Recently Professor NR Madhava Menon, the founding Vice Chancellor (VC) of my alma mater, the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata and one of the founders of the national law university (NLU) project, passed away.
Few remember that Professor Menon was also the author of modern regulations governing open and distance learning (ODL) in India. Tragically, this legacy is being tarnished at NUJS, which has been a persistent violator of ODL regulations of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and University Grants Commission (UGC) since 2008.
The regulatory framework
ODL in India received impetus with the establishment of IGNOU in 1985.
For nearly three decades thereafter, IGNOU had the dual role of functioning as an Open University and also discharging the role of the national regulator of ODL courses via its Distance Education Council (DEC).
Under the ‘Guidelines of DEC on Minimum Requirements for Recognition of ODL Institutions’ (DEC Guidelines), first published in 2006, universities were required to secure mandatory approvals to offer ODL and for each of the ODL courses that were to be run. These DEC Guidelines were compulsorily applicable on all Universities, in terms of the Supreme Court’s 2009 judgement in Annamalai.
Following Supreme Court’s judgments in Yashpal and Annamalai, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in August 2010 constituted the Professor NR Madhava Menon Committee to recommend measures for robust regulation of ODL.
In December 2012, UGC was appointed the national regulator of ODL (nontechnical courses). To effectuate this, IGNOU’s DEC was dissolved and its regulatory functions were transferred to UGC’s Distance Education Bureau (DEB). The DEB adopted the DEC Guidelines to avoid disruptions during the transition phase.
In 2016, the DEB cautioned that all online ODL courses were being run without its permission and these courses cannot be run till new regulations are formulated. Later, the UGC notified the UGC (Open and Distance Learning) Regulations, 2017, and the UGC (Online Courses or Programmes) Regulations, 2018 (Online Regulations).
Recently, DEB’s Right to Information (RTI) response dated 16.04.2019 confirmed that no universities were granted permission to run any online courses till the Online Regulations came into effect in July 2018.
ODL courses run by NUJS
NUJS never had any approvals from the erstwhile IGNOU DEC or the UGC DEB for any of the ODL courses, but it continued to run both offline (lacking approval) and online (blanketly prohibited) ones since 2008.
When NUJS’ apolitical student body, the Student Juridical Association (SJA) produced damning evidence before the 32nd NUJS Academic Council (AC), the members resolved to immediately suspend all such courses. This was subsequently ratified by the 61st NUJS Executive Council (EC), which had Justice Arun Mishra as the then Chancellor’s nominee.
At the 61st EC, the distance education mess became the common topic for three separate inquiries; and the 62nd EC reiterated the ban following the SJA’s intervention and constituted a fourth, dedicated inquiry into the distance education mess, which NUJS is yet to even convene.
There is also evidence to suggest that one of those allegedly involved, Ms Vaneeta Patnaik is a founding Director in Effulgent Educators LLP, which sought to run a certificate course in association with NUJS. Interestingly, Ms Patnaik made no disclosures concerning her association with Effulgent Educators LLP to the University at any point in time despite being a member (both present and voting) of the 29th AC and the 55th EC meetings – when the issue of her Effulgent Educators LLP was discussed.
This is to be specifically investigated by one of the aforesaid inquiries, as per the 61st EC.
Based on the evidence presented by the SJA, the 60th and 61st ECs effected an administrative rinse that brought in a new Vice Chancellor (Acting), Registrar (Acting) and Assistant Registrar (Administration).
To the students it seemed that the Augean stables of NUJS would finally get cleaned under the watch of a venerable, retired judge of Calcutta High Court, Justice (Retd) Amit Talukdar. However, it is now an open secret that the aforesaid EC-instituted inquiries have gone nowhere.
While NUJS tiptoes around the distance education imbroglio, it faces various civil and arbitration suits in the Calcutta and Delhi High Courts. Despite orders from the EC, Professor Anirban Mazumdar, Director, School of Distance and Mass Education (SDME), fobbed off the responsibility to correspond with distance education students on spurious “personal” grounds.
Earlier this year, I had filed four RTI applications to NUJS, including
one on distance education. Mr. Pritwish Saha, the NUJS Public Information Officer (PIO) gave evasive and incomplete answers.
During followups, the PIO verbally added that the response was being drafted in consultation with Registrar (Acting), Ms Sikha Sen and SDME Director, Professor Mazumdar. Aggrieved, I subsequently filed an appeal before Registrar Sen. Predictably, Registrar Sen provided a highly evasive response, against whom I was later constrained to file a complaint.
DEB’s response dated 08.03.2019 to an identical RTI, however, clearly establishes that NUJS was running these courses for nearly a decade in gross violation of the UGC Act, 1956. Pressed by my RTI applications and the SJA, NUJS released a large cache of governing bodies’ records.
These records, previously unavailable, not only confirmed DEB’s response but also provided further evidence to suggest that various insiders, such as former Vice Chancellor Professor Ishwara Bhat; former Registrars (Acting) Dr R Parameshwaran and Dr Sarfaraz A Khan; Professor Mazumdar; Ms Patnaik; and Professor Sandeepa Bhat, were the likely facilitators.
The aforesaid details (with specific references to various governing bodies’ minutes) were made available to the NUJS Chancellor, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and the 65th EC in my recent letter.
Reportedly, the 66th EC finally took note of the evidence made available and set up a one-man inquiry under Professor Saikat Maitra, the VC of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology, Kolkata.
Contrastingly in 2012 when NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad (NALSAR) suffered a similar distance education mess, the resultant cleanup resulted in NALSAR securing Category I autonomy from the UGC, which has also had a positive impact on its ODL programmes.
NUJS is still struggling to even get a NAAC accreditation, thereby making NUJS ineligible to run ODL courses any time soon.
Today, NUJS is confronted with certain ugly realities. There has been deliberate inaction and active sheltering of the alleged offenders for over a year despite damning evidence of institutional complicity.
An EC packed with legal luminaries, including representation from the Supreme Court, the Calcutta High Court and the State Government has collectively failed to implement any meaningful action. And there is a very real risk of NUJS losing its UGC affiliation for regular courses.
Previously, certain universities in West Bengal and engineering colleges elsewhere in India have gotten into trouble for non-compliance with ODL norms, including investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation that were initiated by the MHRD. Some universities even had to be shuttered.
For now, it remains to be seen whether NUJS will frustrate or allow Professor Maitra’s inquiry to initiate meaningful change.
The writer was elected President of NUJS Student Juridical Association for 2016- 18, and presently works as an Associate at Trilegal, Delhi. The views are personal.