To deem or not to deem

Advertent or inadvertent, the ministry of human resources development (MHRD) in its second consecutive term under the UPA government seems to have landed upon deemed-to-be-universities as its starting point for reform in higher education. Now that they have landed on it, MHRD cant take it lightly as deemed universities constitute more than 25% of the 431 universities in India. 2009 count shows 125 deemed universities of which 90 are private and 35 are government-run. Also, noteworthy is that till 2004 there were cumulatively 66 private and government deemed universities that almost doubled in five years to 125 and majority of the 59 new ones that have been added are private.

What went wrong

The difference between deemed-to-be universities and state or central universities is that while the former are declared as an act of the executive, state and central universities are established by state or central government as an act of legislative. What this means is that deemed-to-be universities are evaluated and granted their approval by the UGC and MHRD, while state and central universities need to be approved by state assembly and parliament respectively.

The standard procedure to get deemed university status includes application by the institute to the MHRD who forwards this application to UGC. The UGC evaluates the institute according to its set standards and recommends it for either grant or rejection of the deemed university status. Deemed university status, it can then be said is granted with hand in hand approval of both UGC and MHRD.

Compared with the state and central university approval process, which at face value is more transparent and consensus-based, deemed-to-be-university approvals have become accessible to institutes who have influence and may not have merit. This has disillusioned reputed institutes such as National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad that sought deemed status for several years but allegedly has decided to hold the application process dissuaded with the idea of UGC bureaucracy on top of them. Incidentally, NID earlier fell under the purview of ministry of industry whom they found difficult to work with and get approval from for their academic pursuits.

What has led to an expedited review by MHRD of deemed universities is not necessarily concern about method of induction into deemed status but last weeks incident in Chennai of two deemed-to-be universities, Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute and Bharat University (home to Balaji Medical college) being caught demanding capitation fees of Rs 20 to 40 lakh from students seeking admission. MHRD immediately issued a show-cause notice to the two universities. Incidentally, the former was one of deemed colleges granted Rs 20 lakh in 2007 for planned expenditure from an overall budget of Rs 40 crore earmarked in that years budget as the governments funds for deemed universities. Last year the goovernments budget for deemed universities was Rs 40 crore. MHRD has asked UGC for a report with the injunction that it is essential that an independent body conducts the review in the next three months highlighting the gaps in standards at the deemed universities specifically with regards to faculty and infrastructure. All pending proposals for deemed status will be on hold until then. This was anyway in place under the model code of conduct started earlier this year prior to the general elections.

with what started as a good cause

The idea behind granting deemed university status was that institutes that have achieved an excellent and surmountable reputation be granted a bigger and broader canvas to prove their credentials and in turn benefit the education system. IISc, TIFR, Chennai Mathematical institute have been cited as examples. Section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956, provides that an institution of higher education, other than a university, which is doing the work of a very high standard in a specific area, can be declared as an institution deemed to be university. Such institutions enjoy the academic status and privileges of universities and are able to strengthen their activities in the field of their specialisation, rather than becoming a multi-faculty university of a general type. For the first ten years it was mostly government institutes such as Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in 1958 being granted deemed status but from the 1960s both private and government joined this fraternity such as Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Vellore Institute of Technology, Gandhigram Rural University and IISc.

There was a time when instead of waiting to be solicited, the UGC was proactive about addressing student needs and would seek to grant deemed status to national labs which had quality research equipment desired by teachers and students. Controls regarding adding affiliate colleges and approving distance-learning programmes were established to keep things in check.

Back to basics

Whether the MHRD decides to de-recognise deemed universities or make the process more robust and transparent will unfold in a couple of months. MHRD could start with assuring students currently enrolled at these universities that this process will not impact them. It cant be enough to just scrutinise these institutes during induction into deemed university status, continuity and maintenance of infrastructure both academic and physical is also important. There are 3-year and 5-year review clauses in place but whether they are honoured is anyones guess. Since 1995, deemed universities need to seek accreditation from the national assessment and accreditation council (NAAC) and national board of accreditation (NBA) under UGC and AICTE. What an objective process of review will hopefully extend is empirical truth to the many anecdotal complaints regarding deemed universities.

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