The University Scientific Instrumentation Center (USIC) located at the North Campus of the University of Delhi announced on May 1 a list of fees for laboratory instruments to be used by doctoral science students. Students must now assume the expenses incurred when carrying out experiments as part of their research. Charges vary from Rs 150 per sample for electron microscope scanning to Rs 500 per hour for differential modulated scanning.
The students were surprised when they were given the rate cards. Since the announcement, however, USIC has been closed. A PhD student in physics said: “Since USIC was established in 1984, no money has been charged for instruments and expenses have been covered by funds paid to students’ supervisors and faculty by the Scholarship Commission of Universities (UGC) / Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
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Fear that research will take a hit
A third-year chemistry PhD student explained how the move could affect research. “While researching, we synthesize materials that require 15 to 20 trials to achieve the desired result, which then needs to be characterized using instruments. If each sample costs us money, it will discourage us from doing more tests, which will end up producing poor quality results.
“Based on these fees, our daily expenses can go up to Rs 500 to perform the experiments,” another physics PhD student said. A fourth-year chemistry PhD student said, “Universities have become markets and students are their customers.
All requested anonymity while speaking to indianexpress.com. Bhavani Shankar, assistant professor of chemistry, said the “already deplorable” state of research had taken a mental toll on the students. Shankar said, “Although students are pursuing doctorates, the quality of research is not up to par.”
Due to the scarcity of funds, many students simply want to complete their research, he said. These students end up landing teaching positions that do not encourage research.
Nearly 250 students submitted a letter to Vice Chancellor Yogesh Singh asking him to look into the matter. In the letter, the students said that the research groups have very limited funding, including the contingency fund provided by UGC or CSIR. The students told indianexpress.com that the annual provident fund of Rs 20,000 was insufficient. And the fund is available only to researchers who have qualified for the UGC Junior Research Fellowship (JRF).
A third-year doctoral student in Botany said: “According to this list of fees, the average annual expenditure per head for conducting experiments and research will be 60-70,000 rupees.”
Students from marginalized backgrounds wonder if they should stop their research. A master’s zoology student said, “Many students in my group who are thinking of doing a PhD feel like giving up on their dreams, especially those from lower-income backgrounds.”
In the letter, the students also expressed their apprehensions about how the new duties would affect their career prospects as well as the chances of doing postdoctoral research.
Students from other central universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia said the institutions keep a list of fees for laboratory experiments. These are different for internal and external students. A JNU chemistry PhD student said expenses incurred during research are not the responsibility of the students.
Since the DU has been declared an “institution of eminence”, students wonder why the funds provided by the UGC are not used effectively for research. The professors also fear that the charges will increase in the future. “The state of research is already pathetic and this decision will make it worse,” said Keshav Kumar, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university.
“It is after the fierce competition that these students get places in central universities like DU. If they are asked to pay out of pocket, then what is the point of coming to government-funded institutions? asked Kumar. “It will also reduce the overall ranking of our institute,” he said.
When contacted, USIC director S Murugavel told indianexpress.com: “It’s just maintenance costs.” He did not answer any further questions. Signs saying “save research, save researchers” in their hands, students demonstrated outside the office of the vice-chancellor and tried to meet him.
Kumar, the assistant professor, said it was also difficult to mobilize PhD students in science for the cause as they would be mostly busy with their research work. DUSU, the university students‘ union, joined the protest and met with officials calling for the charges to be revoked.
The writer is an intern at Indian Express.