In the wake of the arrest of Bharathiar University Vice Chancellor on Saturday, The Lede delves into the irregularities plaguing Tamil Nadu’s Universities
Lokesh Kumar’s voice chokes up a little, as he recounts his experience with Tamil Nadu’s Alagappa University as being hellish and regrettable. 35 years old and the sole breadwinner of his family, he has no job. Despite having completed his MBA in 2012 via Distance Education, his marksheets have not arrived. Since then, Lokesh has made repeated calls, been persistent with his mails, and has even gone to the University, only to be told to call or come back later.
“The (University’s) landlines never work. You know, I take care of my parents, my wife and my child. I don’t care if the University sees this, but I, Lokesh, am just one of many people in this position. There are many others, from even 2002, who haven’t received their marksheets,” he tells The Lede. Because of this, he has not been able to find a job for the past 5 years. Having taken out a loan of Rs 2 lakhs, Lokesh is still paying it back.
Lokesh is right when he says he is just one of thousands of other students who have been duped by Universities in the southern state. Not just Alagappa, a private University, even state government Universities like Anna University and the University of Madras offer Distance Education courses that are not recognised by the Universities Grants Commission (UGC), the sole body in the country with powers to authorise such courses. Such brazen violation means that students like Lokesh are left in the lurch – with no marksheets at times, degrees that do not fetch them jobs and courses that are just not good enough.
The number of students who have been affected by such unrecognised courses is likely to run into tens of thousands although the exact figure is not known. This is because of the sheer number of courses via Distance Education, the geographical spread of study centres across the world and the fact that these have been operating without recognition for the past 3 years.
Unrecognised Courses Swamp Students
In the UGC list of 2016-2017, the following universities have been allowed to conduct distance education courses.
The list of Universities in Tamil Nadu whose Distance Education courses are approved totals a mere five. But several other Universities offer Distance Education courses apart from these. This unauthorized list is a lot longer.
1. Annamalai University
2. Periyar University
3. Bharathiar University
4. Madurai Kamaraj University
5. Bharathidasan University
6.Vinayaka Mission Trust
7. Madras University
8. Anna University
None of these Universities have made it to the Distance Education list of the UGC and have received various notifications since 2015 directing them to discontinue their undergraduate, postgraduate and diploma Distance Education courses, particularly in engineering, biotechnology, medicine, physiotherapy and nursing. Still, these courses continue to be offered.
As per the rules, Universities must apply every year for recognition of their Distance Education courses to the UGC. While all of them have regularly applied for recognition, the UGC has denied them certification since 2015. But they continue to function, and on their websites, even falsely state that they have received UGC recognition.
“The UGC guidelines issued in 2017 clearly state the reasons for disqualification of distance education universities. If the Universities are found conducting fraudulent affairs that deteriorate the course education, or produce fake documents, UGC recognition will be withdrawn,” an official counsel of the UGC told The Lede. He refused to comment on the reasons for disqualification.
Courts Add to Confusion
In 2015 began a flood of litigation across the country by distressed students asking for their Distance Education degrees to be recognised. Their concern was genuine – they had no knowledge that these courses offered by reputed Universities were unrecognised.
The courts, in the slow turning of the wheels of justice, are yet to conclude these cases and have offered only partial relief to these students. Unfortunately, this relief meant for students on humanitarian grounds, has also come as a relief for the Universities offering unrecognised Distance Education courses.
Periyar, Annamalai and Madurai Kamaraj Universities have been granted stay orders by Madras High Court, helping them to continue providing unrecognised courses to students.
In 2015, Periyar University was granted a stay order, allowing the university to offer over 150 courses. The UGC had directed the University not to admit any students during 2015-2016, but it was overruled by the court saying it was an illegal order.
Madurai Kamaraj University received a stay order for the same in 2016 under the claim that more than 1.2 lakh students pursuing various courses through the Directorate of Distance Education of the varsity would get affected if the entire mode of education was halted abruptly.
