From where I sit: Public exposes 'virtual bazaar'

February 11, 2010

India is a land teeming not just with millions of people but also, it seems, a vast number of universities.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and one variety of them, known as "deemed universities", made headlines recently when the Indian Government said in the Supreme Court that it may strip them of their university status. Apparently, this was because 44 of them had failed to meet the required standards.

Deemed universities are not allowed to affiliate institutions, as regular universities are. Yet many of them have campuses across the country, virtually selling degrees to students for a price. Apart from little evidence of quality research, several deemed universities are family-controlled and lack professional management. Some charge exorbitant fees and many have enrolments well beyond their capacity.

Ironically, the bulk of these worse-than-mediocre institutions became deemed universities over the first term of the present Congress-led Government. That the same administration has now made these revelations in court and is considering withdrawing their status has naturally attracted widespread media attention and editorial analysis.

But precisely what manner of beast are these deemed universities, and why were they set up? The usual route by which a university is created in India is either via an Act of Parliament or the state legislature. However, in 1956, the central Government put in place an alternative mechanism.

It began to grant "deemed-to-be university" status to higher education institutions by executive fiat. The purpose was to support institutions of proven calibre that possessed research expertise. Through this mechanism, such institutions gained the freedom to frame syllabuses, exercise a measure of autonomy on matters such as fees and admissions, and seek government funding. Initially, only a few premier institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai were granted this status. In the past it was prudently conferred, with only 38 deemed universities coming into being between 1958 and 1998.

By contrast, over the past decade nearly 100 additional institutions have been granted the coveted badge: there are now 130 deemed universities on the Indian University Grants Commission website. The conditions for granting this status have become significantly corrupted. In fact, the gossip in university circles is that there existed a virtual bazaar where institutions could for a few million rupees grease enough palms to facilitate conferment of the deemed university tag.

What has forced the Government to reveal its own sordid underbelly is a public initiative of the opposite kind - "public interest litigation". This allows ordinary citizens such as Viplav Sharma - the lawyer who challenged the Government's guidelines on deemed universities - to draw legal attention to issues of public importance.

The first petition of this kind was filed in 1979, and since then, over hundreds of cases, this brand of litigation has forced central and state governments to implement their own laws.

Does this mean that the public interest in higher education is more effectively safeguarded by public-minded private citizens than by the Government? In India, regrettably, this appears to be the case.

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