Forty-four of India’s 127 unique half-way house deemed-to-be or deemed universities — supposedly exemplary privately promoted colleges of professional education — which suffered a severe set-back in mid-January when the Union government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court recommending their derecog-nition, have been given a reprieve by the apex court. On January 25, the Supreme Court issued a cease and desist order to the Union government stating that “nothing will happen to students or the deemed universities in question without hearing them,” staying all action against the 44 deemed universities and adjourned the case (flowing out of a writ petition filed in 2006) to March 8.
The fate of the deemed universities seemed sealed, when on January 18 government’s counsel submitted an affidavit endorsing the report of a high-powered four-member review (Tandon) committee, which recommended derecognition of the 44 (spread across 13 states) deemed universities on the grounds of severe infrastructure and management deficiencies. In their defence, the blacklisted deemed varsities claim that they were thoroughly vetted by the Delhi-based University Grants Commission (UGC) prior to being conferred deemed varsity status, and that the Tandon Committee had made the derecognition recommendation based on a mere 10 minute presentation extracted from them.
When hearing of the writ petition resumes on March 8, it is likely to open a can of worms for the political establishment, particularly for Arjun Singh, Union minister of human resource development in the Congress-led UPA-I coalition government (2004-2009). During Singh’s five-year tenure as HRD minister, 59 colleges were conferred deemed varsity status and most of them figure in the list of 44 declared as unfit by the Tandon Committee.
Deemed universities were conceptualised under s.3 of the UGC Act 1956 which permitted the Central government to declare any higher education institution a deemed university. This discretionary power vested in the UGC was expanded by the hardline Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, Union HRD minister in the BJP-led NDA government (1999-2004), who arm-twisted UGC to confer deemed status upon several newly created institutions such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Allahabad (the minister’s parliamentary constituency).
Subsequently when against all expectation the BJP-NDA government was voted out of office in the general election of 2004, and the Congress party’s septuagenarian socialist stalwart Arjun Singh was appointed HRD minister, together with his handpicked chairman of UGC Dr. Sukhadeo Thorat, the discretionary power to confer deemed status was widely expanded with the going rate for exercise of discretion reportedly at Rs.10 crore. In the process some undoubtedly sub-standard colleges were conferred deemed varsity status.
Moreover for mysterious reasons, a further concession was granted to them by Arjun Singh (who was repeatedly exposed and criticised by Education-World — alas, to no avail). In 2008, deemed universities, which were hitherto obliged to identify themselves as such in all advertising and communications, were permitted to declare themselves as universities simpliciter. Thus for example SRM Deemed University transformed into SRM University.
When Raju Sharma, under secretary in UGC, protested the arbitrary award of deemed varsity status to patently unqualified institutions, he was abruptly transferred out of the commission. “There was a clear methodology in how the deemed university system was managed, and it is not just a crime of omission but a crime of commission — and criminal commission at that. I sent several letters and complaints on the issue to all and sundry, and the UGC launched a witch hunt against me and continues to do so,” Sharma told the Indian Express (January 21) after his transfer.
With the blacklisted deemed universities preparing to defend their autonomous status, sensational disclo-sures about chicanery and corruption in the HRD ministry, UGC and the Tandon Committee are likely to be made public when the apex court resumes hearing the case on March 8. Stand by for fireworks!
Autar Nehru (Delhi)