Coming to the rescue of nearly two lakh students, the Supreme Court on Monday temporarily restrained the Centre from acting against 44 deemed universities facing de-recognition for being run as family fiefdoms rather than on academic considerations.

Noting that the issue involved a vital public interest affecting the students, the court asked the government to place before it the reports of a high-power review committee and the task force, on the basis of which the Centre wanted to crack the whip on these institutions.

It also sought the earlier report of the University Grants Commission, on the basis of which the “erring colleges” were granted the “deemed” status.

A Bench consisting of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and A K Patnaik directed the affected universities and their parent varsities to file their response, even as top lawyers led by Fali S Nariman argued forcefully for some of the beleaguered institutions. The court directed that status quo be maintained, thereby restraining the Centre from de-recognising the institutions till March 8.

Counsel for the universities hit out at the Centre for its move which was defended by Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati. The court said: “Presently our anxiety is what will happen to all those students. Public interest is paramount. When the matter is before court, the government cannot do anything. We ourselves want to look into it. If there is any violation of the principles of natural justice, we will look into it.

“Before commenting, we want to see the reports [review and task force]. Rest assured nothing will happen to your institutions or the thousands of students studying until you are heard as it involves vital public interest.”

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