The Deemed University system has suffered due to lack of strong oversight.

In recommending the derecognition of certain deemed universities and the placing in probation of certain others, the Union Human Resource Development ministry is trying to correct the missteps of the last few years when many of the institutions were granted this status. But this addresses only the symptom of a problem whose roots lie in the inability of the government to provide efficient regulation.

Even before students of some institutions went on the rampage following media reports on the government's submission on a 2006 public interest litigation on deemed universities, there have been complaints from students and academics on the absence of infrastructure in those institutions.

A member of the Tandon committee, whose report the government submitted before the Supreme Court, noted that many institutions were “atrociously scandalous” and used the status conferred on them to start “money-spinning courses” that are not available in recognised universities. With no trained faculty and the absence of any tangible job offers on completion, these courses have hurt a number of gullible students. One institution started over 500 off-campus study centres and enrolled over 1,500 Ph.D students with a strength of less than 200 faculty members; another supposedly doubled its intake without increasing faculty strength.

A 2008 expert committee report submitted to the Tamil Nadu State Council for Higher Education (TANSCHE) (the State has the lion's share of “blacklisted” universities) noted various problems in the functioning of deemed universities including non-compliance with UGC guidelines and Memoranda of Association (MoA). A senior higher education official in the State says that there has been not much change in the situation from the time the report was prepared.

Allegations of impropriety apart, the government's desire to accommodate a number of institutions with the deemed university status has been justified citing the poor state of higher education in the country. As educationist and former vice-chancellor of Indira Gandhi National University (IGNOU) V.C.Kulandai Swamy notes, India's Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 11 per cent is far behind the world average of 23.2 per cent. Its research output is meagre: while India published 10,606 research papers with citations in 1980, China produced only 692; in 2005, India produced 25,227 research papers with citations whereas China's output had grown to 72,362.

The ideal of a university as providing a “well-proportioned education for effective living and for citizenship” (University Education Commission, 1949) has been fused with the goal of increasing access to higher education and improving the GER, and the Ministry has repeatedly announced its intention to increase the number of universities in the country.

This could be counter-productive if done overnight as the specific problem with the system of deemed universities is the absence of effective regulation. Though norms to be followed by deemed universities were relaxed over time, some institutions have flouted even the diluted norms openly due to weaknesses in the regulatory system.

The rot in the existing system needs to be stemmed, and the government could do that by ensuring that institutions run purely for monetary gain violating all norms are brought to heel. The large number of students who may be affected in this case — a parallel exists in the Chhattisgarh case when 112 universities created in the space of a year were derecognised in 2005 — have been promised suitable accommodation by the government, though this may be an issue in States like Tamil Nadu where the number of affected individuals could be huge.

But, given that the State can bear only so much of the burden in creating the required higher education infrastructure in the country, it should try to tighten its regulatory role.

Statutory bodies like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) have come under cloud and the seeming contradiction between the findings of a UGC expert committee and the Tandon committee on the status of deemed universities gives cause for concern.

A series of measures including the abolition of the ‘Inspection Raj' and the creation of a unified regulatory authority for higher education have been mooted.

Whatever be the final form this course correction takes, without ensuring efficient regulation of higher education institutions, merely punishing the exploiters of a badly regulated system would be insufficient.