Are Colleges Ready for Degrees with Research?

Introduction of the four-year degree with research (FYDR) programme in colleges is one of the major reforms proposed by the National Education Policy, 2020. Many higher education institutions are working out modalities to offer FYDR in the upcoming years. This article examines the preparedness of our colleges to introduce the FYDR programme. Based on the analysis of scores of the top 100 colleges in research and professional practices, one of the parameters used by the National Institutional Ranking Framework, 2021, it is argued that even top-ranking colleges do not have adequate intellectual resources and conditions to provide research guidance to undergraduate students. Implementation of FYDR without adequate preparation may have serious negative implications on students and on the overall quality of the higher education system. Recent policy moves of making PhDs not mandatory for faculty recruitment may adversely affect the institutional capacity of colleges to offer FYDR in future. 

In post-independent India, colleges are considered as centres for knowledge transmission, while universities are seen as centres for both production and transmission of knowledge. Combining research with teaching as an effective way of advancing knowledge was derived from the Humboldtian model of the research university in the early decades of the 19th century (Krishna and Patra 2016). Introduction of research component at undergraduate level through the four-year degree with research (FYDR) programme, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, demands to change the preconception that colleges are only for teaching. Higher education institutions(HEI) are working out modalities to introduce the FYDR. Based on the analysis of scores of the top 100 colleges in research and professional practices, one of the parameters used by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), 2021, this article examines the availability of adequate intellectual resources and conditions in colleges to provide research guidance to undergraduate students. It is argued that even the colleges that have appeared in the NIRF do not have adequate intellectual resources and conditions to provide research guidance to undergraduate students. This is going to be a major hurdle for the implementation of FYDR in colleges.

Promotion of Research in Higher Education
Research in higher education has received major attention in recent policy documents. Both the NEP 2020 (Ministry of Human Resource Development 2020a) and the Draft 5th National Policy on Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) (Department of Science and Technology  2020) addresses the long neglect of research in higher education. They emphasize on enhancing research outcomes from higher education and producing adequate numbers of people with research competencies. This is in line with the country's aspiration to become a major player in the global knowledge economy. NEP 2020 proposes many reforms in regulatory architecture, governance, management and finance, and academic structure and duration of study programmes in higher education. New funding mechanisms such as the National Research Foundation 2020, aims to provide enhanced funding support for research in higher education. In addition to doubling the number of full-time equivalent researchers and gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) sector in five years, STIP suggests HEI to collaborate with R&D institutions and industry sectors to enhance research productivity. Overall, policy climate acknowledges the necessity of expanding the quantity and quality of research in HEI in order to benefit from the global knowledge economy.

Research in HEI is of two major types. They are research carried out by the faculty members and those by the students for fulfilling the requirement of a research degree. Research by teachers is an important component in their recruitment and career progression. Many public agencies are involved in research funding for faculty members of colleges and universities. It includes the central- and state-level ministries and departments such as the Department of Science and Technology, University Grants Commission, Indian Council of Social Science Research, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Traditionally, research by students is confined to MPhil and PhD programmes, although research-based dissertation is a part of some of the postgraduate-level courses offered by universities and colleges in India. Research by students other than part of research degrees such as MPhil and PhD rarely get scholarly attention. Institutions and regulatory bodies often pay less attention to the research by students, often leading one to believe that research in universities means research carried out by faculty members. This article focuses on the second type of research, that is, research carried out by students in HEI.
Doctoral programmes make a major contribution in producing scholars with research skills required for various disciplines. Although there is a steady growth of enrolment in doctoral programmes in India for the last few years, the overall share of students enrolled in doctoral-level programmes is very less as close to 0.6% only (Varghese 2020). Research carried out at the postgraduate-level is a neglected domain of research in India. In general, the quality of postgraduate dissertations do not get adequate attention in academic planning and management at institutional levels.

Globally, undergraduate research is a common feature of higher education. Undergraduate students publishing independently or jointly with their supervising teachers is common in most of the higher education systems abroad. Undergraduate research is a crucial component of inquiry-based learning in higher education (Kinkead 2003), and it is believed to generate interest in students to pursue research studies and seek employment in research-based careers. Since it demands mentoring support from teachers, adoption of new pedagogical approaches, and creation of enabling conditions in campus and classrooms, undergraduate research can make profound changes in the academic and social domain of colleges. Therefore, NEP’s proposal to introduce the FYDR programme should not be seen as mere addition of one year to college education. Rather, it provides immense scope for transforming the structure and process of college education in favour of flourishing of talents for the benefit of a larger society.

