Legal Correspondent

New Delhi: Postgraduate degrees awarded by open universities under the distance education programme to students who did not have the basic three-year degree could not be treated on a par with PG degrees obtained after regular study from a recognised university, the Supreme Court held on Wednesday.

A Bench consisting of Justices S.B. Sinha and Mukundakam Sharma upheld a Madras High Court judgment invalidating Annamalai University PG degrees conferred on distance education students under the ‘Open University’.

The Bench rejected the university’s submission that the judgment would have far-reaching ramifications as such courses were offered not only by it but also other universities. From 1991-1992 to 2003-2004, over 2.5 lakh students who obtained such degrees were appointed to various posts and they would suffer irreparable injury.

The Bench said the provisions of the University Grants Commission Act “are binding on all universities, whether conventional or open. Its powers are very broad. They apply equally to open universities as also to formal conventional universities. ”

On post facto approval granted to the appellant-university by the Distance Education Council, the Bench said: “The DEC may be an authority under the Act, but its orders would ordinarily have only a prospective effect… The degrees become invalidated in terms of the provisions of the UGC Act. When mandatory requirements have been violated in terms of the provisions of one Act, an authority under another Act could not have validated the same and that too with retrospective effect. The provisions of the UGC Act are not in conflict with the provisions of the Open University Act. It is beyond any cavil of doubt that UGC Act shall prevail over Open University Act.”

The Bench said: “If mandatory provisions of the statute have not been complied with, the law will take its course. The consequences will ensue. Relaxation, in our opinion, furthermore cannot be granted in regard to the basic things necessary for conferment of a degree. When a mandatory provision of a statute has not been complied with by an administrative authority, it would be void. Such a void order cannot be validated by inaction.”

In the instant case, N. Ramesh, one of the appellants, and Sibi Madan Gabriel were candidates for principal in the Film and Television Institute of Tamil Nadu. When Mr. Ramesh was sought to be appointed, Mr. Gabriel raised an objection, contending that his PG degree obtained through Open University from Annamalai University was invalid. When the matter reached the Madras High Court from the State Administrative Tribunal, it held that Mr. Ramesh was not eligible to be considered for principal.

While upholding the February 4, 2008 judgment and dismissing the appeals, the Bench said “Our judgment would not affect the service of appellant Ramesh.”