Meena T Pillai, a professor from the University of Kerala (which is different from the CUK), resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature on Wednesday to mark her protest against the university’s decision.

HRD says PhDs only on ‘national priority’ topics, Kerala prof quits central univ board
Union Minister Prakash Javedkar during a press conference at BJP head office in New Delhi. (Express photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

A member of the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala (CUK) has resigned in protest against the administration’s order asking all departments to prepare “a shelf of projects” in line with “national priorities” for PhD scholars.
The directive came on March 13. The circular was issued at the behest of the Union HRD Ministry, which, at a meeting of vice-chancellors of central universities in December last year, had asked the V-Cs to “discourage research in irrelevant areas”.

“When Fellows are being admitted for PhDs, the topics for the thesis should be in accordance with the national priorities. Allotting privilege topics to the PhD students should be dispensed with,” states the minutes of the meeting held December 15, 2018.

Dr Meena T Pillai explains to TNM the gravity of the issue, which led her to resign her post.

“There is a culture of silence that is forced upon the higher education system in the country. This circular is also a part of that. How can somebody else decide what a researcher should do? I cannot be part of an institution that is trying to impose this culture of fear on its students. No genuine research or education can happen in such an atmosphere,” Dr Meena tells TNM.

After her resignation, several teachers at CUK asked Meena to withdraw her decision and stay back to fight against the issue. “But I knew that will be of no use,” she says.

“There are nine members on the board of studies. None of them objected to the issue. So there is no point in fighting a lone battle. The administration clearly does not care about my resignation. They have already hired a new person. This is not a personal battle. What matters is that this has sparked a debate in the country in both the academic sphere and the public domain. That should go on and people should save the higher education system,” she says.

While stating that the officials of the university do not realise, or seem not to realise, the threat, the new directive has created fear among the students as well as the teachers. “They fear to voice their opinion because if they say anything against the university, they will be thrown out. This is fascism,” Meena says.

While stressing that this issue is above political affiliations, she says, “This circular has been issued by CUK and we know it is the continuation of academic saffronisation happening in the country. Even if Congress or any other party comes to power, these marks of saffronisation of academics will not go away. So it is important we fight this battle now,” explains Meena.

Comparing the situation at the Central University and State University, Meena, who is also the professor of Institute of English at the University of Kerala, says, “There is no guarantee on the functioning of a central university; the MHRD will announce new directives without prior notice. At least these things do not happen in state universities. There is a free atmosphere in state universities.”

CUK subsequently wrote to all Deans and Heads of Departments to prepare a list of projects “considering national priorities”. The circular states that students in future can only opt for research topics from the predetermined list. Under the current system, a PhD hopeful proposes a topic for her thesis during her interview at the university, and is grilled on it by the interview panel. The panel either approves the proposal, or makes some changes to it. But in general, students are free to pursue research in the areas they want.

Meena T Pillai, a professor from the University of Kerala (which is different from the CUK), resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature on Wednesday to mark her protest against the university’s decision. She was an external member of the Board of Studies. “Research on, say, a small tribal community in a remote village of Kerala would be a priority. So who decides what is relevant and irrelevant? Even to bring in specific classifications and categorisations in research is against the very spirit of higher education. Research is also critique, dissent and the right to ask questions. The moment you start deciding what areas of research one should limit oneself to, where is the academic freedom of the researcher?” Pillai told The Sunday Express.

This week, CUK issued a clarification to its March 13 circular, saying that by “national priorities” it meant research that was useful to society. CUK V-C Gopakumar declined to comment, and directed queries to the university Registrar. The Sunday Express could not reach the CUK Registrar.