Research outputs produced by universities are the key driver for a nation determined to create a thriving knowledge economy (Barnett, 2003). Besides harbouring critical thinking and innovation, university research lays the foundation for teaching and learning in higher education (Bahti, 1987). Given the importance of universities’ research mission, scholars can expect to receive additional support during the pandemic. However, the ground realities in India reveal a paradoxical situation: the concerns regarding research scholars across the disciplines and universities have been found to be insignificant or entirely missing in the policy discourse and in the measures taken to revitalise and support the nation’s higher education system during the Covid-19 crisis (Hassan, 2020). True, the challenges that university researchers have been facing and continue to face today might be directly linked to the unforeseen shockwaves created by the pandemic. But however unique and unexpected these challenges are, they must be taken into account when framing and institutionalising scholar-centred policy reforms with the specific goal to develop and strengthen a research ecosystem in the current and post-pandemic contexts.
This article will reflect upon the experiences during the pandemic narrated by research scholars at various public universities in Delhi. Their stories highlight the challenges that have disrupted their research pursuits. A way forward is suggested for them to survive and thrive during the crisis. Many of the challenges described and analysed in the article could be effectively tackled by more innovative and forward-looking policies and measures, and by adopting more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse strategies. Universities should also reinforce their alliences with key stakeholders, including public authorities, buisnesses, local communities and international partners. Arguably, many of the desired changes implied by the respondents’ stories are highly sensitive to India’s traditional academic and research culture. For this reason, the scholars’ names and institutions are not mentioned as a way to protect their interests.
Limited or No Access to Research Resources and Expert Supervision—The Digital Disparity
On 16th March 2020, just after the first death linked to COVID-19 had been reported in the country, India closed all universities for academic and research work, in a two-week lockdown. This was followed by a complete suspension of university research activities until August 2020. On 4th September, PhD scholars and post-graduate students of technical and professional university programs were allowed limited mobility based on their laboratory and individual needs. In November, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a regulation that laid out a plan to reopen universities. This move, however, provided little guidance on whether institutions could resume research activities in social sciences and in the humanities (UGC, 2020a). UGC also issued guidelines regarding the university academic calendar and exam dates in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, instructing institutions across the country to switch to online education in an attempt to save the academic year for students. However, none of the guidelines addressed the resumption of university research activities (UGC 2020b). For many M.Phil and Doctoral candidates, learning and collaborating online was not a replacement for being physically present and working in labs and through face-to-face interactions. Depending on their discipline and individual research goals and paths, each researcher needs both online and offline resources. But with restricted mobility, closed libraries and archives, and reduced productivity of research collaboration efforts, many university researchers faced significant challenges and limitations in carrying on with their projects without being offered additional support from their departments or research units.
- “Due to lockdown, access to libraries, other resources and expert supervision was almost negligible for the past ten months which is definitely going to impact my submission deadlines.” — A doctoral scholar
Existing digital disparities in India further exacerbated the lack of adequate access to academic resources, supervision and collaboration caused by the pandemic. Internet facilities are poor in remote and rural areas, and for many scholars from disadvantageous and economically backward groups working entirely online carried a substantial financial burden. Hence, at a time when field or lab work was impossible, theoretical or desktop research also became problematic.
The Lost Space—Physical and Mental
Research work entails extensive mental effort, calling on the scholar to immerse systematically and creatively in the theory, data and praxis throughout the research journey. This requires not only an undisturbed and supportive physical environment to carry on projects, but also a mental state and space in which thoughts move to and from constantly, forging connections between existing concepts and new ideas. Research is not about learning from books and showing up for exams. Rather, it is a process of continuous envisioning, exploring, creating, probing and testing. There are moments of enlightenment, intellectual fulfilment and celebration, but there are also times of doubts, uncertainty and frustration. An environment that facilitates the researcher’s peace of mind and fosters research productivity is essential. But with physical research spaces and facilities no longer accessible, many scholars have found themselves denied a proper setting to focus on their work.
- “Our safe space was university; there is so much distraction at home. I live with my family in 1BHK and don’t have a personal room to study.” — A doctoral scholar
It is not uncommon for young Indian scholars to share the living space with their families. For many, having a separate dedicated area for study or research work within their houses or apartments is a luxury. One can imagine the level of distractions created by online classes taken by kids and work-related video calls by family members, let alone the smells and sounds coming from the kitchen.
