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Degrees of Doom

Prakash Kumar, Nov 19 2017, 0:52 IST
UGC

UGC

In a hard-hitting judgement on November 3, the Supreme Court suspended all B. Tech degrees awarded by four deemed universities (technically, "institution deemed to be university") to their students through distance education programmes in engineering since 2001.

It also ordered a CBI probe into the "incorrect and illegal" granting of ex-post-facto approvals for these programmes to these institutions by the University Grants Commission (UGC) on the recommendation of the erstwhile Distance Education Council.

"We direct the CBI to carry out thorough investigation into the conduct of the concerned officials who dealt with the matters and went about granting permissions against the policy statement and into the conduct of institutions who abused their position to advance their commercial interest illegally. Appropriate steps can thereafter be taken after culmination of such investigation," the apex court said.

The court observed that JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth, Udaipur; Institute of Advanced Studies in Education, Sardarshahr, Rajasthan; Vinayaka Mission Research Foundation, Chennai, and Allahabad Agricultural Institute, Uttar Pradesh had not taken prior approvals from the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) to offer these technical courses in distance education mode.

Holding that the AICTE is the sole authority to grant approvals for technical programmes of higher education institutions, the apex court also restrained all deemed universities from offering these programmes, both in regular and distance education mode, from the 2018-19 academic session onwards "unless and until" it is permissible to conduct such courses and specific permissions are granted by the technical education regulator.

For the candidates who took the degrees between 2001 and 2005, the court directed the AICTE to devise modalities to conduct appropriate tests, both in written examination as well as in laboratory practicals, covering all the concerned subjects. If the degree-holders pass these tests, they can retain their degrees and all the benefits that accrued to them as a result of it. Those who fail will lose their degrees and consequent benefits. Those who do not want to take the fresh tests would have to be refunded all the fees and other charges they paid to these deemed universities.

The court also barred the deemed universities from using the word "University" with their names. The apex court passed its verdict in the case of Orissa Lift Irrigation Corporation Limited vs Rabi Shankar Patro & others, but its orders are applicable to all other deemed to be universities which have been offering technical education by distance mode without prior approval of the AICTE.

Interestingly, neither the UGC nor the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry know as to how many such programmes are being offered by the deemed universities in the country.

"We will ask UGC and AICTE to collect details about such institutions," a ministry official said. The Supreme Court's verdict has once again brought out the rot in the higher education sector and the failure of the government to check malpractices.

"On the one hand, the authorities were proclaiming their policy statements. On the other, despite there being complaints (against the deemed universities), they went about granting permissions. Their conduct and approach is difficult to explain on any rational basis and leaves much to be desired," the Supreme Court observed.

The basic idea behind granting "deemed to be university" status is to promote and strengthen institutions that are not universities but are doing work of high standard in specialised academic fields. Up until the 1970s, there were only seven institutions that enjoyed the status. These were institutions of repute, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. By 2009, however, there were 130, many of them running purely "teaching shops" for professional courses. Some 87 such institutions were granted "deemed" status just between 2001 and 2009.

It was advocate Viplav Sharma's 2006 PIL seeking regulation of deemed to be universities that opened the can of worms. It prompted the Union HRD ministry to set up a 5-member committee, led by eminent neuroscientist Prof P N Tandon, to review the functioning of all deemed to be universities.

The Tandon Committee report highlighted the several irregularities in the functioning of a large number of deemed to be universities, starting from their leadership and management structures to the collection of capitation fee or donation from students, exorbitant fees, admissions policies and student-teacher ratios. It also noted that several of these institutions were illegally offering professional courses such as engineering and nursing by distance education mode.

The committee stated that only 38 of the 126 such institutions could justify their continuation as "deemed universities". It placed 44 deemed universities in List B, saying they needed to make improvements to retain the status. It recommended that they should be given three years to rectify deficiencies to retain their deemed university tag.

The panel recommended that the remaining 44 deemed universities were not worthy of the deemed university tag and must be stripped of it.

Three of the four deemed universities, whose distance education programmes were declared illegal by the Supreme Court earlier this month were in that last category. But they still continue to function as deemed universities!

As the 44 deemed universities blacklisted by the Tandon Committee and a few in its List B, of whom improvements were required, challenged the report in court, and the UGC set up multiple committees and changed review frameworks and even the agency €“ handing over the job of assessing and grading the institutions to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) €“ what transpired for the next several years was an exercise in whitewashing a murky affair. The Supreme Court, in effect ignoring the Tandon Committee report, asked NAAC to grade the 44 blacklisted deemed universities afresh.

In the meantime, two of the deemed universities surrendered their status, one was 'upgraded' as an institution of excellence. Of the 41 that remained in the blacklist, the NAAC assessed 38 and gave 'A'grade to 17, 'B' to 20, and 'C' grade to one deemed to be university. In August 2016, the apex court disposed of Viplav Sharma's PIL, accepting NAAC grades. But there is still no answer to whether or not those graded B and C should or should not be allowed to retain the deemed to be university status. They continue to function as such. It's another matter that the UGC's guidelines say that each such institution must obtain the highest grade to retain the status.

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