Fake varsities: Threat to quality

Fake varsities: Threat to quality

Fake varsities: Threat to quality
The fake university syndrome highlights the problems with higher education in the country: absence of accountability, lack of quality control and a considerable failure to live up to the expectations. These are, however, not new problems. They have existed ever since formal higher education of the western kind came to India a century and a half ago.

For over 150 years, the government has taken upon itself the responsibility of imparting post-school education. It would simply not allow anyone else to take up the task without requisite permits and certifications.

Yet, the fact was that regulation, permission and certifications by the government were quite a mess. Even when India had a very small higher education sector with less than 10 private institutions till about a decade ago, things were not particularly rosy.

In 2005, there were only about 360 universities in the country. Even these institutions were not much to talk about. They barely produced graduates, were rife with politics and did almost no research worth its name. The reviews on higher education, averaging one every 15 years, pointed out the persistence of the problems and suggested virtually the same solutions.

There was little change in ground realities, except that in the 1970s, university faculty were given remunerations at a par with the best in the government.  So, even that one grouse about “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” was taken care of, but it made no difference to either the spread or the quality of higher education.

Perhaps, it was an admission of governmental failure when it loosened its grip a little by allowing private investors to set up universities. The number of universities quickly increased, doubling its total to some 700 at present.

In between, realising the need for an external body to ensure quality in universities, the government set up the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). It took a while for the NAAC to take off but, today, one can safely say that the NAAC, by making things transparent, forced universities and colleges to improve their overall functioning.

The competition between the top-notch universities to remain better than the next is something that has pushed many a good university to work hard towards improving internal governance and produce tangible results. The ones given lower ranks have been under pressure to change things.

Yet, the NAAC has not had the courage to declare some institutions so bad as to recommend their closure. It is in this context that we need to understand the great concern with fake universities.

Fake universities are really not much of a problem. Of the over 700 universities in operation, with a student strength of more than 25 lakh, just 21 are listed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) as fake.

Of these, five are in Delhi, nine in Uttar Pradesh and one each in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Few, as they are, the presence of such institutions throws light on the interface between society and higher education.

A simple fact here is that it is only the government that has been single-handedly trying to improve the working of universities. There is absolutely no pressure from society at large on universities to improve things. If anything, the pressure from parents and students is to award a “degree”, irrespective of the quality of work the student may have put in.

This pressure from students then becomes the driving force for below par institutions to function. There seem be two unfounded beliefs that remain prevalent among parents willing to shell out money to send their children to institutions that are below par: One, that there is a direct correlation between earning capacity, social standing and the acquisition of a degree; two, that there is no correlation between a degree and any corresponding skills.

The result is that a number of fly-by-night operators set up shop in the hope of dishing out degrees to anyone so desirous in return for a mutually agreed sum. As with any other product being sold in the market, these operators are able to earn profits only when there is a body of customers: those hoping to acquire a degree with little hesitation in seeking out dubious institutions that would award them a degree in return for a mutually agreed fee.

In a recent case, the Governor of Meghalaya, in his capacity as Visitor of a university which was set up in 2009, red-flagged the university move to award almost a 100 PhDs though it had just a handful of faculty members and almost no research facilities.

The UGC responded by ordering an inquiry into the matter and deciding that the university could be faulted on technicalities like transcending its geographical boundaries but those could be easily rectified. On the quality of output, the UGC maintained a studied silence.

That silence is precisely the problem: it is not the dubiousness of the instruction that is on offer that makes a university “fake”, it is the granting of a degree without official approval that makes a university “fake”. Fake university is just a phrase that says that the body so defined has not been set up by an Act of the Assembly or Parliament and/or is awarding degrees in violation of UGC rules.

In other words, fake university is essentially a legal issue. It has nothing to do with the output, the quality of instruction being imparted in these institutions or the research being undertaken. Little wonder that businesses find most graduates from most universities unemployable. If most of the Arts graduates find it difficult to write simple essays in any language, then one is left to wonder how things might be in subjects that require specialised training.

That, in turn, forces us to say, “Forget fake universities, answer this: Is the degree ‘fake’ for not equipping holders with requisite ‘skills’ and knowledge?”

(The writer, Professor of Contemporary Indian History, Punjab University, Chandigarh, is also Member, Punjab State Higher Education Council)

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