Time for some radical changes

Troubled times: Students of the Saveetha Deemed University in Chennai staging a demonstration at the entrance to their institution recently.

Troubled times: Students of the Saveetha Deemed University in Chennai staging a demonstration at the entrance to their institution recently.  

The Centre's move against deemed universities on the basis of the Tandon Committee report is laudable but there is no alternative model of higher education in place. G. MAHADEVAN finds that Kerala has an opportunity to put in place an alternative to profit-driven deemed universities.

The glare of the societal spotlight falling on the cloistered world of the deemed universities in India is not the only consequence of the P.N. Tandon Committee report which led to Central government to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that it intends to revoke the deemed university status of 44 such institutions. The report has, perhaps unintentionally, brought into focus the absence of a ‘public model' for an alternative to deemed universities in the country.

Kerala can pride itself on the fact that none of the institutions in the hit list of the Tandon Committee are from the State. This, however, is more due to the fact that none of the deemed universities in the State are run by families or private individuals than due to the presence of a credible mechanism to check profiteering or commercial excesses by the deemed universities.

What ails deemed universities?

The suggestions made by the Tandon Committee for regulating the functioning of deemed universities is a telltale commentary on what is wrong with such institutions.

For the uninitiated, the committee has suggested that the highest governing body of deemed universities—the governing council and the board of management—be headed by a vice chancellor. This body should not have more than one or two representatives from the trust or the society which set up the university. At least 50 per cent of the total persons in this body should be eminent academics and professionals. There should be no post of president in a deemed university, and the post of a chancellor should be a ceremonial one. Also, there should be no pro-chancellor.

The chancellor of a deemed university should not be allowed to appoint his/her close relatives to the governing body or as a vice-chancellor or pro-vice chancellor, the committee has suggested.

Admissions to deemed universities must be through a centralised system of admissions to institutions of higher learning, public or private. The fee charged by a deemed university for a course should have a reasonable relation to the cost of the course, and it should be comparable with the fee for similar courses in other institutions. The committee found it essential to have a national committee for fixing a rational fee structure for deemed universities.

According to the Tandon Committee recommendations, if a deemed university wishes to offer disciplines other than those for which it was given that status, it should undergo the same qualifying procedure that it did to get the university status. There should be no off-campus or distance mode courses for a deemed university. There should be clear evidence of high quality research in institutions which are being considered for the status of deemed universities. Moreover, a mandatory external review should be done once in five years—more intensive and exhaustive than the reviews that are being done—to keep a tab on the quality of education in such institutions.

The committee has made it clear that in future the creation of deemed universities through the 'de novo' route should be done only under rare circumstances, and should be restricted to those areas of study which fulfill a national need.

Also, any proposal for a 'de novo' deemed university should be cleared by a board of national and international experts.

An alternative model

Many years ago, when Professor Yash Pal, who had headed the Committee to Advice on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education, was the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, he had written to universities and heads of national research institutions asking why they couldn't team up in offering courses and research work. He had proposed that research institutions by teaming up with the universities could then go on to become deemed universities. But both the universities and research institutions gave a tepid response to this idea. According to Mr. Yash Pal the situation is not radically different now. Research institutions still have huge funds and excellent infrastructure. Many universities have lots of eager minds with no funds and equipment to match, he told The Hindu-EducationPlus. This is where Kerala can perhaps make a difference and even fashion an alternative to the ‘business model' of deemed universities.

The Kerala State Higher Education Council's move to redraw the contours of laws that govern the administration of universities in the State could turn out to be an ideal platform for putting in place a robust alternative to the profit-driven of deemed universities.

At its first meeting, the M. Anandakrishnan Committee tasked to redraft university laws in Kerala decided that it will not recommend a unified law for all public universities in Kerala. It also decided that one of its priority areas would be to create a regulatory framework to allow for an expansion of the relationship between universities and other social and financial entities.

Such a framework could, on the one hand, catalyse cooperation between research institutes and universities and would, on the other, enable the regulated entry of private funds into the higher education sector. The state government already has a scholarship programme ‘Aspire' that funds scholars to do short-term internships at national-level institutes. Students from universities in the State are now going to institutions like the NIIST, Thiruvananthapuram, the IISc Bangalore, the IISER, Thiruvananthapuram, the VSSC, Thiruvananthapuram as part of this programme. The government is also talking to such institutes about a programme which would fund university/ college teachers to do short-term courses in these institutes.

Such initiatives should not remain as those initiated by one government but should be written into the laws of universities. For this to happen, though, the running of the universities must necessarily shift to an ‘academics first' mode.

Academicians and not university bureaucrats should, in other words, be accorded primacy. And this is what the Anandakrishnan Committee appears to want to do.

The functioning of various bodies of universities would be re-tuned so that they give primacy to academic interests, the Committee resolved at its first meeting.

There are many academics who feel that the accreditation process of the NAAC is not a robust affair and that often it is an exercise of foregone conclusions.

The periodic quality audit suggested for deemed universities by the Tandon Committee could also be made applicable to public universities.

The ‘intrusion' by State governments into their functioning was one major fear of national research institutions which opposed Professor Yash Pal's initiative years ago. Indeed, the Tandon Committee has also suggested that the number of government representatives in publicly sponsored deemed universities at least be restricted if not entirely avoided.

With private enterprise and equity poised to make big-time entry into higher education in the country and into Kerala any more delay in forging a quality-driven, partnership-based, ‘public model' for universities not funded by the State could cost society dear.

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