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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

UGC Regulations: Doom for Higher Education

Monday 24 April 2017


by Krishna Jha

The blood-soaked walls of segregation, that could be brought down after long-drawn struggles and sacrifices, are here again. The gates of higher education are getting shuttered for larger sections of those thirsty for knowledge. The higher education system in the country is being sought to be placed out of bounds for the general masses.

The blow came last year when the University Grants Commission passed regulations in May 2016, leading to shackle the autonomous character of the centres of higher education, including JNU.

The regulations reflected the intentions to segregate the deprived, and prohibit them from joining M.Phil/ Ph.D programmes. The UGC has notified the cutting of a massive number of seats for M.Phil/Ph.D programmes, thus virtually shutting the doors for those who could afford education only in the centres where the expenses were within limits. There is also an inherent push towards privatisation of higher education, including in JNU.

The step has thrown a challenge to social justice guaranteed by our Constitution. The Jawaharlal Nehru University was dreamt of as a centre where the famous historian and teacher, Prof Bipan Chandra, had said: ”It would be a space where toilers and academics together would engage in preparation of the blue-print for democratic India.” It was for serving this purpose that the deprivation points were added to make education accessible to those on the margins. The system was unique in terms of inclusive social composition and academic quality. In fact the UGC notification, claimed as ‘Guidelines’, with its rigid admission and examination policy and criteria for the eligibility of research supervision would curb the auton-omy of the universities. The tragedy is everything that stands demolished had been evolved through decades of struggles and dialogues.

Not just JNU, the UGC notification is set to affect the student community in all other Central universities. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, along with the UGC, is engaged in an endeavour to create a fertile ground for privately-funded education. The students, however, have launched a strong protest against the Foreign University Act, bills in higher education, four-year undergraduate programme, choice-based credit system, Central University Bill, fellowship-cut, attack on autonomy and freedom of speech. In course of the protest, the agitating students have made their grievances clear.

To point a few, the UGC notification lays down strict rules regarding the eligibility of “research supervision”. It says: “A Research Supervisor/Co-supervisor who is a Professor, at any given point of time, cannot guide more than three M.Phil and eight Ph.D scholars. An Associate Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of two M.Phil and six Ph.D scholars and an Assistant Professor as Research Supervisor can guide up to a maximum of one M.Phil and four Ph.D scholars.”

It is important to note that the current number of seats for M.Phil/Ph.D in different departments of JNU was fixed according to the 93rd Amendment of the Constitution which mandated expansion of seats for OBC reservation during 2008-11. The number of seats since has remained unchanged. So, it would be a gross violation of the Constitution if either the UGC or the JNU administration attempts to curtail the existing number of M.Phil/Ph.D seats in the name of adhering to some specified number of “supervisor/research student” ratio. In fact, the UGC should ensure the “supervisor/research student” ratio by expanding faculty recruitment in the universities and not through reduction in student intake.

By restricting admissions/enrolment in universities, the UGC and the government have both opted to curtail the democratic right to education. They could have gone for expansion of the faculty strength in research programmes depending on the increasing number of new aspirants, which would hardly be there now.

It may be noted here that the JNU faculty has not made complaints about ‘overburden’/ ‘excess research scholars’; instead, it went on protesting against the UGC notification. Still the VC is going for the UGC notification in disregard of the specific needs and potential of the university.

It is JNU among very few universities here that offers admission and adequate environment to students from remote areas and marginalised backgrounds to pursue affordable quality research. Rather than taking up the responsi-bility of expanding faculty strength and filling up the vacant posts, the UGC notification is being used to do the opposite: reducing the number of seats.

On the multiple challenges to the socially inclusive character of JNU’s Admission Policy for M.Phil/Ph.D, the protesting students have clarified that with the adoption of the UGC notification on hundred per cent viva weightage, the M.Phil/Ph.D admission will be based on a two-step entrance process consisting of written and viva. It has also been stated that the written test will be a qualifier. In JNU entrance for integrated M.Phil/Ph.D is already a two-step entrance test and the qualifying mark is fixed. The fact that the UGC notification mentions that the written will be qualifying is being interpreted by the JNU Vice-Chancellor to mean that the written will be a mere qualifier and that final selection will be based only on viva, raising viva weightage in admissions to 100 per cent!

It is to be noted that the Abdul Nafey Committee constituted after the JNUSU’s sustained struggle came to the conclusion (based on the analysis of the admission related data) that discrimi-nation based on caste and ‘social group’ is indeed a reality. Hence, it recommended that the viva marks be reduced from ’30 per cent to 15 per cent’ to mitigate this discrimination. But, with the imposition of the UGC notification, the university is being pushed towards a 100 per cent viva-based admission process with the written examination reduced to a mere qualifier. This would open the door for 100 per cent discretion and discrimination in the admission process.

It is also important to note that there is a 1980 five-judge Constitution Bench verdict (Ajay Hasia) which forbids any selection process to have more than 15 per cent weightage for viva because of the discriminatory potential structurally embedded in any interview process.

On the High and Exclusionary Eligibility Criteria, the existing eligibility marks (of the last qualifying exam) for applying in M.Phil/Ph.D in different centres of JNU vary from 45 per cent to 55 per cent keeping in tune with the diversity of JNU’s academics. The UGC notification dictates a blanket 55 per cent criteria in the last qualifying exam for all subjects. The implementation of such rigid straight-jacketed criteria will deny thousands of students the chance to even apply for JNU’s M.Phil/Ph.D programmes, students from deprived sections being the largest casualty.

