The Supreme Court has missed an opportunity to clean the dirt that stains the University system, both public and private

The Supreme Court’s 2014 new year order in the form of a University Grants Commission (UGC) review of 44 deemed universities has ensured more mental trauma for lakhs of students and applicants. Though it has not approved or disapproved of the infamous Tandon Committee, it has made a statutory body, the UGC, subservient to the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD).

In June 2009, the MHRD rightly empowered the UGC, which had inspected the deemed universities before, to review the maintenance of standards in these institutions. The UGC had appointed different committees consisting of former vice-chancellors, senior professors from IITs and nominees from relevant statutory bodies. The committees visited all the deemed universities, and after a comprehensive analysis, submitted detailed reports on each university to the UGC. The inspection reports were accepted in the UGC’s meetings in October and November 2009, and copies were sent to the concerned universities for immediate follow-up action and compliance within three months. The joint secretary of the MHRD represents the Ministry at the UGC meetings and is party to all these proceedings.

An arm-chair report

Despite the UGC having solitary statutory power as specified in the UGC Act of 1956 to review functioning of universities, including the deemed universities, the MHRD arrogated itself the authority, and during July 2009, constituted the Tandon Committee comprising four retired academics. The Tandon Committee directed the deemed universities to make an oral presentation in New Delhi for 20 minutes and interacted for about 10 minutes with the representatives. The committee considered nine parameters for review and awarded scores of 5, 3, 1 and 0. It did not visit any institution and, on an arm-chair basis, categorised the universities as either ‘A’ (scores greater or equal to 30), ‘B’ (greater or equal to 18), or ‘C’ (less than 18).

The details of the entire process was not shared with the universities. Only when the committee recommended withdrawal of the deemed university status for those placed in the ‘C’ category were the universities rudely informed of the decision. They immediately filed writ petitions in the Supreme Court in 2009 challenging the constitution of the committee and the method adopted by it in awarding grades, alleging arbitrariness and discrimination. The Supreme Court restored status quo ante in its order in January 2010. Since then, the matter has been heard over 20 times and over two dozen interim orders have been passed with no conclusive decision in sight.

Based on one of the orders passed by the Court in April 2011, the MHRD constituted another committee — the Thakur committee — headed by the Secretary of the Ministry, Ashok Thakur, to individually review the 44 deemed universities and submit a report. The MHRD ensured that the process adopted by the Thakur Committee had the direct effect of the Tandon Committee’s findings. This was a rude shock to all the deemed universities as the Thakur Committee pointed out a fundamental flaw in the Tandon Committee’s scoring. It wrote in its report: “The rationale of weight of 5, 3, 1 and 0 for ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘fair’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ was also looked into carefully. Since this had a deficiency — that [the] ‘fair grade’ was only one point ahead of the ‘unsatisfactory’ grade whereas other grades had a two-point difference with their next lower grade — instead of assigning 5, 3, 1, 0 weights to the four grades, 4, 3, 2, 1 weights have been assigned to all the points calculated for the 126 deemed universities.”

Unfortunately, the Thakur Committee did not set right the “deficiency” by recategorising the deemed universities based on the new scoring. Having reduced the maximum possible score from 45 to 36, the committee stunned everyone by choosing to retain the Tandon Committee’s minimum score of 30 for ‘A’, 18 for ‘B’ and less than 18 for ‘C’. This was supported by unacceptable and inaccurate theories and clearly indicated that the committee did not wish to alter the findings of the Tandon Committee. Will anyone accept a theory where the maximum marks are reduced considerably but the passing mark is not reduced in the same proportion?

Acting strange is not new for the MHRD which embedded the innocuous Thakur Committee report as a ‘bystander entity’ in the Tandon Committee’s chaotic report of glaring arbitrariness and bias, some of which have been highlighted.

An institution which was conferred with the deemed-to-be-university status in March 2009 was granted the ‘A’ grade (maximum score of 5 for admission), even when it said voluntarily that it did not admit any students under the deemed university mode. Likewise, in the research parameter criterion, impact factors or h-index are taken into account along with SCOPUS/SCI data for assessing an institution for its research output.

The Tandon Committee conveniently ignored these parameters and awarded institutions with higher impact factor and/or h-index scores of 3 and 1 and those with lesser impact factor with a maximum score of 5. The partisanship continues. In the case of one deemed university, a member of the committee declared it unfit to be granted that status and asked for it to be an autonomous institution. However, to everyone’s shock, the university was placed in the ‘A’ category.

The entire Tandon Committee mechanism was kick-started because of a media sting operation exposing the admission malpractice in two deemed universities in Tamil Nadu, now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation. To these universities, the committee awarded the ‘B’ grade for their admission procedure. The ongoing second review to upgrade them from ‘B’ to ‘A’, despite the matter being sub judice, is liable for contempt of court, and is also infested with faults.

The Supreme Court missed an opportunity to clean the dirt that stains the university system — public & private. Passing an interim order on January 9, 2014, the Court ordered review of the 44 ‘C’ category universities and made it abundantly clear that the MHRD is not bound by the UGC review findings, thus reducing the UGC, a statutory body, to an advisory one. It may be legally correct but it has provided the much needed oxygen for the Tandon Committee, which submitted its resignation.

The country needs a systemic overhaul. The Supreme Court has prolonged the issue without reaching any finality. The MHRD must order for review of all the deemed universities, as undeserving ones have been placed in the ‘A’ category and deserving ones in the ‘B’ and ‘C’ categories. Also, the Tandon Committee’s report is not an elixir of immortality. It has expired but is still used, causing damage to policy making. Before policy making dies of harmful dosage of expired academic steroids, the MHRD must provide the antidote and reform the entire deemed universities and public universities system. The right prescription needs to be written.

(Professor R. Sethuraman is vice-chancellor, Sastra University.)

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