Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why I oppose the striking students

Last month, India's premiere and not-so-premiere research institutions, most notably IISc Bangalore, saw research students going on strike, demanding that their monthly stipend be raised, a demand that Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani eventually agreed to. The demand saw support from several MPs such as Trivandrum MP Shashi Tharoor. While the issue is important as research alone will make us a better society, scientifically speaking, I oppose the students. And I am a research student myself.

It is true that many students, in or out of research, come from humble backgrounds. A vast majority of India comes from poor and lower-income groups and their talent needs to be supported - and it is. The problem is what Gandhiji had warned against: "The world has enough for people's needs but not for their greed." Listening to the testimony of the students, their problem appears to be that the money is not a full salary and they are not able to save enough. They already live in hostels and eat in messes (except married students, who earn more as well), where economies of scale kicks in and allows them to live a higher standard of living at much lower costs. After that, they don't save a whole lot and have just enough for recreation.

The students' problem is that they want to be paid like a full faculty member even when they are students and are not as productive or useful as faculty members (yet). Many come with stories of having to support their parents from their stipends. While this is sad, the truth is that under such circumstances, the student should not be in research. It may be a Utopian dream that anyone able and willing should be able to do research, but in the real world, funds are limited. The MHRD assistantship can support a student but definitely not their entire family including parents. Such students, unfortunately, should not be in research, even if they're good, because of circumstances. That's not to say that only the rich can indulge in research, but we are not talking about binaries here - rich or poor - but about a certain level under which it simply cannot be done due to circumstances. That is the reality of life. Even above that level they may not be very well off but still good enough to spend some more years on a student income.

Most importantly, students cannot be paid as much as faculty. They are not as productive and their contribution, though commendable, does not match faculty members' contributions. In return for the extra years of study, academia welcomes faculty members to work virtually until they die through the position of emeritus professors, and many do it for the love of teaching and research. The reason I cannot support higher stipends is that it creates a sense of complacency in students and we see them take far too long to earn a PhD, which is a bad practice, a drain on he public exchequer and unfair to the next generation. 

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