If Not NET, Then What?

NET is a rational response to the broken state of higher education in India. Its long life is simply the UGC acknowledging that the system cannot be fixed.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula (Goa). Views expressed here are personal.

There is very little to disagree with Avijit Pathak’s article in The Wire on November 2 (titled ‘The Absurdity of the National Eligibility Test’). The National Eligibility Test (NET) is absurd. Like Pathak, I escaped the ignominy of having to compulsorily taking the NET to become eligible to teach at a college/university. And I agree that clearing NET is hardly the kind of licence one needs to become a teacher or count as a half-decent one.

But reading through Pathak’s article, one wonders about alternatives to the test. Without attempting to dive into the history of NET, why was it implemented in the first place and why has it not been done away with?

NET was introduced around the late 1980s and early 1990s. For many years, it was not required for those who had completed an MPhil or a PhD before a certain date but, somewhat comically, that date kept getting extended each year.

At first, NET seemed to be a completely rational response to the broken state of higher education in India. Second, the long life of NET is an acknowledgement on the part of the University Grants Commission (UGC) – and of successive governments – that India’s higher education system cannot be fixed. Let me explain.

The test basically gives one the license to teach. In the past, a master’s degree was good enough. Later, a PhD became necessary. Subsequently, NET replaced the PhD as a requirement for a teaching job at a college or university, whether for teaching-focused institutions like colleges or teaching-cum-research positions at post-graduate departments/universities.

A PhD replaced a master’s degree for a college or university teaching job because far too many people started getting a master’s degree – mostly worthless – and from a growing number of institutions. The quality of these degrees became difficult to monitor, let alone regulate. As a result, selection committees found it increasingly difficult to separate ‘good’ degrees from the rest. So the introduction of the PhD requirement for faculty positions essentially reduced the numbers of those eligible for these positions.

Over time, of course, the numbers of those obtaining PhDs also increased manifold. Not only that, India’s universities began to witness a steady decline, especially from the 1970s onwards. Obtaining a PhD became a farce. Better students opted out of academia for just about any other job. Faculty kids were among the first to jump ship. The status of the profession declined. The 1980s and the 1990s could easily be described as the lost decades of India’s higher education – when things went from bad to worse, and this is precisely the time when the obnoxious NET came into the picture.

The general idea was that NET would provide a check against the useless PhDs being handed out by universities across the country, including by many elite institutions. The reasoning was that if a student could carry out research and write a dissertation, surely she could breeze through something as simple as the NET. That the reasoning is flawed is besides the point. The NET was devised as a way to deal with useless PhDs – a shortcut to overcome the UGC’s shortcomings in preventing them.

It is hard to believe that UGC officials, and others who matter in India’s higher education sector, see NET as a good-enough license to teach. Maybe some of the more ignorant ones do. But the staying power of the NET has less to do with its effectiveness and approval ratings than the absence of alternatives. If NET was to be relegated to the dustbin, as it should, what mechanism or system could be put in place to ensure that good-enough students made the cut for faculty positions and not everyone with a PhD?

Effectively, the NET has stayed in place because the UGC and the government more broadly recognise that India’s higher education system cannot be fixed. There is almost an implicit recognition that there is no way to stop universities handing out junk PhDs. Those with such PhDs, it is believed, will flunk the NET.

There is no doubt that the NET is grossly inadequate as a measure of aptitudes, capabilities, skills and qualities that a university teacher/researcher requires. However, it is also evident that the ideal of “decentralised/autonomous universities that trust teachers rather than a mindless bureaucratic machine for choosing our future educators” (in Pathak’s words) is not going to be realised anytime soon. This is because of mindless bureaucrats as well as the many unethical and opportunistic people aspiring to join the ranks of the professoriate.


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