The increase explained

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST



AMID the controversy over the proliferation of deemed and private universities and allegations of malpractice by some of these institutions, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has been drawn into the debate over the quality of education in the country and its commercialisation. Professor S.K. Thorat, who took over as UGC Chairperson in 2006, spoke to Frontline on the issues confronting higher education and the role of the UGC in tackling them. Excerpts from the interview.

What is the rationale for giving deemed university status? Was it not envisaged as an exceptional situation, not one to be given liberally? Were the standards for granting deemed university status to institutions diluted?

The idea of deemed to be universities was conceptualised by the University Education Commission [1948] headed by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Private or public institutions that had a unique and distinct character of their own could be recognised as deemed universities. To accommodate such institutions, a special provision was made in the UGC Act, 1956. The Act does not visualise deemed-to-be universities as an exceptional situation. The rationale for giving deemed-to-be university status was the uniqueness and distinct character of such institutions.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute were among the institutions that got deemed university status in 1958. The guidelines approved by the Government of India are the singular basis for consideration of proposals for grant of the status.

The standards for granting deemed university status have not been diluted. On the contrary, over time they have been made more stringent. In addition to the conditions stipulated in the UGC guidelines framed in 2000, now any institution applying for deemed university status has to get a minimum B grade accreditation certificate from the National Accreditation and Assessment Council [NAAC] or at least 75 per cent of its eligible courses have to be accredited by the National Board of Accreditation [NBA].

Was the criterion of merit, quality, etc., used when according such status or do you think extraneous considerations played a role?

The UGC Act and the guidelines for conferring deemed university status are indeed stringent. A three-tier system exists for scrutinising and examining the proposal before advice is given to the Ministry of Human Resource Development [MHRD]. First, the proposal has to meet the requirements as laid down in the guidelines. Second, after the minimum conditions are met, an experts committee is constituted for an on-spot assessment of academic and physical infrastructure. Third, the UGC deliberates over the report of the experts committee, and it is only thereafter that the advice of the UGC is forwarded to the Government of India.

The Ministry also often verifies and writes to the UGC before granting deemed university status. The procedure involved is participatory, transparent and open. Thus, the guidelines, and not any extraneous considerations, are the basis for the decision of the UGC and the MHRD.

The UGC conducts a periodical review of the deemed universities as per the provision made in the gazette notification issued by the Government of India. It needs emphasis that an institution declared as a deemed university under the de novo category is reviewed every year by an experts committee of the UGC for a period of five years from the date of such declaration.

What explains the alarming rise in the number of deemed universities in the recent years?

I am not quite sure that there has been an alarming rise in the number of deemed universities. It is necessary to state the facts to place the issue in proper context. By 2009, there were 127 deemed universities, up from only one in 1956. The rise in the number of deemed universities is closely linked to the rapid increase in the number of colleges, particularly private self-financing institutions, since the early 1990s. These colleges and institutions were potential aspirants for deemed university status. The increase in [applications by] such institutions for deemed university status led to an increase in the overall number of applications for deemed universities.

Let me present some statistics. As of today, there are a total of 479 universities, of which 74 per cent are government-run universities. This means about 25 per cent of our universities are private-run. There are about 39 State private universities. By May 2009, there were 127 deemed universities. These included 86 private deemed universities and 41 government deemed universities. The government and private deemed universities thus account for 8 per cent and about 17 respectively of the total number of universities.

The question is whether the private deemed universities have grown at an alarming rate. A comparison with other universities throws some light on this issue. Between 1951 and 2008, the number of government universities increased from 20 to 354, that is, 17 times at an annual rate of 6.6 per cent. The State private universities increased from about one in 1995 to 39 in 2009, that is, 39 times within a period of 15 years at an annual rate of 6.5 per cent, with 11 of them being created in one single year, 2008. As against this, the private deemed universities increased at an annual rate of about 3 per cent. Thus the increase in the number of private deemed universities has been much less compared with public universities (Central and State) and private State universities.

It is true that private deemed universities have increased in number at a faster rate from 2000 onwards. The number of private deemed universities went up from one in 1964 to 86 in 2009. During 1964-1990, only 10 deemed universities were created, and another 10 during 1991-2000; 67 were added between 2000 and 2009.

Why was the increase in the number of deemed universities (and also private State universities) higher during the decade of 2000-2009? The reason lies in the rapid jump in the number of private self-financing institutions, which are the potential candidates for deemed university status. For instance, the number of colleges increased at an annual rate of 6.65 per cent during 1950-2008. The maximum increase was in the professional courses. Data from AICTE show that around 4,770 engineering and related professional institutes were set up [during the period]. There were only 43 in 1947. A rapid increase was witnessed after 1995. As a condition for deemed university status was 10 years, the bulk of them became eligible for such status by mid-2000. This resulted in a big rush of applications for deemed university status after 2005. Thus, the number of applications increased from 26 in 2005 to 64 in 2007 and to 99 by June 2009.

Thus, the increase in the number of private deemed universities, particularly in the decade of 2000-2009, is a direct outcome of a jump in the number of private institutions, which in turn was the result of the expansion of higher education, particularly through private participation. Given the reduced role of the government, the role of the private sector has become more prominent. It is necessary to understand this reality before coming to any conclusion.

What are the reforms necessary in the guidelines of deemed universities and what measures are necessary to ensure quality and equity?

There are a number of issues that need urgent attention. First, we need to revisit and redefine the role of the private sector in higher education in terms of goals and participation. Second, if we decide to have a concept of deemed university, the issue of quality and access must be addressed. There is an urgent need to convert the guidelines into regulation, so that they become binding. The UGC has already prepared regulations and sent them to the MHRD for its approval.

As regards quality, the UGCs regular review report and NAAC accreditation are the only two sources for assessing quality. The UGC regularly monitors deviations from its guidelines. The NAAC has assessed 39 out of 125 deemed universities. The sample shows that the grade varies from B plus to A plus. However, there is a need for compulsory accreditation, which the UGC has now done.

The issue of access is more serious, as this is what has affected the image of these institutions in the public eye. The restricted access owing to higher fees is a serious problem. While we have regulated the admission and fee structure for self-financing institutions through common all-India tests and State-level fee committees, and brought some order and transparency, the same has not happened in the case of deemed universities. There is an absolute need to bring deemed universities under the ambit of a common all India admission test and to regulate the fees through an appropriate mechanism. To a large extent, this will address the issues we are witnessing today. The UGC has prepared the guidelines for admission and fees and proposed to approve them soon. We should revisit the concept of de novo category, for which a number of conditions have been relaxed.

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