Behind the clamour

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

in New Delhi

THE genesis of deemed-to-be-universities, or deemed universities in short, can be traced to a sound historical objective. Until 1956, a university could be established only by a statute, passed by Parliament or the State legislature. Statutory backing was considered essential in order to ensure accountability and maintain standards.

However, reformers in the field of higher education at the time of Independence were confronted with a dilemma. While many universities had come up through the statutory route, a few had come into being through the voluntary efforts of philanthropists and had, over a period of time, proved their excellence and deserved to be recognised as universities.

The [Sarvepalli] Radhakrishnan Commission (1948) recommended that in order to give these institutions university status, the government might consider adopting the method of creating universities by charter.

The University Grants Commission Act, 1956, envisages both statutory and non-statutory means to create a university. A university, Section 2(f) of the Act says, is established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act and includes any such institution as may, in consultation with the university concerned, be recognised by the Commission in accordance with the regulations made under the Act.

Section 3 of the Act provides that the Central government may, on the advice of the Commission, declare by notification in the official gazette, that any institution for higher education, other than a university, shall be deemed to be a university for the purposes of this Act, and on such a declaration being made, all the provisions of this Act shall apply to such an institution as if it were a university under Section 2(f).

For at least three decades since 1956, the Central government used Section 3 of the Act only in very deserving cases. Until 1966, only eight institutions had been notified as deemed universities. Among them were the Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad, which was established in 1920 and conferred the deemed university status in 1963, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, which came into existence in 1936 and was conferred the deemed university status in 1964. The Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, which came into being in 1926, secured the status in 1967.

Between 1970 and 1980, only three institutions were conferred this status. Among these was the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. It was set up in 1941, but had to wait until 1979 to become a deemed university.

A shift in the policy in the 1980s saw 18 more institutions being added under Section 3 between 1980 and 1990, though it is not clear how this shift in favour of increasing the number of deemed universities was justified. Still, not all the deserving institutions were immediate beneficiaries of this change in policy. The Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, established in 1930, could secure deemed university status only in 1993.

Since the 1990s, however, the government and education policymakers saw in Section 3 a possibility to deregulate the higher education sector in the guise of bestowing autonomy. Thus the original intention of Parliament in enacting Section 3 to confer deemed university status on institutions that contributed to national life during the freedom struggle and had proven excellence was diluted considerably .

Politicians in power at the Centre saw in Section 3 an easy route to control access to higher education in the States, bypassing the State governments, even if such a tendency invited allegations of political corruption. With many new deemed universities, which were earlier private-run professional colleges, now enjoying unbridled freedom to determine their fee structure and charge capitation fee from students, the political class found Section 3 as a source of political funding as well. In the 10 years since 1990, as many as 27 institutions were declared to be deemed universities.

The year 2000 was a turning point, as the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government further liberalised the norms for grant of deemed university status by laying down guidelines, which had the effect of legitimising the ongoing illegal practice.

Paragraph 2 of the guidelines, no doubt, succinctly conveyed the objective of Section 3. It said:

This provision has been made in the Act to bring under the purview of the UGC institutions which for historical reasons or for any other circumstances are not universities and yet are doing work of a high standard in specialised academic field comparable to a university and that granting of the status of a university would enable them to further contribute to the cause of higher education which would mutually enrich the institution and the university system.

But Paragraph 3 of the guidelines contradicted this. It required that the institution concerned could merely have among its primary objectives postgraduate instruction and training in such branches of learning as it may deem fit, and research for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

The public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by the Supreme Court advocate Viplav Sharma in the Supreme Court in 2006 stated:

These guidelines have deliberately left vague areas of elastic definition, under which almost any institution can make out a claim for consideration as a deemed-to-be-university. Clauses 4(b) to (e) of the guidelines have set out several exempt routes from the rigours of what is proposed by Clause 4(a).

Between 2000 and 2005, about 40 institutions were notified as deemed universities. Many of them were without any academic achievements whatsoever and were hastily conferred the status of deemed universities, the petition alleged.

It is significant that the UGC found it necessary to revise the guidelines extensively in 2005, but the revised draft is yet to be approved. As a result, the UGC has had no compunction in relying on the 2000 guidelines.

