PhD and Funding

There have been posts criticising government fellowships paid to PhD students. Clearly, it is the BJP sympathisers who are raising these voices in the wake of Kanhaiah Kumar episode. Even someone like Mohandas Pai, the ex-Finance Director of Infosys, and famous Modi supporter wrote a piece in this regard (1).

Why are PhD students being paid stipends? World over, PhD is considered as a job. Technically, you’re working for the university where you’re pursuing your graduate programme. Another angle is, by the time one reaches PhD, he or she would have become 25 and they are supposed to support themselves, and if PhD doesn’t offer stipend, many eager students may be discouraged and instead take up a job.

So what if they start the job? Why should the government care that more students take up PhD?

Funding PhD education is an essential part of a country’s growth. A comprehensive study conducted by a government department in the UK argues that countries where the number of graduate research students increased, the overall GDP increased too (2). Being acutely aware of this, western countries pay a lot policy level focus on graduate and research studies. Many universities in the US even have rules barring the PhD students from taking up any other work. Those countries that allow them to work restrict the number of work hours to 10 per week (3).

Just like growing literacy is one of the indicators of social development, the number of PhD holders in a country is a yardstick of how developed a nation really is. Bernard Lewis, American scholar and historian has written a book titled ‘What Went Wrong’ that explores the causes that led to 9/11. In that book, whilst discussing about the problems plaguing the gulf nations, he argues not having enough PhD students as one of the key problems (4). In their research paper ‘15 Years of Research on Graduate Education in Economics: What Have We Learned?’, Wendy Stock and John Siegfried register their concern that roughly two-thirds of the PhD in the US are earned by non-US citizens (5).

In the same paper, they remark that the duration the PhD students take to complete their thesis is increasing across the world. This is due to the increasing complexity of domain knowledge and the challenges on original research. Also, nearly 40% of students would end up either leave it midway or fail to defend their thesis successfully, which means students not completing their PhD is not to be considered an anomaly, (as long as the ratio doesn’t exceed 40%).

Therefore, society needs to actually encourage more students to take up PhD and the government should spend more money supporting them. If we lament that the current quality of both the research programmes are declining, we should be addressing that as a separate issue and not use it as an excuse to downsize the research programmes and cut public funding.

After all, how much does India spend on the stipends? As per Nature, international journal of science, government pays around Rs. 16,000 for the first two years and Rs. 31,330 for the next three years for a research student (6). This was much lower earlier and this revision came about only last year. According to a Times of India news item, there are 77,798 students currently pursuing PhD across the country (7). So if you assume that half of them are in first two years and the remaining in third year onwards, the total government spend on PhD stipend works out to 2,664 crores annually.

This is indeed a lot of money. Obviously, the government can initiate a lot of development projects instead. However, let’s also look at other ‘wasteful’ expenditures that the government can do without.

To ‘boost up’ the auto industry in 2014, the government announced tax cuts, which led to the loss of 22,000 crores to the exchequer (8). This tax cuts also cover luxury cars such as SUVs and Sedans, including Mercedes Benz (9). The loss of tax revenue from luxury car sale alone works out to around 1,800 crores.

The government loses 7,500 crores annually from indirect tax sops to corporates. Big corporates get excise tax exemption on capital goods import, which leads to annual loss of 65,000 crores; various other corporate revenues that government has ‘written off’ amount to 76,000 crores. This loss stems only from companies that the government terms as ‘Large Corporate Sector’. Narayana Murthy of Infosys has criticised these kinds of tax sops to large corporations (10).

The total loss of revenue, tax sops, excise exemptions to the corporate sector for the past ten year works out to over 30 lakh crores (11).

So, which expenses should we consider wasteful and where should the central government stop? Do we need to stop funding PhD students and save on those ‘wasteful’ 3,000 crores or should we stop subsidising people buying Benz or other SUV cars and save 1,800 crores? What about scrapping tax-cuts to all motor vehicles and save 22,000 crores? And what about we dip in just a little bit into that 30 lakh crore elephant that’s staring at us in the middle of the room and leave our research students alone?


  4. What Went Wrong?: Approaches to the Modern History of the Middle East
  9. We don’t have accurate data on the loss occurred from the sale of luxury cars. The figure used here is a presumptive calculation based on previous year’s sales figures and the per cent of tax reduced on their sales.