Written by Laila M. Lange

Are you interested in doing a research track in India? This piece shares the experiences of a student from the 2021/23 cohort who spent her third semester in Pune.

The research track in India is offered by the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) which describes itself as “the main educational center of Maharashtra” and as “one of the finest and most popular educational centers in the city”. The university was established in 1949 as the University of Poona and has its current name from the “revolutionary Indian women who began the mission to educate women in India”. The university consists of a campus of approximately 411 acres in size and is very green. 

Main Building of SPPU

Course structure and content of the semester in Pune 

Disclaimer: The structure of the research track beginning in 2022 is described and there is no guarantee that the structure will be the same for the following years. It is merely a student’s experience and not official information provided by the Euroculture consortium. 

… What was the course even called?

The official course package title was “Contemporary India and Europe: past and present” and the course title was “Aspects of the Indian-European relationship”(Non-EU Research Track Booklet, p.16). All third semesters, both the research track as well as the professional track, encompass 25 ECTS. Therefore, also the semester at the SPPU is divided into five different units, each consisting of five ECTS. Below, you can see what was provided to the students in the third-semester booklet distributed before the deadline for selection. 

In the booklet, it stated that a variety of departments form the Erasmus Mundus consortium at the SPPU (p.16).  The departments named are the department of defence and strategic studies, economics, English, foreign languages, history, philosophy, politics, sociology, and the centre for interdisciplinary studies. It does not get very clear from the booklet, but the consortium is headed by the department of Sociology and with that, it was implied that the students should attend mainly courses from that department. As head of the consortium at the SPPU, the sociology staff is in charge of the academic content of the Euroculture programme. This explains why the syllabus generally can be called be coined by sociological approaches, rather than political or historical. There are three units – worth 15 ECTS – which are the same (mandatory) for all attending Euroculture students, which are very sociological based. Thereby, more than half of the credit points for Euroculture students come from mandatory courses. 

… Coming to the three units all Euroculture students have to attend … 

The first of the three mandatory units was called “Democracy, Culture and Citizenship” and the structure was as follows: The department organised local excursions, which were attended by local and exchange students from the Sociology department, and afterwards, the Euroculture students had to write a two-page essay on the field trip. As a second mandatory unit for all Euroculture students, the unit “seminars” was based on guest lectures given by staff of other departments, on which the students had to write short assignments on. These lectures covered a range of topics, and for the assignments, the students were mostly given a broad topic to write on. Thirdly, the Research Track encompassed the development of “a research paper related to a course of Masters in Sociology – the host Department.” (p.17). The courses offered for the Master students were not the same as described in the booklet, and the Euroculture students had to select one of four courses. These courses were called “Sociology of Gender”, “Sociology of Minorities”, “Urban Studies” and “Sociology of Crime”. For the research track, the students have to write one individual assignment of approximately 4000 words.

… But there are also two “more free” units … 

In contrast, two units – worth 10 ECTS– can be selected by the students themselves. The first unit was called “Course of free choice” and as is stated in the third-semester booklet, students “attend one of the ongoing Pune MA courses (…) of their choice (choose from the departments that take part in the programme)” (p. 17). From the booklet the students had the impression that they will have a free choice of courses from various departments, however, the students attending the research track in Pune 2022 had a different experience. Whereas on paper the students can visit any department, the students experienced that taking courses from other departments may be very difficult to organise (since not all departments are even aware of the Euroculture programme) and the students felt strongly advised by the sociology staff to take sociology courses. The assessment of the courses depended on the course coordinator, but mainly encompassed a longer assignment, multiple shorter ones and a presentation.

The second unit which can be selected, and thereby personalised and tailored to the student’s interest, was called project work on society in India. Whereas the booklet said that the project should be “desired by the student and approved by the guide from any department of Social Science ” (p.17), the students experienced that the project was also rather linked with the sociology department since it heads the Euroculture programme. As said, it became observable to the students that the sociology department leads the consortium at SPPU, since they did not rely on other departments’ staff but mostly the projects stayed within the sociology department (even if the project content was not related to sociology but could have also been supervised by another department). 

… Concluding on the content of the research track in India …

As a whole, the content of Euroculture at SPPU had, if I add on a personal note, little to do with what was mentioned in the third-semester booklet. The booklet focused on the EU-Indian relationship, however, I could not confirm the focus on the relationship with Europe. Despite the possibility of attending courses from other departments, none of the included departments had a course on European Studies, nor was the link to Europe apparent (for me, at least). As stressed above, more than half of the ECTS gained by Euroculture students at SPPU are inevitably based on the sociology department, and a maximum of 10 ECTS can be earned through units more separated from the sociology department. Nevertheless, if Euroculture students are interested in gender studies and sociology, then the research track at SPPU is perfect for them: A variety of related courses were offered in multiple departments, including sociology, gender studies department, politics and philosophy department. 