In Prof. Yashpal vs. State of Chhattisgarh [2005 (5)SCC420], the Supreme Court resolved the problem of the creation of 112 private universities by a single Act of the legislature in Chhattisgarh.

Separate Acts for each university is the norm that was violated. All such universities were either on paper or functioned from a single-room apartment. Most of them opened their branches in other States without even establishing their campuses in Chhattisgarh. The court struck down the State Act as ultra vires the Constitution and directed that the universities so created could be considered for affiliation with existing universities in the State.

What the Supreme Court said in this judgment may well apply to the deemed universities indiscriminately created by the Central government in recent years. The court said: A university having no infrastructure or teaching facility of any kind would still be in a position to confer degrees and thereby create complete chaos in the matter of coordination and maintenance of standards in higher studies, which would be highly detrimental for the whole nation.

The court added: In the case of a private university, it is necessary that it shall be a pre-established institution of higher education with all the infrastructural facilities and qualities which may justify its claim for being conferred with the status of a university, and only such an institution can be conferred the legal status and a juristic personality of a university. What is necessary is a large number of good colleges and institutions and not universities without any teaching facility, but having the authority to confer degrees.

In August 2004, shortly after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power for the first time, pressures from the institutions seeking deemed university status increased. Sharmas petition stated that in 2004, encouraged by the laxity of norms, at least 120 more institutions of even poorer quality applied for deemed university status. The UGC set up a committee to screen the applications.

On December 30, 2004, the committee rejected the cases of several institutions as they did not qualify under the guidelines. The rejected institutions were later inspected and reinspected. The UGCs website reveals that these institutions were asked to overcome their deficiencies so as to become eligible for deemed status in the next round.

Among the institutions whose applications were rejected twice was the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi. The UGCs website throws no light on the nature of the deficiency of the IIMC, a reputed institution in the eyes of the public and one that should normally have qualified for deemed university status.

Amidst this farce over which institution qualifies for deemed university status, Hindustan College of Engineering, Chennai, whose proposal was rejected by the screening committee, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court challenging the constitution of the screening committee by the UGC Chairman. The High Court, vide its final judgment on December 5, 2005, allowed the petition and declared the constitution of the committee illegal and without jurisdiction.

The UGC Inspection of Universities Rules, 1960, had been superseded by the revised UGC Inspection of Universities Rules of 2004 and this was not brought to the notice of the High Court. In any event, as Sharmas petition states, these rules had no application or relevance to institutions applying for deemed university status as they were intended for existing universities, including deemed universities.

Taking advantage of this legal position, the then Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh and the UGC tried to reopen the rejected cases and consider the grant of deemed university status afresh.

The petition brought to light a few examples of indiscriminate conferment of deemed university status during the NDAs reign at the Centre. It alleged that institutions that had deemed university status applied pressure and brought in sister institutions belonging to different faculties under their ambit. The modus operandi was to get deemed university status for one institution and then, within a period of two years, bring the sister or family-knit institution within the fold of the deemed university, overlooking the guidelines, excellence, infrastructure and all other factors.

This even led to students unrest in some deemed universities in Tamil Nadu, the petition stated. The situation was no better after the UPA came to power at the Centre in 2004, according to the petition.

More important, the petitioner said the Tamil Nadu government refused to recommend any institution that had applied for deemed university status in the State on the grounds that none of the institutions have got research facilities and most of them started postgraduate courses very recently. None of the institutions had the academic potential to maintain and sustain itself as a deemed university, the Tamil Nadu government said in its letter No. 25252/J2/2004, dated November 22, 2004, to the UGC.

The Government of Karnataka, too, had expressed its unhappiness to the UGC for declaring an institute as a deemed university without ascertaining the views of the State government, the petition said. Specifically, it alleged that the UGC did not follow strictly the conditions as laid down in Clauses 4(a) and 4(b) of the said guidelines.

Clause 4(a)(i) required that for the purpose of recognition as a university an institution should generally be engaged in teaching programmes and research in chosen fields of specialisation which are innovative and of very high academic standards at the masters (or equivalent) and/or research levels. It should also have a greater interface with society through extramural, extension- and fieldaction-related programmes.