On alleged high and arbitrary qualifying marks in the written test in JNU, till now, in order to be called for the viva voce for M.Phil admissions, students need to obtain a minimum 35 per cent marks for the unreserved categories, 31.5 per cent for the OBCs and 25 per cent for the SCs/STs/PHs out of 70 in the written exam. According to the UGC circular, all students now have to obtain a minimum of 50 per cent marks in the written exam, with no mention of relaxation to students from deprived backgrounds. Hence, this model will act as a ploy to restrict the implementation of the constitutionally guaranteed reservation policy, and amounts to a serious violation of the constitutional principles.

On the technical lacunae in the UGC notifications about the necessary “relaxations” for reserved category admissions which is being misused to scuttle reservations in final admission, the admission process for M.Phil/Ph.D, specified in the UGC notification, involves three stages of elimination— a) eligibility for applying, b) eligibility to qualify in the written to be called for viva, and c) final viva-voce. To ensure that the reserved seats are duly filled after the final selection stage, it is essential that there should be relaxation in the eligibilty criteria for the reserved category applicants (compared to the UR applicants) at all stages that involve elimination, or else there will never be enough number of reserved category students to be selected at the final stage. So, giving relaxations in the eligibility criteria to the reserved category applicants (compared to the UR applicants) is not a matter of arbitrary discretions of different universities but an essential step for guaranteeing fulfilment of reservation. The fact that the UGC notification fails to mention the same for each stage of elimination is not only fallacious but is also granting undue powers to different institutional heads to indulge in deliberate misinterpretation to deny reservation.

In the current admission system of JNU, the marks of the written and the viva components are added to get the final scores. Hence, the deprivation points can be added to the written marks. However, in the new scheme of things, wherein the marks of the two components cannot be added, what will happen to the deprivation points? The UGC notification will act to erase the gains of the iconic deprivation point model, which has ensured the entry of female students in large numbers in JNU, along with students from the most deprived regions and sections of this country.

Finally, the students concluded that JNU should not be forced to surrender its institutional autonomy to the unconstitutional and anti-student May 5, 2016 UGC Gazette. To pave the way for inclusive and socially just higher education in the country, JNU should prepare a robust defence of its present M.Phil/Ph.D admission policy along with the Nafey Committee recommendations and present it to the UGC as a model that already fulfils the principles which might have guided many of the specific technical provisions of the UGC notification.

Despite the optimism of the students, the JNU Executive Council (EC) has approved the UGC notification making entrance exams to research courses including M.Phil and Ph.D as mere “qualifying” tests, even as sections of students and teachers protested the decision. The UGC notification was passed earlier, on December 26, by the Academic Council of JNU in its meeting which was allegedly “disrupted” by students resulting in suspension of nine of them by the university administration.

The EC meeting passed all the items on its agenda that were approved by the Academic Council, said a senior JNU official.

The JNU Students Union (JNUSU) protested the passage of the UGC notification by the EC and the notice against its President, Mohit Pandey. The UGC notification, protested by students and teachers, makes the written test only “qualifying” leaving the interview as the sole determinant of admissions to M.Phil and Ph.D.

As per the UGC notification, the entrance test is only “qualifying” in which students have to score a minimum of 50 per cent marks. The merit list will be prepared based on the viva-voice or the interview.

The JNUSU as well as Teachers Association (JNUTA) protested outside the EC meeting venue demanding re-convening of the Academic Council meetings, held on December 23 and 26, charging that rules were “not followed” in passing notifications.

According to one of the EC members, the JNU administration has decided to form a committee which will give recommendations on the issue and look into the objections raised by some students and teachers. The university is also expected to talk to the UGC with a request to continue its own system.

He also added that the UGC notifications are mandatory on all Central universities and everything depended on its decision on JNU’s request. Under the prevailing system, the written test carries 70 per cent marks while 30 per cent marks are allotted for interview in admissions to research courses, said the JNU official.

The EC meeting also approved an item concerning “greater power to the VC with regard to faculty appointments including nomination of experts on selection panels,” the EC member said.

The proposal was earlier shot down by the members during a previous meeting of the EC. Presently, each Centre and School of JNU presents its list of experts which is okayed by the Academic Council before forming selection committees and the VC has to choose the names from the panel approved by it, said the member.

As the notification is mandatory on all Central universities, steps have been taken in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai as teachers on contract face termination.

After the removal of these teachers, who were research guides for MA, Ph.D and M.Phil students, some research students will be assigned new guides mid-term.

Around 25 teachers of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) face uncertainty. On the other hand, students are worried about the change in guidance. After the sudden termination of their services, there is a plan of shutting down the centres too. The Institute wrote to the teachers, informing them that their contracts would be terminated from March 31.

According to Director S. Parasuraman, the teachers belonged to three centres not granted extension by the UGC. The Centre of Excellence for Human Rights Education, the Advance Centre for Women’s Studies and the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies were funded under the 12th Five-Year Plan that is ending March 31.

Students now fear their research work would suffer. With the removal of these teachers, who were research guides for MA, Ph.D and M.Phil students, some will be assigned new guides mid-term.

Meanwhile JNU told the Delhi High Court that the UGC notification setting a limit of eight students per professor for M.Phil and Ph.D courses, was binding on all varsities in the country.

“The said notification is binding and is mandatory in nature and is to be followed by all the Universities (Central, State and Deemed Universities) including JNU,” Justice V. Rao was informed.

The Court was also told that it was obligatory for JNU to apply the notification.

There were over 40 universities and all of them have adopted it, according to sources.

JNU students have been protesting against the UGC notification since February 9 and allegedly blockading the administrative block of the varsity.

The author is a senior journalist and writer.

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