Ayswarya Murthy (Twitter: @luvnbeer) examines the flawed tale of the UGC and its functioning.
It has been three years and counting for Karthik* until he finishes his final semester of the BTech course he enrolled for in 2012. The prolonged wait is not because Karthik earned backlogs in exams, but because the University Grants Commission (UGC) in June 2015 revoked recognition of Karnataka State Open University (KSOU) retrospectively from 2012–13, citing blatant violation of norms. Karthik, who has opted for the Computer Science stream, has already sat through three years of practical classes and exams.
Karthik is not alone in his plight. In Karnataka, the UGC’s lackadaisical approach towards regulating higher education has jeopardised the future of lakhs of students. Reports suggest close to 1 lakh students from Karnataka and 3 lakh from outside had enrolled with KSOU, owing to its many collaborations with private institutions and coaching centres. Reportedly, a show cause notice had been issued to KSOU back in June 2011, but their response to it had been deemed unsatisfactory. No students have been admitted since 2015 as the university’s requests for renewal of recognition have been continually unsuccessful.
Karthik, and a few others in the same boat as him, have brought together many of these students through WhatsApp and social media to be able to keep track of new developments in the matter and to mobilise themselves for action as a group.
Anand*, who runs KSOU news, communicates the university’s troubles as reported in the media. While Anand hasn’t got any significant info in the past months, the last few weeks have been eventful for KSOU. On December 12, 2017, Karnataka high court directed the UGC to give recognition to KSOU for the 2017-18 academic year within two weeks of issuing the order. The HC had observed that KSOU cannot be at the receiving end for lapses on part of the UGC and that the commission must be fair while dealing with higher education in the country.
On December 27, the deadline passed without any official acknowledgement of the order by UGC. Following this, there had been murmurs that KSOU might file a contempt of court case against UGC. But for now, KSOU appears to be making a last-ditch attempt at reinstating its recognition with vice-chancellor D Shivalingaiah meeting the newly appointed UGC chairman D P Singh in New Delhi last week.
KSOU students kept guessing
However, none of the students whose KSOU courses have been discontinued are hopeful about the issue being resolved through courts. “I feel UGC is not going to leave its ground of derecognising KSOU courses retrospectively from 2012-11 unless there is a political interference from the Centre or a huge public outcry on the matter. I don’t see either of these happening. Besides, the court order only talks about recognition from 2017-18, which would hold relevance to the university but not to us,” says Anand.
Even before receiving any communication from UGC on the Karnataka HC order, KSOU had announced that it was working to ensure online enrolment for the 2017-2018 courses, doing little to stand by the students affected in the past, who accuse the University of using them and their lobby to get the admissions rolling again.
Anand says that initially, applications for new recognition were only concerned with the new academic year. “Only after consistent persuasion from students through mail and social media outreach, KSOU VC championed the cause of the past students.”
Worse still, Karthik says turning up at KSOU offices directly would invariably mean a call from the local constabulary. It was after being taken to jail on one occasion that he realised the need for some political muscle. “We were only able to enter the college when we went as a group, along with representation from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP),” he says. Karthik has since taken the help of the student union in organising protests in Mysore and Bengaluru and in meeting education ministers and bureaucrats from both the Centre and the state.
In fact, with state legislative assembly elections coming up this year, there is an air of now-or-never surrounding the whole matter. Over the past few months, many of these student groups have been able to communicate their case to various political leaders – from Mysuru MP Prathap Simha to Union minister for HRD Prakash Javadekar and from state education minister Basavaraj Rayareddi to now chief secretary Ratna Prabha.
Prabha, reportedly, took up the matter with CM Siddaramaiah, who wrote to the PM asking him to help sort out the KSOU issue; the PM never responded. Questions will now begin to be asked about why so many highly-placed government officials were unable to bring the matter to a resolution, Anand predicts.
KSOU did not respond to queries about their official position on the issue.
