In a landmark judgment with far reaching consequences, the Supreme Court on November 3 came down heavily on deemed universities and declared invalid thousands of engineering degrees offered by four of them since 2001. It is beyond a straw of doubt that this is a major setback to thousands of students who pursued engineering studies through correspondence studies through correspondence courses offered by deemed universities in the last 16 years. This has certainly put them at grave risk of losing their precious jobs obtained on the basis of the certificates from these deemed universities.
While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me also inform them that a two-Judge Bench of Supreme Court comprising of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit noted that University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) did not approve distance learning programmes in engineering studies and approval granted by Distance Education Council (DEC) for such courses is illegal. The court found flagrant violations in the way deemed universities offered engineering courses through correspondence. The court ordered a CBI enquiry into the conduct of Government officials involved in granting approvals to these universities. The Bench said in most certain terms that, 'In respect of students admitted after the academic sessions of 2001-2005, the degrees in engineering awarded by the concerned deemed to be universities through distance education mode shall stand recalled and be treated as cancelled. Any benefit which a candidate has secured as a result of such degrees in engineering in the nature of promotion or advancement in career shall also stand recalled. However, if any monetary benefit was derived by such candidates that monetary benefit or advantage will not be recovered by the concerned departments or employers'. The Bench also directed the deemed universities to refund the money to the aggrieved students who have suffered the most in this whole unsavoury process! Absolutely right!
For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that while upholding the Punjab and Haryana High Court's order invalidating engineering degrees awarded in this manner, the Bench of Apex Court of Justices Goel and Lalit also 'restrained all deemed universities from carrying out courses in distance education from the 2018-19 academic session onwards unless and until it is permissible to conduct such courses in distance education mode and specific permissions are granted by the concerned statutory/regulatory authorities in respect of each of those courses, and unless the off campus centres/study centres are individually inspected and found adequate by the concerned statutory authorities.' The Punjab and Haryana's High Court order which was upholded by the Supreme Court exposes the extent to which the regulatory system was compromised as the courses were being run for more than a decade and a half without attracting serious scrutiny. Little wonder that this prompted the government to finally crack the whip!
As it turned out, the Bench noted grave oversight in the functioning of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and officials in the Ministry of Human Resources Development to permit such an illegality to go on from 2001 till 2005 in granting approvals. Giving benefit to the affected students who studied during this period, the Bench directed AICTE to conduct a fresh examination in all subjects within a month. Students will have to pass the exam in two attempts following which their degrees will be revived and all benefits that accrue based on these degrees will be restored.
It merits no reiteration that the Bench also made it clear that, 'It goes without saying that any promotion or advancement in career on the basis of such degree on the basis of such degree shall also stand withdrawn. However, any monetary benefits or advantages in that behalf shall not be recovered from them.' It also must be borne in mind that the court also very rightly ordered a CBI inquiry into the conduct of officials involved in the grant of ex post facto approvals in 2006-07 to these institutes to conduct the courses though the UGC policy was against this. Those who are guilty of wrong doing must be punished most strictly because it is their wrong acts that has put in peril the future of thousands of students who graduated from these institutes!
It must be added here that the Bench found that 'none of these 'deemed to be universities' had taken prior permission from any of the authorities, namely, Universities Grants Commission (UGC), AICTE and Distance Education Council (DEC), nor had they even intimated at any juncture the fact that they were conducting such courses in technology/engineering through distance education mode.' It said that they did not have a 'regular engineering college or faculty in technology/engineering at their own campus when they commenced courses in technology/engineering by distance education mode through study centres all over the country.' No doubt, considering all this they never deserved to be recognized at the first instance as deemed universities! It was done in flagrant violation of all norms and regulations!
Truth be told, while stating that 'practicals form the backbone' of technical education, the Bench said this was not possible in distance learning. The court pointed out that the AICTE has also 'always maintained that courses leading to degrees in engineering cannot be undertaken through distance education mode'. The Bench lamented that the case reflected the 'extent of commercialization of education by some of the deemed universities'.
Pulling up the UGC for its nonchalant approach, the Apex Court said it also showed 'lack of effective oversight and regulatory mechanism for the 'deemed to be universities'. It said 'the UGC had completely failed to remedy the situation. Serious question has therefore arisen as to the manning of the UGC itself for its effective working.' UGC must reform its functioning approach because it has got a rap from none other than the highest court of India and this has put a serious question mark on its very credibility. I am sure that the think-tanks in UGC would now swing into damage control mode and take appropriate action to further contain the damage so that such an unpalatable situation never arises again!
As things stand, it has also been provided that those skipping the tests or failing to clear them will forfeit their degrees. The deemed institutions will foot their bill for conducting the test and will even refund the entire fees to the students who fail to clear. They will even return the fees to those students who secured engineering degrees post-2005.
