With the Committee of Experts appointed by the Supreme Court categorising 44 deemed universities, 16 from Tamil Nadu, as unfit to be universities, they are likely to revert to functioning as affiliated colleges.

The unprecedented expansion of deemed-to-be universities over the past two decades and their skewed growth limited to professional courses has led to focus on issues of quality, performances and practices of such universities. At present, the Supreme Court is hearing the case (A PIL filed in 2006 by Viplav Sharma) relating to the ambiguity in the guidelines in scrutinising applications from institutions seeking Centre's clearance to be declared as deemed-to-be universities.

Waking up to the concerns of the public, the Union Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) constituted a Committee of Experts (Tandon Committee) that categorised the deemed-to-be universities into Category A - justified as universities on performance and potential, B - deficient in some aspects that need to be rectified in three years to continue as universities and C - not fit to be a university.

As many as 44 universities were bracketed under ‘C'. After the managements of these institutions appealed, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to appoint a Committee of Officers to patiently listen to these 44 in question, individually. Now, the Committee of Officers, on examining the matter, has found no reason to deviate from the conclusions drawn by the Committee of Experts. Its report is with the Supreme Court.

It is likely that many of the 44 deemed-to-be universities could be reverted to college status again. With the threat of losing the status of university real, the Tamil Nadu Deemed Universities' Association, in a statement, has claimed that the Committee of Officers, after reviewing 44 deemed-to-be universities, has revised the grading of the universities and nearly 25 have been given marks of ‘B' category and most of those in the State would be upgraded to ‘B' category automatically.

The Committee of Officers, of course, has followed a different scoring pattern. But, it still has categorised 44 deemed-to-be universities, including 16 in Tamil Nadu, under ‘C' category. This fact is evident from a closer look at the remarks on the far right column in Annexure 7-A submitted to the SC. The committee has clearly observed that none of the deemed universities crossed the grouping and there was no change in overall grading.

The 44 universities, subject matter of scrutiny, may claim that there was no on-site visit. In its observation, the Committee of Officers has clearly said the classification of universities would not have been affected as the reports of UGC expert committees which visited the campuses have not found fault with any, except two, on the infrastructural front.

The committee has also observed that the results of research as borne out by the quality of articles and the standard of the journals could be found even without undertaking such visits.

One of the reasons why the deemed-to-be universities are afraid of losing the status is that this category of institutions conduct a national-level exam on their own and admit students. Every seat counts. And capitation fee rules. Besides, there is no interference from the State on admissions. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, an engineering college has to surrender 65 per cent of seats to government and only 35 per cent fall under management quota (for minority institutions it is 50:50).

The deemed universities are not to blame entirely for capitation, the scourge of higher education. As most of these universities were good colleges earlier with a decent placement record and better infrastructural facilities, parents prefer to pay upfront to gain admission in such institutions. The IT majors, of late, are also contributing to the success of these universities by recruiting in thousands from private universities. This is bound to hike the capitation fee collected by private universities.

A careful look at the reports of the Committees of Experts and Officers reveal that the institutions should have been engaged in substantial terms in innovative programmes and research, including in emerging areas, which is a condition precedent to being declared an Institution Deemed-to-be University. Both the committees have clarified that an area of knowledge like stem cell research may be an emerging / innovative area today, but definitely not information technology or for that matter computer science, that were considered an emerging area a decade or so, ago.

It is time the managements realised the meaning and value of universities and work sincerely towards becoming one. And remember, the focus of the university is the student. Not the money he/she pays.

Over to the Supreme Court.