PhD students are not just overloaded with course work; they are also forced to foot expensive bills for their mentors, take classes on their behalf and even abused sexually.
A flight ticket and a suite at a star hotel. Mohan Ram* also had to ensure that a pick-up was arranged from the hotel. Later that evening he found himself buying his guest drinks at an expensive bar. All this hospitality ensured a prefix to his name. He is now Dr Mohan Ram*.
The life of a research scholars can be lonely and hard. In India, such students are further likely to face exploitation at the hands of several stakeholders in the process of earning their doctorate.
The recent alleged ‘sex for academic progress’ scandal involving an assistant professor at an Aruppukottai collage, is only the tip of the iceberg. While abuse can be of a sexual nature, it is common for research scholars to be subject to abuse of power in the form of emotional abuse, being made to take on additional work, run personal errands, or even offer bribes.
This exploitation is set up by the power that PhD supervisors exercise over a student’s research, progress and career. These guides are both the mentor who can support and facilitate the emotional processes; and the patron who manages the springboard from which the student can leap into a career. Students are dependant on them for everything from financial sanctions, networks and guidance.
While there are guidelines stipulating duration of PhDs, guides could stretch the project out for up to eight years. Many PhD students work on scholarships, usually available only for a certain period of time. “Students who are forced to finish majority of their work before their scholarship ends, need competent co-operation from their guides,” said former Anna University V-C M Anandakrishnan.
Thus, Mohan Ram, then a PhD scholar had to ensure a comfortable stay for the external examiner who conducted his viva voce test. Mohan, who pursued his research at one of the largest private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, said that he didn’t want five years of work going down the drain, simply because the examiner was in a bad mood.
“The examiner asked me to ensure a comfortable stay for him and my faculty-guide elaborated on what was the ‘industrial norm’ for a comfortable stay,” says Mohan, adding that he was scared of his thesis getting rejected.
Kaushik Sam*, who pursued his PhD at a private university in the outskirts of Chennai three years ago, met his PhD guide for the first time only two years into his research. “The professor I wanted as a guide was in high demand and so a faculty from my college, who knew the subject well, was my acting-guide. And he usually coordinated with the actual guide,” he said.
A former faculty of the university, on condition of anonymity said that he himself had been such an acting-guide. “While the University will not pay us for it, we will be listed as co-authors for that paper. This adds a lot to our academic resume,” he said. However, this means that the student’s research progress falls in the hands of a nodal faculty. Moreover, as doctoral students are not employees, they are not protected from employment legislation that prohibits staff bullying at work. Factors such as gender, social status, caste and network too influence the extent to which students get bullied.
Anandakrishnan recalls firing a Chemistry professor after two female research scholars alleged that he was asking them for sexual favours. “The teacher went on to joining another university in a couple of years and my hands were tied,” he said. In October 2017, law student Raya Sarkar’s list, that went viral, revealed how often students felt sexually harassed by faculty. Sarkar had compiled a list of alleged sexual predators in Indian academia, claiming their victims had submitted their names to her. The list featured 58 academics from 29 Indian colleges, research centres and universities.
The alleged crimes listed against the professors ranged from verbal abuse to molestation and rape. Subsequently, students filed complaints before internal complaints committees against some of those named. For instance, prominent academic Lawrence Liang of Ambedkar University Delhi was held guilt of sexual harassment by that varsity’s sexual harassment committee.
Caste-based discrimination too pervades the research sphere. The issue caught national attention after Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide in January 2016 following a controversy that had begun in July 2015 when the university reportedly stopped paying him a fellowship because an inquiry found that he had been “raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association.” His acquaintance J Muthukrishnan, from Tamil Nadu, committed suicide at Jawaharlal Nehru University last year. Dalit and marginalised students have spoken up about difficulties in being assigned supervisors, being poorly graded, or verbally abused.
The chairman of All India Council for Technical Education Anil Sahasrabuddhe has said that every university must have a redressal mechanism for all kinds of bullying. “There are four committees mandated for any technical institute to get its license: The Internal Complaints Committee for sexual harassment, committee to investigate atrocities against SC/ST and minorities, anti-ragging and grievance redressal committee,” he said.
The earliest sexual harassment committees were formed in educational institutions based on Supreme Court guidelines framed as part of the case that led to the Vishakha judgement in 1997. Some of these were reconstituted and at most institutions, new internal complaints committees formed, after the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013.
Bound by regulations, committees require “proper procedure” even for registering complaints. They must be submitted in writing or a statement should be recorded and signed.
There is no scope for an anonymous complaint registered without disclosing the identity of the complainant to the committee, the accused and witnesses. Once a complaint is received, a sub-committee of about three-four members, within the larger complaints committee, inquires into it. Not all varsities have such fully functional complaints committees, though.
Anandakrishnan suggested that a dean, who exclusively looks into research and development could prevent the extent of this exploitation. “The dean should be aware of the time taken for research by scholars, and why it’s getting delayed or why a lot of funds come in at a certain point The dean would basically be in charge of the dynamics of the PhD programme,” he said.
Abuse against students can be prevented only when there is a strong student union, opines former vice chancellor of Manonmanium Sundaranar University V Vasanthi Devi. “A strong elected student body is the best immunity. The union must be able to give voice to individuals,” she said adding that efforts must be taken to have fair representation within the union. Such democratic student bodies help prevent harassment while preserving anonymity, according to a report of a committee headed by JM Lyngdoh, constituted by Ministry of Human Resource Developmen as per the direction of the Supreme Court of India.*-Names changed
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