Education, July 17, 2009

University business

Print edition : February 06, 2015

There has been a proliferation of deemed universities owing to systematic weaknesses in the regulatory system. Photo: N. SRIDHARAN

IF you have driven down the 6-km-long flyway that connects Delhi and Noida in Uttar Pradesh recently, you would have noticed after nearly every kilometre a new big hoarding advertising Sharda University, which calls itself a “true global university”. Given the controversy about the proliferation of “deemed universities”, one would immediately presume it to be one of those. Actually, it is not. But until late last year it was one of the 225 aspirants.

The common usage deemed universities refers to institutions that are “deemed-to-be universities” under Section 3 of the University Grants Commission Act of 1956.

Sharda University had sought deemed university status through a proposal (under the so-calledde novo category) made to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in January 2008. This is still under the consideration of the University Grants Commission (UGC). In August 2008, the UGC asked the institution to correct certain deficiencies in its set-up to meet the norms. But with the new academic year approaching, its promoters seemed to be in a hurry.

The university got established in Noida under Act No.14 of 2009 of the U.P. State legislature. On June 8, 2009, the UGC recognised it as a State university under Section 2(f) of the UGC Act instead of as a deemed university under Section 3 of the Act. The hoardings promptly followed.

One would have also seen in recent months on television an advertisement for Lovely Professional University (LPU), Phagwara, which claims to be “India’s largest university” with a 600-acre (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) campus and offers foreign tours and laptops as prizes to students scoring more than 75 per cent. It was established under Act 25 of 2005 of the Punjab legislature and on November 1, 2006, the UGC granted it the label of a university under Section 2(f) of the UGC Act.

Lovely University was one of the 97 private institutions in Chhattisgarh that stood abolished following the Supreme Court order of 2004 in Prof. Yash Pal vs. the State of Chhattisgarh that led to the quashing of all the notifications issued under the Chhattisgarh Private Universities Act of 2002. It has now relocated itself as LPU in Punjab.

Similarly, several universities have found safe havens in States and got UGC recognition under Section 2(f). There are others that have relocated themselves but acquired deemed university status.

Clearly, there are systemic weaknesses in the UGC’s regulatory system, which failed to raise red flags (or perhaps ignored them) when institutions with imperfect credentials sought university status under Section 3 as deemed or under Section 2(f) as university proper.

Kapil Kumar, professor at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), New Delhi, and president of the Professors Forum of India, says that if Yash Pal had taken his case to its logical conclusion, the corrupt practices that underlie the establishment of such dubious universities would have unravelled.

Origin of the concept

The concept of deemed universities was proposed by the Radhakrishnan Commission on University Education (1948-49). This proposal was included in the UGC Act to give university status to “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 a 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”.

In keeping with this spirit, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) were the first institutions to be granted deemed university status in 1958. The Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya, Haridwar, the Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, and the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, were among the early ones granted the status during the 1960s.

From 1956 until 1995, there were only 36 deemed universities. Their number rose to 103 by February 2008. Indeed, between March 1995 and March 2008 nearly 400 applications were filed seeking deemed university status. At the time of the freeze ordered by Kapil Sibal the total number of deemed universities stood at 127, of which the highest number, 29, is in Tamil Nadu. Maharashtra has 21 and Karnataka 15.

Apparently, it was an intervention from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), whose attention was drawn to the large number of deemed universities approved under former HRD Minister Arjun Singh, that prompted Kapil Sibal’s initiative. Of the 127 deemed universities, 59 were approved during Arjun Singh’s ministership (May 2004-February 2009). That is, in four years nearly as many institutions got deemed university status as had been given in the five decades before that. In fact, in 2006, following the observations of the HRD Ministry’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on University and Higher Education in May that year, the UGC constituted a review committee comprising the Chairman of the UGC, the Chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and the Secretary of the Department of Secondary and Higher Education to examine various issues relating to deemed universities. But it ended up reiterating the existing guidelines. Worse still, the committee said a deemed university may drop the adjective and call itself university.

In accordance with this recommendation, the UGC issued a notification on September 13, 2006. It, however, mandated that deemed universities must distinguish themselves by writing below their names, in parentheses, ‘university established under Section 3 of the UGC Act’.

Kapil Kumar has challenged the UGC notification in the Delhi High Court through a public interest petition on the grounds that it violates Section 23 of the UGC Act, which prohibits the use of the word ‘university’ by any institution other than a university established by a Central, State or Provincial Act. He sought the annulment of the UGC’s executive order of September 2006.

The steep rise in the number of deemed universities started following the new guidelines that were issued in 2000 when Murli Manohar Joshi was the HRD Minister. These introduced a de novo category of deemed universities. De novo institutions were those that had promise of excellence in “emerging areas” but did not yet fulfil the UGC guidelines. For such institutions the above general criteria would not apply. Under the de novo category, institutions were given deemed university status for five years subject to an annual performance review by a UGC-appointed committee.

It is learnt that this category was introduced by Murli Manohar Joshi so that the new Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT) established in Allahabad and Gwalior could become eligible for deemed university status. The two institutions had applied to the MHRD in April and May 1999 respectively for deemed university status and were granted it in August 2000 and March 2001. Now, information technology was not an emerging area in 2000. Joshi’s attempt, it would seem, had been to build his political constituency by diluting the criteria for deemed university status.