Critically Analysing the Four Year Degree with Research (FYDR Programme)
Introduction of the FYDR programme is a major initiative to promote research and produce people with research competencies. It goes in line with other proposals of NEP such as multiple entry and exit schemes (MEES), academic bank of credits, and one-year master’s degree programme. According to NEP (Ministry of Human Resource Development 2020a: p 38), “Undertaking a Ph.D. shall require either a Master’s degree or a 4-year Bachelor’s degree with Research. The M.Phil. programme shall be discontinued.” It means that a FYDR programme can have major implications on postgraduate- and doctoral-level studies. Students with FYDR qualifications are directly eligible for admission to PhD programmes. However, the basic qualification to enter the teaching profession remains a master's degree in the concerned discipline. It may raise serious questions about teachers' eligibility, notably when appointing for postgraduate-level courses.

In India, except for a few professional courses such as engineering and medicine, most of the general undergraduate programmes are of three-year duration. This pattern is going to change with the introduction of the FYDR programme. After successful completion of three years, which is the final exit point for current undergraduate programmes, FYDR students will enrol for one more year of education. During the fourth year, these students are expected to undertake independent research and write dissertations in their chosen subjects under the supervision of teachers. Prevailing forms of teacher-student engagement and the lack of sensitivity among teachers towards students from diverse backgrounds (Sabharwal and Malish 2018; Malish 2022) may emerge as major obstacles to promote quality undergraduate research. MEES may also act as a mechanism to legitimise “drop-out” particularly among the students from deprived groups. Proactive interventions may be required to ensure adequate participation in research from historically disadvantaged groups.

Introduction of the FYDR programme has many implications on the education system. They are not confined to undergraduate education. It will be productive and efficient if students graduating from schools possess basic skills of inquiry-based learning and academic writing. Dominant practice of rote learning in school education seldom encourages analytical skills and independent writing. So necessary pedagogical changes are required at the school level to promote inquiry-based learning for the FYDR programme to be successful. Developing competency in the language used as a medium of instruction is a prerequisite to successfully completing dissertations. Schooling has a major role to play in developing writing competencies. If adequate attention is not paid on pedagogical dimensions of school education in tune with the introduction of research component at the undergraduate level, the FYDR programme can be counterproductive. For instance, private tutors and agencies may come forward to provide paid guidance for conducting research and preparation of research report. It not only fails the core objective of the programme but also adds financial burden on students. Similarly, postgraduate and doctoral programmes will also need to undergo changes in order to accommodate FYDR students.

It is a paradox that the Delhi University, which had earlier withdrawn the four year undergraduate programme (FYUP), was first to come forward with the modalities of its implementation. The National Education Policy Implementation Committee (NIC), constituted by the DU, has made important recommendations on the implementation of the FYDR programme (University of Delhi 2021). According to the NIC, by the time students complete three years of degree programmes, they will have acquired a total credit of 148. The students who then enrol in the FYDR programme are expected to acquire additional 48 credits in the fourth year spread across two more semesters. Hence, the total credits to be earned for the award of FYDR is 196. Out of the additional 48 credits to be earned, 24 credits each are given to one dissertation in a major subject and one interdisciplinary dissertation.

College Preparedness for FYDR Programme
The FYDR programme demands time-intensive teacher engagement with students who choose a wide variety of topics for research work. Its success depends on how inquiry-based learning is practiced in actual teaching-learning situations of the first three years of the degree programme. Perhaps, guiding undergraduate students for research may be more difficult than guiding master’s-level and doctoral students. First, three years of undergraduate course primarily focuses on developing the foundations of disciplines. But research demands critical engagement with the latest development in the domain and a deeper understanding of the method of scientific inquiry. There may be no clarity on how many students will be enrolled for the fourth-year classes, leading to challenges in teacher recruitment and management. Unlike students who voluntarily undertake PhD, the FYDR programme may demand teachers to motivate students to perform research. The dual role of developing research capacity and equipping students to contribute to knowledge within two semesters may require more intensive engagement from teachers. Therefore, the FYDR programme demands teachers with adequate exposure to research and a proven record of quality publications. 

NIRF provides important insights on the state of research ecosystems in HEI. NIRF, launched in 2016, is India’s first initiative for ranking HEI. Currently, there are seven discipline-specific NIRF rankings for institutions offering courses such as engineering, law, and medicine and three institution-level rankings. Institutional ranking include three categories, which are universities, colleges, and overall (universities and colleges). Since colleges are going to offer the FYDR programmes in the upcoming years, this article focuses on the rankings of colleges.

NIRF ranks the top 100 colleges from 42,343 colleges located in various parts of the country. Five major parameters used to rank colleges are 1. teaching, learning, and resources 2. research and professional practice 3. graduation outcomes 4. outreach and inclusivity, and 5. perception (ministry of education 2021). after teaching, learning, and resources (0.40), research and professional practices has the highest weightage (0.15) in the NIRF for colleges.

