We originate a good idea, implement it badly and bury it with a great sense of reformist pride. Is ‘deemed universities' one such, or is it an unmixed evil which should never have entered the education field? Don't respond in a hurry as the author of this idea was the University Education Commission of 1948 headed by Dr. Radhakrishnan! Normally, one should be happy to have many institutions of higher education. Considering the per capita position in our country and other countries like the U.S., our National Knowledge Commission recommended the establishment of 1,500 more universities! Why, then, this sudden urge to abolish deemed universities?

The UGC's rationale in permitting deemed universities was: “Granting of university status to institutions which are not universities but are doing specialised work of a high standard comparable to a university that would enable them to contribute to the cause of education and enrich both the institution and the education system.”

The UGC's norms also lay down that an applicant institution should have existed for over 10 years, be already engaged in teaching and research of an innovative nature and very high academic standard and have a greater social interface through extension and field programmes. Institutions offering conventional programmes are not eligible.

In the first 10 years of UGC's existence, only 10 institutions were granted such status. In the 1970s three more institutions and during the 1980s 18 more institutions were granted this status.

During 1995-2000, 27 more institutions and during 2000-2005 36 more institutions were granted the status and today over 200 applications are pending with the UGC. In spite of its own high-sounding objective and norms, in May 2009 the UGC sent draft regulations for regulating the deemed universities to the Government of India for approval stating that in the absence of such regulations it had not been possible to take action against erring institutions, thus indirectly admitting that first, such status had been granted even to institutions which had not yet become fit for it and, secondly, even thereafter, not much corrective action had been taken by it. In fact, a former Chairman of the UGC had the brazenness to say that the UGC had done it due to pressure from the then Union HRD Minister! No wonder the Yashpal Committee recommended the abolition of the UGC itself!

The following considerations are relevant in this connection: In the academic sector, there is no proper mix of autonomy and accountability, extreme emphasis on one destroying the other in most cases. The status of deemed university, instead of being deserved, is being wangled not because of its prestige but mainly to have autonomy in admissions and fee fixation, the two most potentially corrosive areas in higher education.

Regulation in these two areas has been notoriously weak. Autonomous colleges were mooted by the Kothari Commission because it felt that the affiliation system, apart from becoming administratively unmanageable, had converted the universities from being the friend, philosopher, guide and watchdog of the affiliated colleges into stumbling blocks preventing the latter from innovating or taking any initiative.

The deemed university idea takes this to the next level of autonomy and has to be earned by an autonomous college by sustained excellent performance for about 10 years and proving its fitness and potential for the next level. There is nothing wrong with this concept per se unless it is diluted either by the regulating body's inefficiency or corrupted by political interference.

The solution to the latter is not abandoning the idea but redeeming it and refurbishing it with more effective implementation. The State governments are funding universities. If more universities are established, how will they fund them? If the deemed university idea can supplement the existing university system, this deserves to be explored.

As Shakespeare would have put it: “The fault is not in the stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”