I would recommend the research track (qua content of study) to students who

  •  are interested in sociology, gender studies or any type of cultural content, the semester in Pune offers a great variety of courses related to that.
  • are curious to learn more about India in itself, its historical roots and contemporary issues

I would not recommend the semester (qua content of study) to students who

  • want to be more engaged in politics as a whole, and in international relations particular, as these contents are better covered in other Euroculture third semester options
The Sociology Department at the SPPU

The academic style at SPPU: Teaching and working in Pune 

The academic style in India may be unfamiliar to some European students. It should not be generalised because all departments have a different structure and are, thus, organised differently, but it can be said that university courses in India follow a less organised structure than in Europe. It is not unusual to get a WhatsApp message from the teacher in the evening, stating that there will be a mandatory class the next day. The classes are mandatory and some teachers take attendance, however, the classes are not always attended by local students, implying that attendance is not the primary focus of the teachers. Generally, it can be said that for Euroculture students, the academic style is rather independent-working, and the students have to organise themselves to hand in the assignments at the deadline.  

The duration of the semester and the workload 

Concerning the duration of the semester, it stated in the booklet that the period of stay would be from the beginning of August until the end of November (p.16). Here it is important to mention that the semester the SPPU does not start at the same time for all departments so the starting dates of courses differ depending on the department. The sociology department, as the head of the Euroculture consortium in India, for example, started at the beginning of July so all courses followed in the sociology department already started before the arrival of the Euroculture students. Additionally, the deadline for all assignments was the 4th of November, so that the semester ended earlier than described in the booklet. 

Concerning the distribution of workload throughout the research track, it can be said that the students experienced an unequally distributed amount of work: At the beginning of the semester, the students had very little knowledge of the course assessments. This has been explained by the delay of the first-year Sociology Master cohort and the fact that the students are given extensive time to decide which three regular courses they want to follow. Therefore, the beginning of the semester was rather relaxed, given that the Indian surroundings are very unfamiliar for many Euroculture students, the workload was put lightly by the department on purpose. The students have to organise their work individually and independently so the workload might get heavy once the deadline is close, however, I personally experienced the total work to be doable. 

Extracurricular activities and language courses 

Even though the students were told that the university can organise language classes, there was no possibility for the Euroculture students to attend language classes from the university. Organising private classes was possible.   

Concerning the attendance of extra classes, it is always possible to attend more courses than the three mandatory courses for the Euroculture programme. Since Euroculture students can follow classes from a broad range of departments, there are many possibilities to follow extra classes at SPPU. One has to organise oneself, however, whether the selected courses overlap with the other courses chosen. 

As per extracurricular activities, there are a lot of events happening at the university, nonetheless, any groups or associations were not presented to the students so the exchange students are mostly unaware of what extracurricular activities are available. Concerning Sports, the university does not offer sports classes, but it was possible for foreign students to attend practical classes in physical education, such as Yoga. Moreover, there is a gym on campus which is very cheap – especially in comparison to most gyms outside of campus as these charge mostly European fees – and there are running groups on campus organised via Facebook. Lastly, extracurricular activities, such as students’ events and activities, are mostly shared by the other students via WhatsApp: If one wants to be active in Indian student life, there is always something to do on campus (and of course in the city anyway). 

Getting to know other students

The research track at SPPU gives the Euroculture students the possibility to get in touch with many local students since all students have to attend at least three courses, which are part of other Master’s programmes at the university. Hence, Euroculture students get to know a broad variety of students, also from different departments. Moreover, it should be highlighted that the University Göttingen has an active exchange with SPPU, and every semester, there are German students from Göttingen university in the Sociology Department. The Göttingen exchange – at SPPU is known as Namaste + – and is similar to the Euroculture programme: The students do not study Sociology in Göttingen but are headed by the Sociology Department at SPPU. In 2022, there were six students from Göttingen University at SPPU and two students from Göttingen who studied at another institute in Pune. Especially in comparison to other departments, which usually do not host any international students, the sociology department hosts many exchange students (from two exchange programmes). To facilitate student life for the exchange students, the international centre sometimes organises events, however, information on them is mainly shorthanded and spontaneously distributed so none of the students in 2022 was very actively involved in the exchange office (except for bureaucratic work). 

Festivities to the Independence Day on 15th August at the Main Building of SPPU

Other practical considerations before deciding on the research track

One of the most popular questions “Does the university provide housing for the students?” cannot be answered for the coming years. For the Euroculture students in 2022, there was no housing organised by the university, and the students had to find their own housing upon arrival. However, this was said to be caused by miscommunication and a combination of further coincidences, and the SPPU aims at facilitating the housing of students in the future. Moreover, the students from Göttingen university lived in a hostel called “better living” which they would recommend to future students. 

As for the Visa required for European students: The student visa has to be organised by the students themselves, implying that one has to take care to apply for a visa in enough time in advance before departure. The students require specific documents from the international office in Pune, which can be very difficult to reach, so it is advised to request the documents as soon as possible to avoid stressful contact before departure from Europe. A tip if any visitors are coming: The official website of the Indian visa office states that for an e-tourist visa (30 days), the application can be made “30 days in advance from proposed date of travel.” Hence, the visa application should not be made too early! 

All in all, spending a semester in India might be exciting and challenging at the same time. All facets of life, as well as student life, in Pune, bring advantages and disadvantages and it depends on the individual student how their individual experience in this diverse country will be! I personally had an amazing semester in India, I learned a lot and I would advise Euroculture students to take the opportunity to experience India, its educational system and society through the research track at SPPU.

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