To eliminate a time-tested policy without diagnosing the reason for its sickness will be counterproductive of achieving qualitative growth in higher education.

The intention of the Union Human Resource Development Minister to improve the quality of higher education is in the right direction. However, his recent announcement on the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill to scrap the concept of deemed universities should be made applicable only to new institutions that aspire for this status. To apply the bill to the existing universities will mean hijacking a sound concept that has supported the growth of the higher education system. There are good deemed universities offering innovative degree programmes, engaging in quality research leading to publications, and providing high-quality teaching. The government’s role must be to identify and encourage such deemed universities and similar institutions by conferring the deemed university status. To eliminate a time-tested policy without diagnosing the reason for its sickness will be counterproductive of the main objective of achieving qualitative growth in higher education.

The Radhakrishnan Commission (1948-49) devoted a chapter in its report to deemed universities and said the government should consider a method of creating university charters similar to what obtains in many countries, where universities are set up not through acts of legislature but through charters granted by the head of the state. “This course may also be adopted in our country, at any rate, with regard to the new Universities, which are established by the conversion of existing Institutions.” Thus was born the concept of deemed university under Section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956.

It was in the best interest of higher education that the Commission encouraged the creation of deemed universities. It insisted on firsthand appraisal of competence, spirit and achievement and not on arbitrary rules and regulations during the time of conferment of the status. Between 1956 and 2004, 92 institutions were granted the deemed university status. Between 2004 and 2009 an additional 36 institutions, excluding NITs, were notified as deemed universities. This five-year-period saw an explosive growth (by 40 per cent) in their number.

The virus that spread during 2004-09 was in the manner the status was conferred — ignoring the conceptual purpose of deemed universities and the relevant provisions in the statutory bodies. Were not institutions that did not have adequate facilities, required faculty and were not engaged in research granted conditional deemed university status in the hope that they would make good the deficit after becoming university? Can a driver’s licence be issued conditionally, hoping that the licensee will learn to drive within one month? Off-campus centres and sister institutions run by a parent deemed university were brought within its ambit — a case of backdoor entry. It is undeniable that the ad hoc, arbitrary and non-transparent process between 2004-09 has damaged the system This is the right time to set right these anomalies and ensure that the deemed university system is put on the right track. But removing the very concept of deemed university as envisaged in the proposed bill will only perpetuate inefficiencies. The proposed bill will only put the system back in a closely regulated and regimental framework with little scope for innovation and academic independence. Just as there are bad deemed universities, there are equally bad government universities.Why should a good concept be messed up by the creators and then scrapped because it was messed up? Misuse and abuse of power (by some government and private participants) has rattled the boat. The government must steer the boat through troubled waters without destroying it. It is easy to destroy but difficult to create.

(The writer is Vice-Chancellor of SASTRA University, Thanjavur)

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