In general, wider variations in the performance level of the top- and bottom-ranked colleges is not a good sign. Analysis suggests that a gap in scores between the top- and bottom-ranked colleges for five parameters and overall are as follows: 27.77 (teaching, learning, and resources), 97.61 (research and professional practices), 44.96 (graduate outcome), 66.57 (Outreach and Inclusivity), perception (100), and 25.07 (overall). The wide gap that exists between the top- and bottom-ranked colleges in terms of research and professional practices needs to be closely analysed. Table 1 below shows the distribution of scores on research and professional practices among the colleges. At least 4% of the colleges scored less than 1 in research and 11% of these colleges scored less than 5; research is non-existing in those colleges. However, their overall ranking stands higher, indicating possible higher scores in other parameters. It is a worrisome fact that 66% of colleges scored less than 30. The fact that only 14% of colleges scored 50 and above may be an eye-opener for policymakers and institutional leaders of colleges.

Table 1: NIRF Scores on Research and Professional Practices for Colleges

Score (research and professional practices) number of colleges (in percentage)
Less than 1 4
Less than 5 11
Less than 10 24
Less than 20 51
Less than 30 66
50 and above 14

Source: Ministry of Education (2021).

Implications of Poor Performance in Research
As the parameter of research in NIRF takes into account the combined metrics for publications of teachers, low scores are suggestive of the lack of quality research culture in college and an inadequate number of teachers with proven record of research and publications. This is not an ideal condition for young minds to develop relevant and innovative research questions, practice appropriate methodologies, and come up with new findings and innovative ideas for the larger benefit of the field of knowledge and society. 

As discussed, performance of a significant share of the country’s top colleges is poor in terms of research and publications by teachers. It gives an indication about the dismal state of the vast majority of colleges, which were not even part of the NIRF. It should not be seen as a problem of respective colleges. Rather, it is the reflection of the ways in which college education was conceived and promoted over the decades. As many argue, teachers are recruited to colleges mainly for teaching. Except in a few, research is not part of the core activities in colleges. This condition cannot be reversed overnight. Moreover, teaching workload in colleges has been on the increase due to the shortage of teachers and enhanced student intake. Teacher shortage will emerge as a severe problem in colleges when one more year is added to degree programmes. Therefore, we require new formulae to calculate the workload of teachers by taking into account the time they would be spending on FYDR students. As the FYDR programme demands intensive teacher attention on individual students, new formulae are also needed to make better assessment of teacher requirements in the system. 

The Road Ahead
According to the latest estimates of the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), 2019-20, (Ministry of Human Resource Development 2020b), out of 38.5 million students, 79.5% students are enrolled in undergraduate programmes offered by colleges; only a few universities offer undergraduate courses. Therefore, colleges are the heart of the higher education system in India. If parameters used by the NIRF to gauge research and professional practices are reliable and valid, there is a need to revisit the immediate introduction of the FYDR programme in many of the NIRF-ranked colleges. Even the top-ranked colleges may find it difficult to ensure conducive physical and intellectual infrastructure for research. Considering the situation of top-ranked colleges, one can speculate about the possible dismal conditions of the rest of the colleges. Perhaps time-bound and mission-mode intervention by the state in terms of providing resources, such as physical infrastructure and recruitment of regular teachers with a proven record of research, may help to overcome some elements of time constraints. 

Two types of assessment may be required for colleges before implementing the FYDR programme. They are
1. Whether there is an adequate number of regular teachers in colleges and 
2. The availability of regular teachers with proven records of research and publications. 
Recent policy move of making PhD not mandatory for faculty recruitment may adversely affect institutional capacity of colleges to offer the FYDR programme in the future. Those colleges planning to implement it must ensure that newly recruited teachers hold PhD or good publication records. Recruitment of an adequate number of qualified teachers would partially address the problem. But recruitment alone is not sufficient. It needs to be complemented with major efforts to change the age-old conception that colleges are only for teaching. It requires major changes in institutional structures and attitude and assumptions of institutional leaders, teachers, and support staff.
Along with adequate research funding, enabling conditions for research need to be created in colleges for effective implementation of the FYDR programme. Provisions of research-based intensive and extensive capacity-building opportunities may be the initial steps to improve research engagements of teachers in colleges. Briefly, turning colleges into centres for inquiry-based learning and knowledge production demands meticulous planning and preparation. Implementation of the programme without adequate preparation may have serious negative implications for students and on the overall quality of the higher education system.

The author expresses his sincere gratitude to Mr. Eldho Matthews of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration for his comments on the article.
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