During the course of the hearings, what came to light was an order dated 14 August 2013 of the UGC stating that recognition to distance mode education for the academic year 2015-16 had been cancelled for these Universities for not abiding by all the conditions laid down by the UGC. But counsel for Annamalai University called the order unlawful and arbitrary and the High Court ordered an interim stay in September 2015. The appeal has been pending since then and the Universities continue to admit new students.
Other Universities such as Alagappa, Bharatidasan and Vinayaka Mission Trust did not manage a stay order but continue to function without UGC recognition.
Let us now take a look at the key violations of these Universities that prompted the UGC to strike them off the list of recognised centres.
Violation 1: Territorial Boundary
Universities can only offer Distance Education courses from within the state, as per UGC guidelines. They are not allowed to set up study centres outside the state or country. This rule though is blatantly violated.
Since the UGC refused recognition on this count, some universities like Periyar, Bharathiar, Bharathidasan and Alagappa Universities have shut down centres in other states and countries. But this has left many students from other states in the lurch as they have been making use of the learning and study centres of these Universities in their own states.
The Madras University’s Distance Education program has 50 study centres, 28 of which are outside Tamil Nadu, including in Kuwait, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Only 15 study centres are in Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts. This means that the majority of study centres are unrecognised but functioning.
The Lede reached out to the Directorate of Distance Education in Madurai Kamaraj University, which confirmed that their study centres in Mumbai and Delhi are still functioning. The Lede was then directed to their website to find the number of centres overseas, and received confirmation that all centres on the website are functioning. These include Ghana, UAE, Nepal, USA, UK, Vietnam, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
On 04 April 2017, Mohith N Kumar vs Alagappa University along with 130 other petitioners pled that they were left in the lurch after the direction by the UGC in 2015 to shut down all study centres outside of Tamil Nadu. The petitioners were studying in Karnataka and were mostly 2nd and 3rd year students who had enrolled in the course in or before 2015.
Students were given no notification about the centres being closed down. The University had approached the UGC to continue study centres outside Tamil Nadu until 2020. The Madras High Court then ruled that there was no requirement for the students to re-enroll and take examinations in the study centres, and the existing students were directed to be attached to the Directorate of Distance Education as direct students. The court also ruled that the exercise of providing examinations shall be completed within a period of two weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of the court order in April 2017.
On 29 September 2015, Alagappa University explained that that the closure action would not affect the students pursuing 2nd and 3rd years, and that they would be allowed to continue their studies by transferring their course to a study centre within Tamil Nadu. However, students like the petitioner Mohith have still not been able to get this done.
On the same date, Adari Tulasinaidu and 62 other petitioners versus The Alagappa University received a similar ruling about Alagappa University to continue examinations and courses in their centre Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh. Vasantha Kathula and 69 others versus The Alagappa University had also been filed on the same date to continue examinations in Karimnagar, Telangana, in which the court allowed students to continue their studies in the study centres within Tamil Nadu.
Over 5 more writ petitions were filed, the number of petitioners ranging from 60-200, between March and April 2017. Multiple High Courts (Pune, Madurai, Chennai) across the country ruled in a similar fashion.
Bharathiar University’s Distance Education courses were struck down as completely illegal by the Madras High Court, and in an order dated July 2017, requested the University’s Vice Chancellor to close down all study centres. The centres, however, continue to function. Vice Chancellor A Ganapathi, arrested on February 03 on corruption charges, had announced in July 2017, that the centres will close down in the academic year of 2018-2019.
In 2016, the Indian consulate in the United Arab Emirates had issued a public notice warning to students not to join the Bharathiar University in Sharjah after students were educated about the UGC guidelines not to violate territorial jurisdiction.
In July 2017, the Madras High Court issued an order directing Bharathiar University to shut down all its distance education centres and in the UAE centre for partnership programmes (CPOPs).The Vice Chancellor of the University pled that the admissions for 2017-2018 had already been completed and could not discontinue its courses abruptly. The High Court then gave a breather to the University, allowing it to conduct courses till 2020.
