By: M.M. Ansari
SC reversal of 2013 AICTE order compounds policy uncertainty.
The Supreme Court verdicts on the regulation of technical and management institutions, from last month and a year ago, are riddled with inconsistencies. They have created unnecessary confusion about the mandates of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) to regulate colleges affiliated to state universities. These regulatory bodies are, therefore, on the warpath to take control of approval and affiliation of private colleges, which are mushrooming around the country.
In its April 25, 2013, order, the SC ruled that the AICTE could not regulate engineering colleges affiliated to a university, since it was only an “advisory body” as per the AICTE Act. The UGC was accordingly directed to take control of the regulation of technical institutes.
In compliance with the order, the UGC acted fast to evolve mechanisms to perform regulatory functions. In a departure from earlier practice, UGC guidelines for the regulation of technical institutions required the process of affiliation and approval to be merged. They vested these functions with state universities. This was considered critical for ensuring institutional autonomy and accountability. Besides, it would minimise allegations of corruption in granting approvals. Moreover, the UGC guidelines rationalised the infrastructure requirements for different academic programmes. This was done after painstaking consultation and obtaining feedback from stakeholders.
However, because the UGC accorded regulatory powers to state universities, a few private colleges have been apprehensive about their future. Some don’t want to accept the UGC as a regulator, mainly because they want to safeguard their vested interests. Such motives led some private colleges to seek a review of the SC’s 2013 decision.
On April 17, the SC delivered a judgment which reversed the 2013 order in favour of the petitioning private colleges and the AICTE. This latest order restores the AICTE to its pre-2013 regulatory position. The AICTE has been allowed to act according to the Approval Process Handbook, as it did earlier, and ignore the new UGC guidelines.
On a number of occasions, the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) and the courts have given inconsistent decisions, which have hampered the effective functioning of institutions. First, in pursuance of the 2013 order, the MHRD asked the UGC to take over the regulatory functions of affiliated technical colleges. But management institutes were left out of the purview of the UGC without clear instructions to the AICTE to continue to regulate them. The 2013 order was also silent on this issue. At a subsequent stage, however, this was clarified and the AICTE was asked to regulate them until further direction. With confused policies, the functioning of institutions has largely been directionless.
Second, private colleges with access to the MHRD influence the government to take action that creates contradictions in policy design. There are private bodies that seek permission to establish new colleges and/ or increase the intake for approved programmes. They are unhappy with the UGC’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on creating new colleges and increasing intake. The UGC has also directed them to undergo dual accreditation from the National Board of Accreditation (for their programmes) and the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. This category of colleges is opposed to the 2013 order.
There is another category of private institutions which suffers, as 20 to 30 per cent of the seats in both engineering and management courses are perpetually vacant because there are no takers. The promoters of such institutions were happy that the UGC had taken over regulatory functions since it had banned capacity expansion. Against this, the AICTE has liberally allowed the unbridled growth of institutions.
Obviously, the SC and the MHRD have given a patient hearing to both groups. At different points in time, they have tried to endorse the views of each group, which is the main reason for the contradictory policies.
Third, there are umpteen instances of the MHRD encroaching on the autonomy of the UGC. And, the courts have also been unable to take cognisance of these violations. For instance, the regulation of open and distance learning programmes is vested with the Distance Education Council under the Indira Gandhi National Open University, as per law. This power has been snatched through an MHRD administrative order and transferred to the UGC, which is illegal. Clearly, Central authorities are oblivious to these inconsistent and contradictory policy directions.
When regulatory bodies lack accountability due to government interference, the SC’s directions are of paramount significance and are the only hope for rectifying a dysfunctional higher education system. Unfortunately, the SC has betrayed expectations.
The writer is member, University Grants Commission