The ‘deemed-to-be’ dilemma
The SC had said of the UGC in a judgement in November: “The present case further displays lack of effective oversight and regulatory mechanism for the deemed-to-be-universities. The UGC has completely failed to remedy the situation. A serious question has, therefore, arisen as to the manning of the UGC itself for its effective working.” Strong words, but not strong enough for thousands of students in Karnataka, who have lost three years of their life to bureaucratic buck-passing between UGC and KSOU.
Students of various deemed universities all over the country were in for a shock in November when the SC directed the UGC to take proper steps to implement the Section 23 of the UGC Act 1956, which says that “No institution, whether a corporate body or not, other than a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act, shall be entitled to have the word ‘University’ associated with its name in any manner whatsoever.”
The SC’s remarks to the UGC have led it to lean hard on deemed universities that have been flouting regulations like offering unrecognised distance learning courses and not following naming conventions. UGC followed up by sending a letter to 123 institutes across India asking them to stop using the term “university” in their names; they had until November 30 to comply. Fourteen of these institutes are in Karnataka. So far, the students and administrative heads from these institutions have been equanimous about the news.
Some institutions like Manipal, who had been using the name “Manipal University” despite having registered as “Manipal Academy of Higher Education”, were ordered to revert to their original name, while those like Jain University were asked to submit a proposal for another name. “Technically and legally, we are Jain University. The name was approved and accepted by UGC and MHRD, but we respect this ruling by SC and are in the process of changing that,” says joint registrar of Jain University, Dr M S Santhosh.
Dr. Ummappa Poojary, president of the Association of Mangalore University College Teachers, says these institutions would have continued to use the term “university” without the SC order. “UGC must do a better job of regulation, in general. These intuitions have so far benefitted from the goodwill that comes with the ‘university’ tag. Their image will suffer with its sudden removal,” he says.
Outside Christ University, which is now known just as Christ, the signage has already changed. While it might take a while to erase all the physical evidence of them ever having been a university, their logos and online mentions reflect this new name. For the students milling under the new sign, which now reads “Deemed to be University”, the understated way in which the issue was handled has been reassuring. “We received a text message from the college informing us about the name change,” says a student at Christ who wished to remain anonymous. “It hasn’t made any difference to us, really. There have been no changes in infrastructure or teaching.”
While it’s business as usual at these deemed-to-be-universities, the other unintended victims of UGC’s mismanagement in Karnataka - students enrolled with KSOU - are yet to breathe their sigh of relief.
Plan to replace UGC, AICTE with HEERA on hold
The government is not considering any merger of the UGC and the AICTE into a single higher education regulator at present, the Rajya Sabha was informed in August. “No such proposal is under consideration, at present, to merge the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) into a single higher education regulator,” Mahenrda Nath Pandey, Minister of State for HRD, said in a written response in the Rajya Sabha.
However, rumours were rife that the HRD Ministry was considering a proposal to introduce a Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA) to replace the UGC and the AICTE with an aim of eliminating overlaps in jurisdiction and to remove irrelevant regulatory provisions.
In the response, the HRD Minister said that the idea of establishing a single regulator for higher education is not new and various committees on higher education have earlier recommended a single body. “The National Knowledge Commission (2006) recommended an independent regulatory authority for higher education, the Committee on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (2009) advocated an apex regulatory body by converging multiple regulatory agencies in the field of higher education,” he said.
“The UGC Review Committee in 2014 had also recommended that the commission should be replaced by an apex institution titled National Higher Education Authority,” Pandey said.
Union human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar told the Economic Times that it is better to “re-invent” the current system as the introduction of a Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA) will require change in legislation and introduction of a new set of rules.
“We are already working out a mechanism of graded autonomy in which the top 20% institutes graded will enjoy greater freedom from the regulatory authorities, the next 40% will enjoy about 50% freedom and the remaining will be under continual regulation,” Javadekar told the Economic Times
These institutes will be graded as per the scoring system put in place by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and will be granted autonomy apart from the 20 ‘Institutions of Eminence’ that will enjoy 100% autonomy, the minister said. The ministry is also looking at clearly segregating the ambit of both the AICTE and the UGC by ensuring that all technical institutes are monitored by the AICTE and the rest by the UGC.
*Second names have been withheld on request.
(Ayswarya Murthy is a Bengaluru -based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
With Inputs from