Deemed failures

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

in New Delhi

REPORTS about the proceedings on two different petitions before the Supreme Court have made the future of deemed-to-be-universities in the country appear increasingly uncertain.

In one case, Viplav Sharma vs Union of India, initiated as a public interest litigation in 2006, the Supreme Court on January 25 accepted the plea of 44 deemed-to-be-universities to restrain the Central government from derecognising them on the basis of the report of the Professor P.M. Tandon Committee, set up to review their functioning, until the court heard them.

A Bench comprising Justices Dalveer Bhandari and A.K. Patnaik directed the affected universities to file their responses before March 8, the next date of hearing. Noting that the issue involved a vital public interest affecting students, the Bench asked the government to place before it the reports of the Tandon Committee and the task force. The courts directions were in response to the Central governments affidavit that it accepted these reports.

In another case, the Supreme Court on January 29 issued notice to the Centre and the University Grants Commission (UGC) on a writ petition requesting the court to declare illegal Section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956, which enables the executive to grant deemed university status to an educational institution. In his petition, consumer activist Jitendra Narayan Singh said Section 3 of the Act conferred wide and unguided power on the executive to recognise an institution as a deemed university and such action resulted in the commercialisation of the system of granting degrees.

In recent years, the power had been exercised by the executive authority arbitrarily to confer university status on institutions that have no standards to be recognised as universities. These institutions in turn indulge in conferring degrees for profit, he told the Bench comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices V.S. Sirpurkar and Deepak Verma.

The innocent student, after having invested time, money and effort, receives a piece of paper as a degree which has no value or substance. The students ultimately find themselves being robbed of the value for their money paid for services offered by such deemed universities, he alleged in his petition.

As the establishment of universities was held to be a legislative act, institutions could not be conferred deemed university status by the executive, the petitioner argued. Section 3 of the UGC Act, which confers the power on the Centre to notify deemed universities, amounted to delegation of an essential legislative function to the executive and this rendered Section 3 ultra vires of the Constitution, the petition claimed.

The outcome of the second case will be watched with interest as it involves the judicial review of a legal provision that stood the test of time until allegations about its abuse began to surface in recent years. But it is clear to any observer that the outcome in the first case will have a bearing on the second case, even if the prayers of the two petitioners are different.

In the first case, the petitioner, Viplav Sharma, an advocate, sought a direction from the court to the government to confer the deemed-to-be-university status only on institutions providing quality training and certifications, producing highly rated research material, and having quality professionals with global acceptability. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which initially opposed his petition, changed its stance after it returned to power following the 2009 general elections, and the assumption of office by Kapil Sibal as the new Human Resource Development Minister.

On June 4, Sibal directed that all pending proposals for conferring deemed-to-be-university status on institutions that had applied for the same be held in abeyance until a thorough review of the functioning of the existing deemed-to-be-universities was undertaken. He also directed the UGC to review the functioning of all such universities and report within three months the deficiencies with respect to maintenance of standards, qualifications of the faculty and the quality of infrastructure. Sibal pointed out that the deemed-to-be-universities should have obtained the accreditation of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) or the National Board of Accreditation, (NBA), as the case may be, within a prescribed period. Therefore, he asked the UGC to specifically report as to what the status was about accreditation and also about the rectification of deficiencies as must have been pointed out by the UGC in its periodic inspections. He wanted the information on the above to be furnished for each of the 130 deemed-to-be-universities.

Although those three months were over long ago, it is not known whether the UGC has submitted its report to Sibal. Even in its affidavit to the Supreme Court in the Viplav Sharma matter, the Central government is silent on this report.

The NAAC (an autonomous body established by the UGC in 1994) has granted accreditation to 140 institutions. The State-wise list of these institutions, available on its website, shows that some of the 44 deemed but failed universities are indeed among them. They include the Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya, Haridwar; Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune; and the Janardan Rai Nagar Rajasthan Vidyapeeth, Udaipur. The number of institutions that had earned accreditation from the NBA (set up by the All India Council for Technical Education in 1994) is not available from its website.

