it is not for the government to dictate terms on this. Snatching of the right to choose one’s own topic of research is an affront to the spirit of higher education. The research subjects are decided through a well-established and critically immersive method. Though the present system is not foolproof and requires modifications to remove the shortcomings, the solution does not lie in the Central government directing what kind of research projects should be undertaken by the universities.
The attempt to constrain imagination within the narrow grids of state-defined national priorities will inevitably crush creativity and destroy academic culture. The resignation of Prof Meena Pillai of the University of Kerala from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature to protest against the HRD Ministry’s instructions has triggered a debate in the academic circles about the growing threats to critical thinking and independence of the higher education institutions. What is a relevant research project and what is irrelevant should be solely decided by the universities and students. The faculty and students must have the freedom to share ideas including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities. Any attempt to impose a political agenda on the functioning of the academic institutions must be resisted. Curtailing academic freedom will worsen the crisis in higher education. Already, a certain kind of history is being erased because it is not considered a national priority. There has also been a series of attempts to rewrite history. Recently, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) decided to drop three chapters from its Class IX history textbook as a part of the second textbook review exercise.