Financial Constraints—Delayed or No Fellowships
- “The atmosphere for studying can never be built in a home environment, especially when I am the only generation learner with such high academic credentials. This gap makes understanding the research work and efforts required to be put in almost impossible to be comprehended by others.” — A Doctoral scholar
In India, research scholars are supported through various fellowship schemes, which provide financial assistance to meet the expenses incurred by them for research activities on the condition that the fellowship recipients are not involved in any kind of income-generating work outside the university. But during the pandemic, university researchers reportedly faced prolonged delays in fellowship disbursement. In the absence of funds, some scholars are on the verge of dropping out of their projects. In addition, those scholars who were in the process of upgrading from their junior to senior research fellowship status were not receiving funding for a long time due to administrative delays caused by disruptions of university shutdowns. Delayed fellowships will definitely negatively affect the research work of university scholars, many of whom have been forced to opt for alternative jobs to support themselves during the pandemic.
- “I had come to Delhi in the first week of March from my ongoing field work, and suddenly lockdown happened before I could go back to the field. Since the field work was of 10 months; I had taken a rented room in Bengal. As I had left my stuff there, I had to pay rent for it till July when the movement was allowed. I paid double rent for my room in Delhi and in Bengal. My stipend stopped in the month of June and was not extended by the university.” — An M.Phil. scholar
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has given an extension to research scholars who had to submit their work in June 2020 and in December 2020. However, the deadline extension was not accompanied by extended financial support. The pressure to finish and submit research projects on time when funding is reduced, interrupted or delayed will have adverse effects on the mental health of many young researchers.
Halt in Field Work—Missing Human Engagements
Research in social sciences often requires in-depth engagement with the participants of focus groups, interviews, social experiments, or other live interactions, while online activities can hardly serve as a good replacement for proper field research. The very nature of field research as a method demands that investigators observe phenomena and collect data in the conditions that are as close as possible to real-life situations. And when online replacements are possible, organising and running them may be marred by poor Internet connectivity.
- “My field is located in a village, which involves engagement with the community. Holding meetings with the people in the village through video call was not at all feasible as they don’t have an internet connection there.” — A M.Phil. scholar
As a result, scholars whose projects involve field work face the challenge of putting their research on halt. Many of the respondents complained that their field work, originally planned to begin in spring 2020, had not started at the time of the interviews due to the lockdowns and restrictions. Obviously, this situation will have severe repercussions on scholars’ ability to finish research on time.
Gaps in Experimental Work—Contingencies of Samples
Besides limited access to resources, financial constraints, and field work restrictions, research scholars in natural, physical and life sciences working in wet labs have been grappling with the fear of having their samples lost or damaged.
Gender Stereotypes—The Invisible Constraint
- “My research involves studying the soil near a river basin, I had to collect my samples during different seasons and have lost that time-duration for this year, moreover my earlier sample too would have been destroyed by now as I had to study them within a specific time duration. I will have to extend the process for one more year and would not be able to complete my work within the given timeframe.” — A Doctoral scholar
- “Before the pandemic, I had no responsibility for household chores, but during the pandemic being a girl, I was burdened by this responsibility. After doing household work, I was not left with any energy to read and write for my Ph.D. Rigorous academic work is not possible with household chores.” — A Doctoral scholar
Similar experiences were shared by several other female scholars. Their stories make it clear that the burden of caretaking responsibilities during the pandemic increased significantly. In India, female family members are traditionally seen as primary caretakers, a bias that limits their potential to carry out research work. This cultural aspect needs to be well understood and taken into consideration by policymakers and university leaders. The problem, of course, was already widespread long before the pandemic, but now it has become one of the major obstacles to female researchers.
