Friday, February 25, 2005

india's supreme court rules against private colleges


(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2005).

India's Supreme Court quashed a provision of a state law this month that allowed the establishment of private universities in the State of Chhattisgarh, in central India. The court called the three-year-old provision "unconstitutional" and canceled the registrations of all 108 private universities in the state, Some 20,000 students are enrolled in the institutions.

Chhattisgarh has only two public universities to serve a population of 21 million. But the law's loosely written regulations, along with lax oversight, allowed dozens of storefront universities, offering dubious courses of study, to flourish. One listed a "shoe upper and maintenance" degree and a "garage and automotive" degree among its offerings.

The state government made it legal for virtually any entity to set up shop as a university, placed no limits on the number of universities that could be opened, and failed to establish a monitoring body to determine and maintain standards.

The court was acting on a petition filed by Professor Yashpal, an academic who uses only one name and who is a former chairman of India's main regulatory body for higher education, the University Grants Commission. In his petition, Mr. Yashpal questioned the legality of Chhattisgarh's having bypassed the commission's authority to examine proposed campuses and course offerings before granting university status to new institutions.

Since Chhattisgarh's private-universities law went into effect, he said, "the state government has been establishing universities simply by issuing notifications in the Gazette in an indiscriminate and mechanical manner." The Gazette is a bulletin published by the government.

Protection for Students

The court also directed the institutions whose registrations have been canceled to seek affiliations with the two government universities in Chhattisgarh -- Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University, in Raipur, and Guru Ghasidas University, in Bilaspur -- to protect students' interests.

"The Supreme Court has guarded the interests of the students," said Rajiv Tiwari, a spokesman for Rai University, one of the private institutions. "But the main worry for students is how long it takes for their institutions to gain affiliation to other universities."

In fact, Chhattisgarh, which in January 2004 elected a new government, amended the private-universities law to require all existing private universities to pay about $450,000 each by that June to create an endowment from which students would be reimbursed if their universities proved to be sham operations.

Of the 108 universities that had set up shop -- some operating out of one-room homes or storefronts in shopping complexes -- only 37 had fulfilled the fund requirements by the deadline. Even so, the Supreme Court's decision includes those 37 institutions, which plan to appeal to the court.

"The highest court of the land has passed this order," said Pradeep Kumar Maitra, a part-time journalism lecturer at Amity University, another of the private universities that was shut down. "It is unlikely they will review it."

India needs more universities to accommodate a growing number of college-bound students. The country's 300-odd public universities serve 9.3 million students, or about 7 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old population. The central government has said it wants to increase the college-going rate to 10 percent by 2007, a plan that would require it to find space for four million more students.

The Chhattisgarh experience, however, has served to make the atmosphere hostile for all private universities in India, not only because the government is cracking down, but also because the public has become more skeptical about them.
Section: International
Volume 51, Issue 25, Page A39