The Supreme Court in its recent order declared engineering programmes in distance mode as “incorrect and illegal”. Further, it has taken a critical view of the functioning of the University Grants Commission (UGC) by ordering a CBI investigation into its officials’ role in according approvals in contravention of AICTE regulations.
This ruling serves as an opportunity to set things right. In its earlier judgment, Viplav Sharma vs Union of India and Others, the court had given the Institutions Deemed to be Universities (IDUs) a clean chit.
Institutions Deemed to be Universities
- The concept of an IDU was to promote and strengthen institutions whose high standards in specialised academic fields, like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), PUSA, New Delhi, were comparable to those of a university but for historical reasons they were not so.
- Section 3 of the UGC Act empowers the central government, on the advice of the UGC to declare any institution of higher education as an IDU.
What went wrong?
- Over time the restricted path of IDUs meant for the exceptional became a thoroughfare with the numbers of these institutions swelling from two in 1958 to 126 by 2009.
- The reasons for this great rush were many; as a university they could start and close programmes at will, avoid oversight by university/AICTE and, above all, fix their own admission norms and fees.
- Alarmed by the above situation, a PIL was filed in 2006 alleging blatant commercialisation of education by IDUs and pleading for an effective regulatory mechanism.
- The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) constituted a committee, headed by P.N. Tandon, an eminent neuroscientist, in July 2009 to review the status of all the 126 institutions.
- The committee, in its October 2009 report, concluded that out of the above only 38 deserved to be in the list, 44 were not up to the mark but given some time had scope for improvement and the remaining 44 were beyond redemption and needed to revert to being affiliate colleges.
- The Tandon Committee used nine parameters to determine the quality of IDUs. Some of them are listed below:
- The institute must be broad-based and multi-disciplinary
- It should comply with the provisions of the UGC Act and guidelines
- It should have a broad-based governance structure
- It should not hinge on a particular individual or family
- It should have quality and innovative teaching-learning processes
- Their doctoral and research degree programmes should have meaningful impact on society
- It should have good and qualified faculty
- They should not be an IDU for the sake of privileges and their admission processes.
In a nutshell, excellence was the key to being an IDU.
- The MHRD accepted the Tandon Committee report and proposed to delist 44 institutions in Category C in 2009 after making adequate arrangements to safeguard the interests of affected students but the court ordered the status quo to be maintained.
- The court, however, not relying on the Tandon Committee Report, asked the UGC to evaluate afresh all the institutions as it was convinced that the task of “coordination and maintenance of standards” in higher education rested solely on the UGC Act.
- The MHRD’s argument that since it had the power to approve, it could also withdraw approval if the IDU failed to fulfil the conditions, did not sound convincing to the courts.
- The conflict of interest aspect, that it was the UGC in the first place that had recommended the institutions to the MHRD, could not be appreciated. Consequently all IDUs, except one, were let off the hook, thereby giving the PIL a quiet burial 11 years later.
Today, there is no clarity whether the government has the power to shut down IDUs which blatantly flout the regulations but have the nod of the UGC or its instrumentalities.
The learning points from the above are several:
- First, it is a bad idea to mix up the sanctioning and assessing roles as a regulator. The UGC must engage itself with policy formulation alone and base its decisions regarding institutions on the ratings of the accreditation bodies.
- The National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) or any other body charged with the responsibility of accreditation must be completely autonomous.
- There is a need to regulate state private universities as their numbers are spiralling out of control ever since the tightening of the IDU route.
- Last, there has to be clarity as to who the regulators are in distance education and technical education. In the case of the former, the UGC is there by default in the absence of a regular body. In the case of the latter, ever since the apex court’s order dated April 25, 2013, the AICTE has to seek annual extensions from the court to be able to perform its functions as a regulator.
Though the Viplav Sharma PIL and the Tandon Committee Report lie buried, they have flagged issues which are critical for the future of higher education. Procrastination and brushing issues under the carpet is not the answer. Cases will keep popping up if these problems are not fixed.