Uncertain future—Lost Timelines and Prospects
- “I submitted my Ph.D. thesis mid-March right before the lockdowns were imposed. Delhi University exam branch did not resume work till August’20. There was no update about the status of the submission till that time and even after resumption of work. Our university is not accountable to its scholars, ironically enrolled in the highest degree programme. It’s January 2021, and we still have no timeline in sight for the Viva to be conducted and Ph.D. to be awarded.” — A Doctoral scholar
This has been the ordeal for several research scholars who had submitted their research thesis already before the lockdowns. None of them was given a timeline indicating when their thesis defence could happen, and their degree awarded. Young scholars depend on thesis defence and formal graduation dates in order to implement their job search strategy effectively. With no official university degree to show to potential employers, they have to postpone looking for positions to after the next academic year. Consequently, missed job opportunities and low morale add to the stress and frustration already built by the pandemic: despite their best effort to submit a thesis on time, would-be graduates feel neglected and treated unfairly by their academic programs.
Bridging the Gap
The experiences of Indian university researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic reveal that they are in need of an institutionalised support system to help them better cope with the new challenges and limitations. There are numerous stories of research work being interrupted, and research output put at risk. The inability to support young researchers will have serious repercussions for India‘s research ecosystem. University research is essential not only for the creation of a knowledge economy and developing the intellectual base of the country, but more importantly, to drive innovations and sustain the nation under crisis.
The most recent New Education Policy 2020 has defined as a strategic priority enhancing innovation and creativity in public universities by strengthening their research capacity and increasing research quality. The policy set out the establishment of a National Research Foundation (NRF) with a special mandate to develop and maintain a research ecosystem embracing all levels of higher education (MHRD, 2020). Today, research scholars in India account for less than 0.5% of the total student enrolment in the higher education system (MHRD, 2019). Increasing their numbers will prove difficult unless current university researchers start receiving adequate administrative, financial, and technical support.
But how to bring the required transformation and streamline the creation of viable support mechanisms? What measures and resources are needed to ensure that universities carry on with their research work during the pandemic and beyond? Policymakers and university leaders need to prioritise strategies that could incentivise Indian universities to become more entrepreneurial, innovation-driven and resilient to external pressures. Such strategies will require universities to adjust their institutional cultures and governance models. Furthermore, supporting university research will call for a collaborative effort of the central government and regional authorities, industry, the academic community, international partners, and other stakeholders. The following list outlines some first-priority measures suggested by us to help university researchers in India:
A special government support fund must be established to ensure uninterrupted remittance of research grants for at least a six-month period, allowing scholars to focus on their projects and to avoid mental anxiety and pressure caused by running deadlines and financial constraints.
Easy and reliable access to online collaboration spaces (Zoom, Microsoft Team or similar) will foster scholars’ sense of belonging and purpose, helping them to get motivated, accountable, and moving forward with their projects while working in isolation.
Scholars should be given additional technical training and upskilling in online data collection and analysis and in using digital tools and resources for their research. For one thing, universities should help their academic staff to create ResearchGate accounts and to encourage them to request and share data and publications online for free.
Scholars will also benefit from workshops on stress and anxiety management, self-discipline, and mental health issues prevention.
Online library resources (e-books, academic journals, archives, documents) must be made accessible for university scholars through a system of secure and reliable identification administered by the universities.
Universities should make safety adjustment to their physical facilities in compliance with social distancing requirements and health protocols, allowing for the phased return of scholars to university labs and spaces.
The gender perspective should also be addressed by devising special support mechanisms for female scholars.
Bahti, T. (1987). Histories of the University: Kant and Humboldt. MLN, 102(3), 437. https://doi.org/10.2307/2905581
Barnett, R. (2003). Beyond All Reasons:Living with Ideology in the University. SRHE and Open University Press.
Hassan, M. (2020). Research Work at a Halt, PhD Scholars Wait for Pandemic to Abate. The Quint. https://www.thequint.com/my-report/coronavirus-india-research-work-halted-phd-students-wait-for-pandemic-to-abate
MHRD. (2019). AISHE Final Report 2018-19.pdf. In All India Survey of Higher Education 2018-2019. GOI, MHRD, Department of Higher Education.
MHRD. (2020). National Education Policy 2020 Government of India. https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_English.pdf
UGC. (2020a). UGC Guidelines For RE-Opening the Universities And Colleges Post Lockdown Due to COVID-19 PANDEMIC.
UGC. (2020b). UGC guidelines on Examinations and Academic calender for the Universities in view of COVID-19 Pandemic and Subsequent Lockdown.