Two recent judgments, one by the Delhi High Court, the other by the Madras High Court, have paved the way for the Union Ministry for Human Resource Development to go ahead with its much-delayed scheme to revamp the country's higher education system.
All that the Ministry could do, during the first few months of the second United Progressive Alliance government, was to take a policy decision that a pass in the National Eligibility Test (NET) or State Level Eligibility Test (SLET) would be the sole, mandatory qualification for being appointed as Lecturer/Assistant Professor in colleges, irrespective of possessing any additional academic certification, other than a post-graduate degree in the relevant subject. The All India Researchers' Coordination Committee challenged the Ministry's decision in the Delhi High Court. Groups of petitioners and appellants, who hold research degrees such as M.Phil. and Ph.D., approached the Madras High Court to get the decision reversed.
Upholding the Ministry's decision, which had been made in consultation with academic experts, a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court comprising Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Manmohan observed: “The courts should not venture into the academic arena, which is best suited for academicians and experts.”
In the Madras High Court, the First Bench consisting of Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam dismissed the petitions as well as the appeals. The Judges said that the regulation and the decision of the Union Government that a pass in the National Eligibility Test or the State Level Eligibility Test would be the sole route to appointment as teachers in colleges, could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be held to be illegal, arbitrary, or whimsical. They held that the decision was rational and based on the public interest, and that it was also a national policy inasmuch as it aimed at upgrading the standard of higher education in the country.
In both the courts, the University Grants Commission figures properly as a respondent. When the NET/SLET selection was in operation, many aspirants with higher academic qualifications and a research background, were interested in opting for a teaching career. The recruitment rules were then relaxed to accommodate the researchers as teachers. Those with M.Phil. and Ph.D. qualifications were exempted from writing the NET/SLET. The UGC was involved in this exercise by framing the regulations for the recruitment scheme. The exemption was continued by the UGC for several years.
Now that the HRD Ministry was keen on raising the bar in institutions of higher learning, the UGC had to fall in line. The petitioners/appellants in the two cases challenged the new rule of recruitment on the grounds that the UGC had framed it on a direction from the Union, which is in violation of the UGC Act, 1956. Another contention of the petitioners was that the UGC and the government had been consistently granting exemption, as a matter of policy, to those with M.Phil. and Ph.D. qualification, who prefer teaching in colleges. These contentions were, however, rejected by both high courts. The argument that the grant of exemptions to those with Ph.D. and M.Phil. qualifications had given rise to “legitimate expectations” that they could succeed in getting jobs without undergoing tests did not cut much ice.
The HRD Ministry deserves praise for its firm stand on a strict recruitment policy with a view to improving the standards of higher education. However, it needs to do much more for those who sweat and toil to acquire research qualifications; they can't be left to languish without any hope of stable employment. It is clear that the recruitment of talented teachers does not automatically raise the quality of education. Unlike teachers in primary and secondary schools, who undergo a two-year or one-year course before they take to teaching, those who become college teachers generally lack training. Filling this gap must be made a high priority.
The news media can certainly play a major role in raising awareness within the teaching community of the need for instituting consistent pedagogic standards in colleges and universities across the country. There is plenty of coverage in Indian newspapers of trends and opportunities in the professional streams of higher education. There is even some discussion of quality issues and of the need for academic benchmarking. But teacher education and training, what goes into the making of a good teacher, remains a neglected area. It would certainly be worthwhile for the UGC to conduct workshops — basic as well as advanced — on this subject for journalists who wish to specialise in the field of higher education. Journalism schools can also play their part in turning the sights of their students towards the subject and the issues at stake for rising India.
(The Online and Off Line column (“Issues in higher education,” December 13, 2010) had a reference to Justice Dipak Misra of the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court. He is Chief Justice Dipak Misra of the Delhi High Court.)
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