To put things in perspective, while terming the present case to be an instance of how education was 'commercialised' by certain deemed universities, Justice UU Lalit, writing for the Bench said that, 'Even when they did not have any experience in the concerned field (engineering) and had no regular faculty or college in Engineering, they kept admitting students through distance education mode…the idea was not to achieve excellence in the field but the attempts appeared to be guided by pure commercial angle.' How can this be somehow ever justified? This can never be justified on any ground whatsoever!
To be sure, the four institutions barred explicitly by the court from conducting engineering courses while adjudicating a bunch of petitions on validity of their correspondence course are: JRN Vidyapeeth, Udaipur (Rajasthan), IASE Gandhi Vidya Mandir, Sardarshahr (Rajasthan), Allahabad Agriculture Research Institute, Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Vinayaka Mission Research Foundation (Tamil Nadu). All these institutes provide engineering education through correspondence since 2001 despite AICTE disapproval. They were clearly at fault.
Be it noted, the Apex Court restrained all deemed universities from offering correspondence courses without approval of the AICTE and directed a CBI probe against officials who permitted the universities to run the programmes from 2001 onwards. The court passed the order after UGC's counsel and Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh and AICTE advocate Anil Soni informed the court that distance learning courses in engineering was not permitted. Holding the degree issued by universities invalid, the court, however, opened a small window for students who took admission between 2001 and 2005 to revive their degree by undergoing fresh examination to be conducted by AICTE. It said they should be given another chance as they pursued the course under the impression that the course is valid.
To put things in perspective, the Apex Court 'suspended' all engineering degrees provided by these institutions between 2001 and 2005 and cancelled all degrees post-2005. The court made this distinction upon learning that for the years 2001-05, the Joint Committee of UGC-AICTE and Distance Education Council (DEC) had given approval to conduct the course although it was a totally 'flawed' decision. Even the 2004 UGC Guidelines allowed deemed-to-be-universities to apply for ex post facto approval. To its utter surprise and dismay, the court found that the courses were also started without obtaining approval of the apex technical education regulator – All India Council for Technical Education.
Needless to say, while ordering to stop all further admission into these courses beginning this academic year, the Bench of Justices Adarsh K Goel and UU Lalit directed the Centre to set up a three-member expert committee to analyse and propose a roadmap to strengthen the regulatory mechanism for the deemed universities and higher education. The Committee will give its recommendations to the Centre by August 2018. The matter will be placed before the court for further hearing onSeptember 11in 2018.
Elaborating further, let me also bring out here that the Bench had asked UGC to take appropriate steps to restrain 'deemed to be universities' from using the word 'university' and ordered the Centre to constitute a 'three-member committee comprising eminent persons who have held high positions in the field of education, investigation, administration or law at national levelwithin one month' to 'suggest a roadmap for strengthening and setting up of oversight and regulatory mechanism in the relevant field of higher education and allied issues within six months.' The court said the 'committee may also suggest oversight mechanism to regulate the 'deemed to be universities'.'
To say the least, the Apex Court was highly critical of the unbecoming conduct of officials in UGC, AICTE, DEC and HRD Ministry. It said, 'On one hand, the authorities were proclaiming their policy statements (UGC Regulations 2010 that restrained deemed universities from conducting distance learning courses), and on the other, despite there being complaints, they went about granting permissions.' Terming this as 'colourable' exercise of power, the Bench ordered CBI to bring all the guilty officials to book.
While commenting on the lack of oversight and regulatory mechanism to keep deemed universities under check, the Bench minced no words in stating unequivocally that, 'Serious question therefore arises as to the manning of UGC itself for its effective working. We have found there was complete and flagrant violation of norms and policies by the Deemed to be Universities as AICTE had been illegally kept out'. The Bench further added that, 'This seriously affects credibility of standards in education, eroding the power and essence of knowledge and seriously affecting excellence and merit.' Unquestionably there can be no compromise on the high standards of education under any circumstances whatsoever!
All said and done, this landmark ruling has sent a loud and clear message that professional degree like engineering can never be done by correspondence. It also cracked the whip against all those corrupt officials who ensured that this dirty game of compromise in all standards of education continued unabated right under their very nose! This landmark decision also exposes the extent to which the regulatory system was compromised severely! To conclude, the Bench said this explicitly that, 'The commercialisation of education seriously affects creditability of standards in education, eroding power and essence of knowledge and seriously affecting excellence and merit. The present case further displays lack of effective oversight and regulatory mechanism for the deemed to be universities.' This is a wake up call for all the concerned parties who must now seriously abide by what the top court has said so explicitly! Professional courses like engineering, medical and law must be by proper rules and procedures and correspondence courses should not be allowed and only those institutes should be allowed to function who are properly equipped in all respects and who follow all guidelines strictly. Only then can we think of our institutes doing well and start figuring more among top institutes in the world compared to the very few institutes like Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and IIT Mumbai figures which currently figure among the top institutes! There can then be no dearth of students from foreign countries turning up in larger numbers in our country which shall be very good for our long term national interests and therefore there can be no compromise on this!