Over a month back, the notices that the University Grants Commission (UGC) sent to 10 of India's best-known institutes, triggered an unprecedented reaction. BITS, Pilani, the well-known technical institution among the institutes that were served legal notice, hired an eminent lawyer to file a writ petition in the Delhi High Court, challenging the notice. The UGC notices had asked these universities to “immediately” shut down their allegedly “unauthorised” off-campus centres, started allegedly without its “prior permission”.
The recent developments involving legal tussles between the UGC and deemed universities have renewed debate on the need for expansion of the institutions of higher education, their autonomy and quality control. India has the youngest population in the world. With close to half its people below the age of 25, it faces the challenge of educating its youth and preparing them for employment. The pressure of a young population demands expansion of its institutions of higher education, especially in skills that guarantee employment.
Responding to an earlier notice of the same nature, BITS, Pilani, had stated that the 2010 deemed university guidelines quoted in the UGC notice had “no statutory force,” since the establishment of their campuses predates the regulations in question.
The UGC, on its part, quotes violation of clause 6 of the UGC guidelines and Article 12(5) of the Deemed University Regulations of 2010, in setting up off-campus centres. The UGC sources state, the off-campus centres have been set up without any prior approval of the Human Resource and Development (HRD) Ministry. The entire debate has been blown out of proportion due the outdated syndrome of not “taking prior permission,” says a former VC of a reputed university. The truth is under the pressure of globalisation, the HRD Ministry which also controls the UGC has been encouraging institutions of excellence to open off-shore campuses. The NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) guidelines clearly state, a Deemed-to-be University may be allowed to operate beyond its approved geographical boundaries and start off-campus/ overseas campus under the stipulated conditions: the institution has to be in existence for a minimum period of three years, should be conducting postgraduate programmes and research and should have earned a reputation for excellent and innovative teaching. Most institutions in receipt of the notice meet the requirements.
The incongruity grows due to the UGC’s overdrive to force regulations that were designed in a different era for a different purpose. It has been monitoring central and state universities, which traditionally had huge campuses, with affiliated colleges. Private universities that mushroomed by the approval of state legislatures also open their off-campus centres, and it is often these “teaching shops” that came under legal scrutiny, after much outcry raised by the affected students and their parents. The UGC is not in touch with the changing times, nor with the ambitious plans of a few centres of excellence in this regard, say experts. The tussle for who leads whom, and the refusal to loosen the leash by the UGC leads to litigations that cause delays and loss to aspiring young students.
Only recently, the Delhi High Court had clarified that degrees or diplomas offered by the deemed universities prior to 2010 will remain valid. After the UGC's notice to the deemed universities stating the courses started without the UGC’s permission were to be derecognised, several students approached the court, fearing loss of livelihood. How does an institution that claims to be a stickler to norms put the lives of millions of students in jeopardy, year after year? Last year, when the Supreme Court asked the UGC to verify infrastructure, faculty strength etc. of all the deemed universities blacklisted by the Tondon Committee, the UGC had proposed to offer verification by means of photographs and videos, which was turned down by the apex court. It was laxity on its part that private universities mushroomed by unchecked growth of franchised teaching shops running from one-room tenements. Despite having degrees in higher education, the young failed on the employability front. A recent NSSO survey reports there were around 62 million graduates and postgraduates in India in 2011-12. Officially, unemployment levels are around 5 per cent for both graduates and postgraduates. However, a PhD holder working as a cultivator or a peon is considered to be employed, as per the data. Last year, 2.3 million people applied for 368 peon posts advertised in Uttar Pradesh, the applicants included several postgraduates and PhDs.
While the overworked courts are kept busy in the war of academics waged between universities and the UGC; at times different benches deliver diversely opposite opinion on similar matters of conflict. Last year, the UGC challenged the courses introduced by the Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Science, in public health, pharmaceutical sciences, medical laboratory technology, and nursing. But the court said the university did not require UGC's approval because according to its own guidelines, approval is not required for programmes which are allied to the courses already approved by it. While the Delhi HC, has ruled that guidelines could not be laid down without framing regulations, “which the UGC did only by inclusion of Regulation 12 in the Regulations of the year 2010 which came into force on May 21, 2010.” The guidelines of year 2000 or of 2004 or the instructions issued by the UGC requiring deemed universities to obtain its prior approval before starting a new course “are of no avail and UGC could not have insisted so without framing the Regulation,” the court said.
Contrary to the condition posed by the Delhi HC, a single Bench of the Madras HC and Andhra Pradesh HC had earlier struck down the Regulations saying that deemed universities didn't need the UGC approval to start any new course. In this war of the titans, the students’ voice is lost. In April 2015, around 1,300 people working in the Gulf region approached the Kerala High Court, following its order to close down Calicut University's 24 off-campus centres in the UAE and Qatar. The court order came to shut them, citing the UGC's directive. Most of them had come to the Gulf in search of a job and had to discontinue their education at an early age. Off-campus centres attracted those who thought distance education would improve their quality of life.