Precisely a month ago, on June 29, 2015, a Sikkim high court order brought cheer to lakhs of students who had completed or were pursuing distance education programmes (DEP) from Sikkim Manipal University’s (SMU) study centres across the country and abroad.
On the validity of degrees, the court said that students whose degrees will be ‘protected’ include those who had completed their course before 2011-12; others who had started their programme prior to 2011-12 and those admitted for the programmes any day after February 22, 2013, till June 26, 2015.
Despite court orders, however, a circular from the University Grants Commission (UGC) was awaited on the matter, causing much consternation among students who had passed out of SMU’s study centres in states other than Sikkim at different points of time from 2003 onwards. Especially worried are those who took admission in the off-campus and offshore study centres of SMU after 2007 because of ambiguity in UGC rules related to distance education in off-campus and offshore study centres of state universities.
Before giving granting relief to the students, June 26, 2015, the court had rejected SMU’s plea to be allowed to offer degree programmes in its off-campus and offshore study centres.
Ritesh Agrawal, a Supreme Court lawyer, who contested the students’ case in the students in the Sikkim high court, said “From June 26, 2015, Sikkim Manipal University cannot offer any course from its study centres beyond the boundary of its own state. The high court has upheld the arguments of the University Grants Commission that it has supervening (additional) influence over all the other legislations on the subject of education for maintenance of minimum standards in the country. So even if its act allows it to go beyond state boundaries, a varsity cannot do so. However, as the High Court has protected the interests of the students, the UGC should issue a circular in accordance with the judgment to clear any uncertainty about their degrees. Many government colleges are denying admission to students in post-graduation courses. Students have been complaining about discrimination in jobs due to ambiguity on the status of their degrees,”
The four students who took their cases to Sikkim high court are Pralhad Dani Chhetri, Pradip Kharbuja, Suresh Tiwari and Rashmi Adhikari. All four completed their graduation from SMU’s study centres in Kathmandu, Nepal.
While Chhetri, Tiwari and Adhikari were awarded with degrees of bachelor of science in information technology on May 5, 2010, December 24, 2013, and November 2, 2006, respectively, Kharbuja completed his master’s in information technology and was awarded the degree on April 4, 2014. He is now pursuing MSc (IT) at the same Centre at Kathmandu, Nepal.
The court said these students were “aggrieved” by a letter dated May 11, 2011, from the Ministry of Human Resource Development addressed to the Royal Danish Embassy, stating that no study centre of SMU had been approved either by the erstwhile regulator, Distance Education Council, or the present regulator UGC and that the degrees/programmes offered in the distance mode by it were not recognised under the Indian Law and could not be equated on terms with an Indian degree/programme, resulting in their admissions for higher studies being refused by the governments of Denmark and Australia. These students were also shocked to come across a public notice dated June 27, 2013, issued by the UGC, announcing that a university established or incorporated by or under a state act shall operate only within the territorial jurisdiction allotted to it under its act and in no case beyond the territory of the state of its location.
SMU, which had frozen all admissions from October 10, 2012, onwards for want of regulatory approvals, started admitting students from February 22, 2013, when the Sikkim high court passed an interim order and stayed the operation of UGC’s public notice dated June 27, 2013. In its final judgment on June 26, 2015, however, the court upheld UGC’s notice of June 2013. Three days later, on June 29, 2015, the again announced relief for students admitted to degree programmes at different points of time.
UGC is of the view that it doesn’t need to issue any circular with regard to the high court judgment. “If a student has a problem getting admission in any postgraduation course or in getting a job, he or she can produce the copy of the judgment and ask for relief. In case of a confusion, students can go to the court and ask for the clarification of the order,” a UGC official said.
Whose degree is ‘protected?’
# Those who had started and completed their distance education programme anytime prior to the academic session 2011-12
# Students who began their distance education programme prior to the academic session 2011-12 but completed the course afterwards
# Students who were admitted to the distance education programmes from February 22, 2013, to June 26, 2015
# As admitted by SMU in Sikkim HC, it put a freeze on admissions from October 25, 2012. Any admission from October 25, 2012, to February 22, 2013, is thus questionable