The >suspected suicide last week of three women students , who were monetarily exploited by the management of an ill-equipped private naturopathy and yoga college in Tamil Nadu, is a dark reminder of the absence of an effective regulatory or grievance-redress mechanism in the higher education sector. Similar tragic episodes have played out in other parts of the country as well. Yet, regulatory authorities have displayed little urgency in trying to rescue students trapped in vicious environments that put their families in financial hardship and deprive them of a meaningful academic life. There is no dearth of regulatory agencies governing colleges. A private institution can be established only after multiple clearances — ‘no objection’ and essentiality certificates from the State governments, approval from apex bodies such as the AICTE and the MCI, and affiliation from the respective regional universities. What is lacking is honest and meticulous scrutiny of an institution’s real strengths by academics, officials and experts vested with the responsibility of inspecting and certifying colleges. In a context where colleges have proliferated, regulatory agencies that lack the wherewithal to physically inspect institutions grant approval mainly based on documents submitted by them. They undertake only random on-site inspections. Many universities grant affiliation if a college fulfils even 60 per cent of the stipulated requirements. Such porous systems are exploited by unscrupulous colleges to submit fabricated records and obtain approvals. There have been numerous cases of medical and engineering colleges employing ghost faculty members, or ‘renting’ teachers, laboratory equipment, furniture and books for libraries during inspections. No concrete steps have been taken to plug the loopholes in the enforcement of regulations. A simple proposal to assign unique identification numbers to teachers of professional colleges to prevent duplication in faculty rolls has been pending for years.
In another unhealthy trend in the pre-approval stage, courts often step in in favour of colleges after regulatory agencies reject approval or universities refuse to grant affiliation citing infrastructure and academic deficiencies. This despite the Supreme Court ruling in AICTE vs. Surinder Kumar Dhawan (2009) that “the courts are neither equipped nor have the academic or technical background to substitute themselves in place of statutory professional technical bodies and take decisions in academic matters involving standards and quality of technical education.” Post-approval, there is no enabling environment to encourage students to raise grievances relating to over-charging and academic deprivation. Universities and many State governments have conveniently adopted a hands-off approach, leaving students in irredeemable distress. Such a lackadaisical approach to regulating higher education is equally responsible for colleges producing unemployable graduates. What is needed is not only the strengthening of regulatory systems but also the appointment of academicians with uncompromising integrity to head regulatory bodies and universities.