Vinayaka Mission Trust has gone a step further. Since December 2017, the website of the Trust has a red font sidebar which calls for students who have completed their engineering degrees to fill out a form with their name, address and registration number details as per the Supreme Court order on 3rd November 2017. In the order, the Supreme Court cancelled engineering degrees of four colleges, apart from Vinayaka Mission Trust, obtained between the years 2001-2005 namely, JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth in Udaipur, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education in Rajasthan’s Churu district and the Allahabad Agricultural Institute in Uttar Pradesh.
The college requires not just the UGC’s approval, but also the All India Council for Technical Education’s approval to conduct engineering courses. Medical courses have been conducted as well via Distance Education.
In December 2017, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry had convened a three member committee to look into the regulation of deemed universities, including universities offering distance education. In 2014, then HRD Minister Smriti Irani answered a question brought up in the Rajya Sabha about the number of state and private universities offering distance education courses outside territorial boundaries, and as a result violating UGC norms. Her response was as follows – “Contrary to this provision, a few state universities and private universities set up under state act have violated this policy of the UGC. The Commission has asked these universities to close down such centres and to comply with the UGC’s instructions in the matter,” responded Irani. But since then, nothing has really happened.
Violation 2: Franchisee Centres
As per UGC guidelines, any use of private agents, services and trusts to offer distance education courses from the universities and provide degree certificates is completely illegal, and has been deemed so in a 2015 UGC notification issued by then Secretary of the UGC.
The High Courts in various states have also quoted this notification in cases against universities offering distance courses requesting a stay order.
On the complaints board website, former Bharathiar University student Jeevan has threatened to end his life if he does not receive his provisional certificate for the MBA course he had completed. He completed his course through an affiliated college called AKS Institute of Management in Noida, and after the college shut down, he was left in the lurch. After repeated attempts to contact the Bharathiar University staff and director, he was told that he must wait. His wait has been almost 5 years long.
But these franchises still function across the country. The Lede contacted these franchises posing as study centres and learning centres for various universities.
In the third floor of a mall in Chennai, SS Educational Trust is hard to find. The centre is a fire hazard, and wears the look of a cushy learning centre inside.
The centre offers degrees from Alagappa, Periyar, Annamalai and Madurai Kamaraj Universities – PG, UG and MBA courses, The Lede was told. Asked if they were franchisees and private agents, they replied “Yes. And we will give degrees as well.” Franchises are not just illegal, they are definitely not allowed to issue degrees. Though they call themselves a non-profit trust, they revealed to The Lede that they received a cut of 60:40 revenue share from the Universities they provide admissions from.
MFT Academy in Vadapalani, Chennai offers courses from “a tie-up with 41 universities, including Madras University,” the academy’s enquiry desk said. These include Madurai Kamaraj, Alagappa, Periyar, Annamalai, Bharathiar and Bharathidasan universities. They also claimed that they were officially recognised by the Universities. “We can offer MBA in one sitting courses, and you can get a pre-dated certificate in 6 months’ time,” the representative said. Pre-dated is because various universities like the above have not received UGC recognition since 2015-2016, and their degrees would be unrecognised if dated for any year after 2016.
Representatives of the Sri Ram Nallamani centre in Anna Nagar are unaware of the law and the fact that most of the universities have not received UGC recognition.
The Perpetual Cat and Mouse Game
Despite the High Courts’ and UGC’s constant call for universities to comply with guidelines, the system is mired in lack of transparency. The violations have been in full swing since 2015.
“One hope,” Prakash K (name changed to protect identity), a distance education counselor believes, “is in that the Universities have a chance to reapply every year. It is not like something that if once done, it is done once and for all. That is an advantage. That said, applying is not the point. Everyone applies. But it is time for Universities to look inward, and clean their own rot,” he said.
Many students are still of the belief that these universities are not recognised by the UGC, because they are not aware that the recognition has to be renewed each year. If the courts uphold the UGC guidelines and refuse to grant stay orders to universities that have not made it to the recognised universities list, the fate of countless students will be under question. For universities, it’s a matter of making a quick buck, but for students, it’s a matter of livelihood.