For example, according to a UGC member, Arjun Singh, soon after assuming office, was keen to see that Jaypee Institute of Information Technology got deemed university status in the de novocategory and this was granted in November 2004. That year, faced with the problem of handling a large number of proposals for deemed university status and to avoid extraneous pressures, the then UGC Chairman, Arun Nigavekar, set up a 12-member screening committee headed by S.K. Joshi, leading physicist and former Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to do in-house vetting of the proposals and avoid wastage of resources in sending an “expert committee” to inspect each and every institute. The committee included P.N. Tandon, eminent neurosurgeon and former Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS); M. Anandakrishnan, former Vice-Chancellor, Anna University; B.S. Sonde, a former scientist from the IISc and Vice-Chancellor of Goa University; T.N. Kapoor, former Vice-Chancellor of Punjab University; and representatives of all educational councils such as the Medical Council of India (MCI), the Dental Council and the AICTE.

Substandard proposals

Between November 2004 and April 2005, the screening committee considered 230 applications, including presentations by 113, which had been invited by the UGC. According to S.K. Joshi, many of the applicants did not show up, and most of the remaining proposals were substandard or did not meet the norms set by the guidelines. “With difficulty we could shortlist about 10 for recommending deemed university status,” he said.

But the manner in which the screening committee was going about its job was proving inconvenient to the powers that be. So, in February 2005 the Ministry constituted a new six-member review committee headed by H.P. Dikshit, former Chairperson of the AICTE and former Vice-Chancellor of IGNOU, to consider the representations of applicants whose proposals the screening committee had rejected, “in the interest of natural justice”.

This, in itself, was odd because such appeals should, rightly, have been heard by the screening committee itself. Further, according to Joshi, the review committee’s initial terms were such that it would report directly to the UGC and not to his committee, and that the recommendations of the committee would be binding on the UGC. When the UGC Chairman objected to this, the condition was removed.

But the expectation of the Ministry/UGC that the review committee would be pliable to vested interests was belied. Of the rejected applicants, 25 had appealed to the UGC for reconsideration. When the Dikshit Committee invited them again to make presentations to it, many of them did not show up and of those who did and were short-listed none except L.N. Mittal Institute of Information Technology, Jaipur, made the grade for an inspection visit. Though they were not formally disbanded, both the committees were soon rendered defunct because the UGC instituted a new process that did away with any screening of proposals. The Chairman would appoint an inspection team to visit the applicant’s institute and submit a report. On the basis of the inspection report, the UGC recommended to the Ministry the grant of deemed university status and the Ministry then issued the notification.

The new process allowed many of the applicants who had been rejected by the screening committee and the review committee to make their bid once again.

Consider the case of an institute whose proposal the screening committee had rejected after its presentation. The institute resubmitted its proposal under the de novo category and, in the absence of any screening committee in 2006, the UGC Chairman appointed an inspection team that included a UGC member.

The inspection team’s report was positive. It turned out that while the text of the inspection report said the institution was yet to meet the norms, the final conclusion was positive. Tandon, still a UGC member and who knew the case, having rejected it earlier, raised objections. So, another inspection team was appointed, which included a UGC member. The inspection report was again positive. But when Tandon asked what emerging area the institute was engaged in, he was told that it was biotechnology. Asked which aspect of biotechnology, the UGC member on the inspection team said bioinformatics. When it was pointed out that bioinformatics could not be an emerging area, the matter was closed to avoid further embarrassment.

This happened on June 14, 2006, which was the last meeting Tandon attended as a UGC member. Now this institute has been granted deemed university status in the de novo category.

Curiously enough, in some notifications deemed university status has been given with conditions to be fulfilled by the institute. One would imagine that an applicant has to comply with all the requirements. How could the status be granted at all when some requirements were still unmet? Indeed, a public interest petition by Viplav Sharma against the UGC and the Ministry in 2006 highlighted some of these instances.

In some cases the UGC itself asks the applicant to resubmit the proposal in the de novocategory, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi National Institute of Research and Social Action, Hyderabad. On September 19, 2008, eight years after the concept of de novo category was introduced, the UGC wrote to all the statutory bodies such as the MCI to identify emerging areas in their respective disciplines “so that the UGC can examine proposals received under de novo category with consistency”.

According to Tandon, during his term in the screening committee as well as in the UGC, there were limited objections from most UGC members to the deemed university approvals. He points out how he never came across any instance of annulling of the status following the mandatory reviews of de novo deemed universities. On the contrary, he said, an institute such as the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), a front-ranking institute that was granted deemed university status in May 2002 and with which he has been associated, is constantly being reviewed. “There was one inspection just six to eight months ago,” he says.

As one would expect, the report “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India” of the 22-member Yash Pal Committee, constituted by the MHRD on February 28, 2008, and released on June 24, 2009, has been highly critical of the unbridled and unregulated increase in deemed universities, particularly of the de novo kind, and has come down heavily on the entire mechanism of granting this status.

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