The Supreme Court ruling from last week that suspends all distance-learning engineering degrees given between 2001 and 2005—and cancels the ones given afterwards—exposes the rot in higher education administration in the country. While the SC has offered those who hold suspended degrees a way out of the mess—two shots at an examination of the core engineering discipline—it told the ones who graduated after 2005 that their degrees were invalid because they got admitted despite knowing then that the degree they would get was no longer recognised. Lakhs now face an uncertain future given the court has directed that the jobs of those who got employment on the basis of the degrees be suspended.
The current crisis is the result of the regulatory overlap that has plagued higher education for decades. The Supreme Court ruling has come in context of a bunch of petitions concerning the validity of correspondence courses offered by four deemed universities—JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth, Institute of Advanced Studies in Education (Rajasthan), Allahabad Agricultural Insititute and Vinayaka Mission’s Research Foundation (Tamil Nadu)—which had been providing engineering education through correspondence since 2001. The courses had not been approved by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) which regulates engineering education in the country.
While AICTE norms say that engineering education can’t be offered through correspondence, the correspondence programmes offered by the four deemed universities had been approved by the erstwhile Distance Education Council (DEC) that was under the aegis of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)—though the approval had only been sought ex post facto. DEC had been set up to regulate distance learning in the country, but the mandate to regulate engineering education was AICTE’s. The matter was further complicated by the fact the deemed universities themselves were regulated by the University Grants Commission (UGC), and in August 2005, UGC issued a circular saying that the JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth was “not allowed to conduct any course through distance education”. This created a regulatory tangle that has ended up endangering the career of lakhs of people in the country.
In fact, in a 2014 order in the matter, the Supreme Court had directed the UGC to file a detailed reply to questions like whether it recognises degrees in technical education by open and distance education mode, if such degrees are recognised only when they are awarded with permission from the AICTE, what happens when universities award degrees without obtaining such permission, etc. In its judgment, the two-judge SC bench came down hard on the UGC and recommended that the government form a committee to suggest a “road map for strengthening and setting up of oversight and regulatory mechanism”. The government would thus do well to revive its plan to have a single, over-arching higher education regulator, on the lines of the Higher Education Empowerment and Regulation Authority. That would rid higher education of the shoddy regulation that afflicts it today.