Why PhD scholars feel stipend hike is below the mark

While some academics feel that the stipends are not jobs, others reason that the scholars need to be paid more as they have dropped many lucrative opportunities to pursue their passion for Science
With a view to boosting the country’s research ecosystem and facilitate researchers, the Education Ministry has hiked the stipends for Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), Senior Research Fellowship (SRF), and Research Associates (RAs). Following the recent move, the ministry informed that the government will incur an additional expenditure of approximately Rs 725 crore.
According to the revised fellowship stipend chart, the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) stipend has increased to Rs 37,000 from Rs 31,000, while the SRF stipend has increased from Rs 35,000 to Rs 42,000. Research Associate 1 will receive Rs 58,000, Research Associate 2 will get Rs 61,000, and Research Associate 3 will receive Rs 67,000. The stipends have been increased with effect from January 1, 2023.
It is noteworthy that in case of the JRF, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has increased the stipend by 19% and for SRF by 20%. But the increase has not gone down too well with many PhD students as they continue to protest to increase the fellowship stipend by at least 60% for all the levels, claiming the scholars are devoting substantial effort and time in R&D even when the stipends are below the mark.
“The hike is long overdue and while the fellowships are revised periodically, the PhD scholars deserve to get paid more. Around three-four decades back, efforts were made to match the fellowship stipends with entry level Scientist B position in national labs such as DRDO, Department of Atomic Energy etc. Over a period, it was not possible to keep up with the commitment of paying around Rs 75,000-80,000 to the PhD scholars which has resulted widespread dissatisfaction,” says Shekhar C Mande, former director general, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), explaining the JRFs are leaving behind many lucrative options — to work as college faculty or on DRDO research projects — to pursue their passion for basic R&D in Science. Hence, they deserve stipends which need to be competitive. Mande further highlights that slow disbursal of research stipends due to bureaucratic hassles leaves many scholars cash-strapped which must also be addressed with immediate effect.
Yogesh Singh, former dean Research, University of Delhi, is of the opinion that the stipends cannot be equated with jobs and what the government is providing are scholarships to help meet the scholars’ running expenses. “Once the scholars complete their PhDs, they can work in the industry or as assistant professors with good remuneration,” he adds.
Elaborating further on the stipend hike, Sarit K Das, institute professor, IIT Madras and former director IIT Ropar says, “The role of a scholarship is to support the students financially when they are pursuing their own degrees. No government in the world has infinite amount of money, hence a large hike will mean less number of students are likely to be benefitted by it.”
Historically, India’s spending on research is low, it is only 0.6% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as compared to the US which spends 2.4% while Israel spends 4.2% and China over 2%. “With greater research spending, more money can be allocated towards scholars’ stipends, but it cannot come from government funding alone, the private sector needs to also engage in research spending. At present, given the levels of inflation in the last three years, a hike of 19-20% seems to be a reasonable amount. Too much hike may even shift the research focus of the scholars, particularly if they come from affluent families. Conversely, many brilliant students from poorer financial backgrounds support their families from the scholarship amount, but with the current level of scholarship and campus living expenses, the scenario is not too bad,” Das claims, calling for frequent revisions, to ensure that the scholarship does not decrease in real terms due to inflation. According to him, if the postdoctoral fellows get anywhere between Rs 50,000-70,000, then the current hike for JRFs, SRFs is not abysmally low.
Educational philanthropy from the industry and private citizens is still at its infancy in India, as opposed to the West where large sources of research funding and infrastructure come from alumni endowments. The private sector/industry spending on research must increase to improve the country’s overall research ecosystem, Das reiterates.
Regarding brain drain and whether it is an outcome of the relatively less stipends in the country, Das says, “Students go overseas for a better future; brain drain is not because of the scholarship difference, but due to the difference in research quality, and hence a brighter future.”
Scholar’s viewpoint
Navdeep Malik (23), a master’s research scholar hailing from Jind, Haryana, at IIT Madras’ department of Mechanical Engineering, has been tracking the stipend hike over the last few decades. He informs that the scholars have got only a minimum percentage hike, and that too after four years in the wake of a series of protests. If in 2006, the hike was 60%, in 2004, the percentage dipped to around 50%, and in 2010 it plummeted to 33.3%. In 2014, the hike rose to 56%, but it declined in 2019 with only 24%. The last hike was in 2023, where the scholars’ demand for 60% hike should not take stakeholders by surprise, Navdeep says, emphasising that even when industry commissions live projects, the bulk of the resources is utilised for procuring research equipment. “Scholars do not gain financially though they continue to juggle between classes, teaching assignments and research responsibilities,” adds Navdeep who is pursuing a half time research assignment that offers a stipend of only Rs 12.400 per month without any hike in recent times.

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