Clause 4(b) ruled out deemed university status for institutions affiliated to universities and which offered only conventional programmes leading to B.A./B.Com./B.Sc., or M.A./M.Com./M.Sc. degrees. However, such an institution which also offers innovative programmes and which has adequate resources might be considered for recognition as a university.

Both the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and the UGC granted deemed university status with conditions to be fulfilled, whereas their own guidelines stipulate that the status must be conferred only to institutions with an excellent track record and proven academic excellence.

The petition pointed out that the MHRDs notifications with conditions to introduce postgraduate programmes and research, appoint senior well-qualified staff and obtain recognition from the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the granting of deemed university status to institutions where admissions had been stopped by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) were serious aberrations.

The petition argued that as higher education is in the Concurrent List, the view of the State government must be obtained before processing an application, as it is the local authority with full knowledge of the institution.

In 2006, the UGC prohibited deemed universities from franchising. However, the petition brought to light several cases of franchising by these universities and the UGC response did not go beyond issuing warnings and notices.

The petition sought a direction to the UGC to confer deemed university status only on institutions providing quality training, and certifications, and producing highly rated research material and quality professionals with global acceptability.

In its counter-affidavit, the MHRD refuted the argument that the number of institutions was inversely related to quality. The MHRD virtually washed its hands off the controversy by suggesting that the UGC was the authority competent to examine the academic potential of an institution and that before sending its recommendations to the MHRD the UGC followed an established procedure that included appointment of an expert committee, inspection of the institution by the said committee, correspondence with the institution regarding the deficiencies pointed out by the committee, and the consideration of the committees recommendations at a meeting of the Commission.

The MHRD said that given the pressure on the higher education system, there was need for judicious expansion of infrastructure in the sector. In view of this position and in order to cater to the demand of a large number of people for higher education, institutions had been conferred with the deemed university status.

The MHRD also argued that since the UGC Act did not provide for consultations with State governments, the views of the State government were not binding in the decision-making process. The MHRD also expressed its concern for the autonomy of institutions of higher learning and deemed universities.

The UGC in its counter-affidavit claimed that it was in the process of framing a comprehensive regulation pertaining to the establishment and maintenance of standards of deemed universities and that it had decided to follow the old guidelines until the new ones were finalised. But the UGC appeared to have no answer why it was taking so long to finalise the new regulations and what the need was to circulate the draft of the revised guidelines among the deemed universities seeking its approval, some of whom were guilty of violating the guidelines.

One instance is perhaps sufficient to show that the procedure followed by the UGC was inadequate, by its own admission, to address the serious flaws in the recognition process.

In Paragraph 39 of its counter-affidavit, the UGC mentions that on October 31, 2005, the Allahabad Agricultural Institute (AAI) was directed to close down all study centres, extension centres and academic centres under its distance education programme immediately and to send the compliance report to the UGC. The UGC throws no light on whether it received a compliance report.

Meanwhile, concerned with the widespread complaints against the AAI, the MHRD constituted a committee to visit the AAI and asked it submit a report by November 15, 2005. The MHRD forwarded this report to the UGC seeking its advice on May 1, 2006.

The UGC, however, was not satisfied with the MHRD committees report. It constituted its own committee to consider the issue. This committee visited the AAI in September 2006, and until April 20, 2007, when the UGC submitted its counter-affidavit to the Supreme Court, it had not made any recommendation. Meanwhile, the institution continues to be a deemed university as per the MHRDs website, having earned the status on April 7, 2006.

The list of deemed universities on the MHRDs website shows that Tamil Nadu tops the list with 28, followed by Maharashtra (21) and Karnataka (15). According to the status of proposals for grant of deemed university status as on March 31, 2009, available on the UGCs website, Tamil Nadu again tops the list with as many as 37 pending applications, followed by Uttar Pradesh (30), Andhra Pradesh (26), Maharashtra (24) and Karnataka (17).

Clearly, it requires a serious study to know why and how certain States are in the forefront in the number of institutions seeking deemed university status and achieving it as well.

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