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Deemed Universities and The Education Marathon

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The New Indian Express |  R Sethuraman |  19th November 2015 |

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent inaugural address at the Delhi Economic Conclave was categorical in his approach towards reforming India. “Reform for me, is just a way station on the long journey to the destination. The destination is transformation of India. Therefore, REFORM TO TRANSFORM. And reforming to transform, is a marathon, not a sprint” — these words of Modi from his full-text of the inaugural address are a must read to understand the ‘Modi Marathon.’ Can education be an exception to this new paradigm for reform? Definitely not. Transformational educational reforms are happening signalling the beginning of the ‘Education Marathon.’ The launch of IMPacting Research INnovation and Technology (IMPRINT) to solve challenges in ten technology domains, National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) for Engineering & Management institutions, e-Pathshala, Shaala Siddhi & Saransh mobile apps for school education, etc. are some of the transformational marathon runners taking Indian education to a new space that had been hitherto uncharted. Another Supreme Court marathon still to reach the finish line is the issue of Deemed Universities in the case of Viplav Sharma. After more than 25 hearings before different Supreme Court benches, it is again listed for November 18, 2015 with a dashing hope to reach the finish line. Can it?

The Viplav Sharma case in the Supreme Court is the result of a PIL filed during 2006, questioning the post-2004 viral grant of deemed university status to institutions. The conceptual purpose of deemed universities was thrown roadside by ridiculing statutory provisions and paving the way for uncomfortable questions. Were not institutions that did not have adequate facilities, required better faculty and not engaged in research granted conditional deemed university status with a hope that they would elevate to university standards in future? I am reminded of my own and favourite comparison of issuing a conditional driver’s licence with a hope that the licensee will learn to drive within one month. The virus not only spread but also replicated itself. Off-campus centres and sister institutions run by a parent deemed university were brought under the parent deemed university’s ambit — a clear case of backdoor entry. Rightly, the prayer in the PIL was to ensure proper norms and standards for further grant of deemed university status.

Despite the Supreme Court hearing this matter, the virus continued to cause havoc of gargantuan scale. The charitable attitude continued as the University Grants Commission (UGC) appointed committees on an ad-hoc basis to nullify expert committee opinions that did not recommend certain institutions for deemed university status. In a particular case, an institution got directions from a High Court by cleverly referring to the UGC provisions that were not applicable to them. A clear case of suppressio veri, suggestio falsi. Such ad hoc committees recommended DU status, thanks to the magic wand that rejected institutions had to transform gross deficiencies within a record time of two months to one year. If that’s true, we need to protect the intellectual property of the magic wand! It is undeniable that the ad hoc, arbitrary and non-transparent process between 2004-09 damaged the deemed university system and adding more salt to the injury was a knee-jerk reaction of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 2009 when it appointed the Tandon committee in response to a sting operation exposing admission malpractice in two deemed universities in Tamil Nadu. Instead of proactively addressing the capitation fee menace, this reactionary response did more damage than good. It successfully implanted Tandon committee into the PIL and hijacked the issue of Viplav Sharma with an aim to hide under the carpet the 2004-2009 ‘charity’ and to claim that the Tandon committee exercise is a reform process. This reform was clearly a sprint race infused with academic steroids that emboldened the Tandon committee on an arm-chair basis to categorise deemed universities as A, B & C in which certain undeserving institutions were ranked A and some deserving ones ranked B & C. In another round of injecting academic steroids of greater propensity, despite Supreme Court hearing the constitutionality of the Tandon committee, the ‘academic experts’ quite unexpectedly upgraded some Deemed Universities in B to A ignoring certain gross irregularities. The arbitrariness with which the Tandon committee appropriated the powers of statutory bodies and the manner in which the direction of Viplav Sharma case got deflected has proliferated the damage to deemed university system.

Unreasonable by-products of the Tandon committee have stifled  policy making constraining progressive Deemed Universities from making any further progress and some undeserving ones making merry. All of this happening when the Supreme Court is firmly seized of the issue. The Supreme Court in September 2014 rightly pointed out that inspection means physical inspection and subsequently ordered inspection of all C category Deemed Universities by the National Assessment & Accreditation Council (NAAC). While the status of this exercise is expected on November 18, 2015, the systemic question is – Will the marathon come to an end on November 18? The answer is generic – It depends! If the Supreme Court calls for records pertaining to many of the C category Deemed Universities, the manner in which various norms were flouted to grant deemed university status will come to light. That was the prayer of the PIL and the Tandon committee is a midway intrusion to sway the thought process. While the Supreme Court handles Viplav Sharma PIL’s fundamental prayer that questions the post-2004 process, the MHRD can independently delink Tandon committee classification from its policy making and be guided by the NAAC Accreditation. Deemed Universities that are graded ‘A’ by NAAC have the capacity to join the reform marathon to transform. Between the sprint (Tandon) and the marathon (NAAC) lies the future of some Deemed University transformers that await MHRD’s policy signal. /  The author is Vice-Chancellor of SASTRA University Email:  sethuraman@sastra.edu – Courtesy


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