The Supreme Court of India has dealt a serious blow to deemed universities granting degrees that are delivered by distance or correspondence learning without first obtaining mandatory permission from the statutory bodies.
In a judgment on 3 November, the apex court judged that the institutions “flagrantly violated and entered into areas where they had no experience and started conducting courses through distance education systems illegally”.
The court suspended the engineering degrees awarded to students on distance courses between 2001 and 2005 by three deemed universities; and annulled degrees granted by those institutions after 2005.
It also issued a blanket restraint on all deemed universities obliging them not to carry on any course from the academic year 2018-19 “unless and until it is permissible to conduct such courses and specific permissions are granted by the concerned statutory authorities and the university campuses are individually inspected and found adequate by them”.
This may have implications for a significant portion of the 1.4 million or more students enrolled in deemed universities throughout India. There are more than 3.6 million students on distance learning courses nationally – around a quarter of all undergraduate enrolments – but it is not known how many of them are enrolled in deemed universities.
The court in its judgment has also raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the University Grants Commission or UGC as a regulatory body.
The three institutions whose degrees were suspended or annulled were JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University, Udaipur, Rajasthan; Institute of Advanced Studies in Education, Sardarshahr, Rajasthan; and Allahabad Agricultural Institute, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
The three institutions had been notified in 2005 that they were not allowed to conduct any courses through distance education study centres.
“The deemed universities started their correspondence courses without obtaining the requisite sanction from the UGC. Approval from the All India Council for Technical Education is also necessary for conducting technical and engineering courses but this was also not obtained,” the court said.
The UGC is the statutory body established by the government of India to supervise the work of institutions of higher education in the country. The All India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE, is the statutory national-level body for technical education.
“The engineering graduates who received degrees from the above institutions between 2001 and 2005 must appear in written and practical tests to be conducted by AICTE and clear them in a maximum of two attempts by 15 January 2018,” the court said. “Their degrees will be revived only if they clear the tests within the stipulated time.”
However, those who received degrees after 2005 will not have the option to restore their degrees by clearing tests as their degrees have been cancelled. The court also opined that technical education could not be provided through correspondence.
Through its decision the court has made clear that, when it comes to giving permission, courses such as engineering and computer science which require practical training cannot be allowed to go ahead on campuses or in distance study centres that do not have the necessary faculty.
The key facts in the case that went against JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education and the Allahabad Agricultural Institute included not only that they started distance learning education programmes leading to degrees in engineering outside their field of specialisation and without approval from UGC or AICTE, but that there was no approved engineering college or faculty at their main campus.
In addition, the programmes were being conducted in study centres, most of which were not maintained or managed by the deemed universities, using lecturers not paid or selected by the deemed universities. The study centres were not inspected at any stage, nor were their facilities assessed to see if they met the required standards, the court noted.
Ravindra Tyagi, a professor at Bhopal’s Sardar Ajit Singh Memorial College, said: “Distance learning institutes in India have witnessed a remarkable rise with student enrolment crossing the 10 million mark, but the quality of courses offered by them is of prime concern.”
He said the court verdict affects all students receiving education through distance education or correspondence.
The annulment of degrees threatens to turn the lives of graduates of the three institutions upside down, overnight making many of them unqualified for the jobs they are currently undertaking.
Sajid Ahmed, chief supervisor at an electrical firm in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, that manufactures irrigation equipment, submersible pumps and other electrical items, said: “I obtained a bachelor degree from JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University in 2008 and started working soon after. I’ve always discharged my duties capably and efficiently but now I may lose my job for no fault of mine. I’m the sole breadwinner for my family that comprises my dependent parents, wife and kids.”
The blanket restraint on distance programmes will particularly affect students in areas that are less well served by higher education institutions.
Varun Saxena, a student at the Industrial Training Institute in Indore in central India, said: “The verdict will affect students living in villages and areas where institutions of higher learning are not available. They find distance education convenient for continuing their studies.”
The court’s judgment was also a damning verdict on the performance of the UGC.
The court said: “[The] UGC failed to regulate the deemed universities although it is the sole regulating body in the country for distance education. Deemed universities violated norms as there was neither an approved engineering college nor qualified faculty at their campuses. This case shows a lack of effective overseeing and regulatory mechanisms for deemed universities.”
There are 122 ‘deemed universities’ across India. An institution of higher education, other than universities, working at a high standard in a specific area or areas of study can be declared by the central government as a ‘deemed university’ on the advice of the UGC.
Deemed universities enjoy the academic status and privileges of a university but it appears that some of them could have abused their position to advance their commercial interests illegally and conducted courses that they were not authorised to run.
The apex court said: “We ask the UGC to take appropriate steps and conduct a thorough inspection of the facilities available at all deemed universities and restrain those lacking required facilities from using the word ‘University’.”
Commercialisation of education is a much-discussed topic in India. The traditional concepts of education in Indian society have changed as education becomes commercial and profit-oriented and education institutions are based on financial gains.
The Supreme Court said: “The present case shows the extent of commercialisation of education by some of the deemed universities. The UGC had completely failed to remedy the situation. A serious question has therefore arisen as to the manning of the UGC itself for its effective working. We have already found that facilities at study centres were never checked.”
The litigation in this case started when a firm based in the state of Orissa named Orissa Lift Irrigation Corporation Limited, or OLIC, refused promotion to some in-service graduate engineers, contending that the degrees obtained by them through distance education from JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University were not recognised.
The aggrieved candidates approached Orissa High Court, which ruled against OLIC and asked it to consider the candidates for promotion. OLIC appealed against this order, which brought the case before the Supreme Court.
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