The Human Resource Development Minister set up the Tandon Committee, in addition to this review by the UGC, to ascertain whether these universities were serving the purposes for which they were so declared, and whether they were complying with the conditions, if any, mentioned in the notification by the Central government in each case.

In its affidavit, the Central government has chosen to reveal only parts of the Tandon Committee report. The committee comprised Prof. P.N. Tandon, formerly of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and a former President of the Indian National Science Academy; Prof. Goverdhan Mehta, a former Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Prof. Anandakrishnan, former Vice-Chancellor Anna Technical University and at present Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; and Prof. Mrinal Miri, former Vice-Chancellor of North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

The committee invited all deemed-to-be-universities for presentations and face-to-face discussions in August and September 2009 in four sessions. A total of 126 institutions attended these sessions. The committee had sent questionnaires seeking all relevant information to these institutions well in advance.

On the basis of their responses, the committee submitted its report on October 20, 2009. Meanwhile, the UGC submitted reports to the government on 47 of these institutions, and the government made these reports available to the Tandon Committee.

In its affidavit, the Centre has revealed that the Tandon Committee found several aberrations in the functioning of these universities. The committee concluded that only 38 of these universities justified their continuation as deemed universities; 44 institutions were deficient in some aspects, which needed to be rectified over a three-year period; and, finally, 44 institutions neither on past performance nor on their promise for the future had the attributes to retain their status as deemed-to-be-universities. Sixteen of these 44 institutions are in Tamil Nadu.

The affidavit only revealed some general adverse comments of the Tandon Committee against the rogue institutions. Although all the 44 institutions whose deemed status was to be withdrawn were named in its annexure, the affidavit refrained from mentioning the specific grounds on which each of these invited derecognition.

Thus, the committee found undesirable management architecture where families rather than professional academics controlled the functioning of institutions. Several institutions were engaged in thoughtless introduction of unrelated programmes and proliferation of degrees beyond the mandate of the original terms of grant of deemed-to-be-university status. It also found very little evidence of noticeable efforts by some institutions in regard with emerging areas of knowledge.

With the notable exception of some publicly funded institutions, very few institutions could produce evidence of quality research in terms of publications in leading high-impact journals in respective fields.

Lack of commitment towards research and irresponsible exercise of power with regard to admission, intake capacity, programmes and fee structure were found to be other attributes of such institutions. Many of these, which were once colleges, increased their intake capacity disproportionately and in some cases exponentially in relation to the qualified faculty strength and other academic infrastructure.

In several institutions, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes had been fragmented with concocted nomenclatures. Several institutions have prescribed fee structures considerably higher than those recommended by the official fee structure committees.

The Tandon Committee members also became members of the task force constituted by the Centre on November 16, 2009, to prepare an action plan to safeguard the interests of students enrolled in institutions whose deemed-to-be-university status was proposed to be revoked in the public interest. The task force recommended that all pre-existing colleges not found suitable for the status of deemed-to-be-university should revert to the status quo ante as an affiliated college of the State university so that students would be able to complete their ongoing courses and obtain degrees from the affiliating university.

Where an institution is unable to obtain affiliation, it suggested that every effort should be made to facilitate migration or re-enrolment of students to equivalent or similar courses in other institutions.

The affidavit estimated the total number of students enrolled in these 44 institutions to be 1,19,363 at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, in addition to 2,124 students pursuing research in M.Phil and PhD programmes, and an estimated 74,808 students pursuing Distance Education programmes. These 44 universities are spread over 13 States, and they could be affiliated to 28 existing State universities, it said.

The task force made it clear that the entire cost of migration and rehabilitation of affected students should be at the expense of the managements of the failed institutions and must come from the corpus fund that was required to be maintained in respect of each under UGC guidelines.

The Supreme Courts intervention might have tied the hands of the Centre with regard to derecognising the 44 deemed-to-be universities that the Tandon Committee has found to be unworthy of deemed status. But the Centre has to blame itself for its hasty announcement in its affidavit that it accepted the reports of the Tandon Committee and the task force. The announcement led to widespread concern and unrest among the students of these universities. The right course for the Centre would have been to place these reports in the public domain, invite public response, and then take a decision.

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