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Delhi HC Scraps UGC Regulation That Gave 100% Weight To Viva In MPhil/PhD Admissions

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In a recent judgement, the Delhi High Court struck down the University Grants Commission 2016 regulation of giving 100% weightage to viva voice for admissions to MPhil and PhD courses. The court also disagreed on no concession in the minimum qualifying marks for students from reserved categories and to students with disability.

Regulation Upheld

The regulation which fixed the cap on the number of students that the faculty at the level of Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor could supervise, was upheld, though the court was of the opinion that this matter was not one of judicial review. (Each professor can guide three MPhil and eight PhD scholars).

Background To The Case: SFI’s Plea

The plea was filed by the Students Federation of India (SFI) and three other students who challenged the constitutional validity of the UGC regulation which came into effect from July 5, 2016.

Earlier this year, in April, the High Court had asked JNU to submit an affidavit showing the bifurcation of the total number of students in each of its 13 schools and the individual breakup of M.Phil, PhD and non- research students respectively.

SFI Statement

“This is the first but major step to fight the draconian anti-constitutional UGC Gazette. The struggles for the fight for social justice must continue to ensure that the reservation policy is implemented in toto,” the SFI statement said.

The court was hearing the arguments by the petitioners as the regulation (Minimum Standards and Procedure for awarding of MPhil/PhD degrees) being “unreasonable and arbitrary”. Due to the regulation, the number of seats for MPhil/PhD all over the country had reduced considerably, posing a question on the futures of lakhs of students, both in the reserved and unreserved category.

From JNU, one of the respondents stated that the University had provided only 102 seats in the MPhil/PhD courses for the current year as compared to 970 seats in the previous academic year, i.e 2016-2017.

Earlier, the admission process to an MPhil or PhD course was a two-stage process, wherein, first the candidates had to qualify a written test, securing at least 50% marks, and thereafter they were required to clear a viva voce. As per the new regulation (now struck down), the candidate would be declared successful based entirely on the performance in viva voice, irrespective of the marks secured in the written test.

According to the court this regulation was arbitrary, and it was explained: “In the opinion of this court, the entire weightage to performance of a candidate in the interview, or viva voice, based on the evaluation of the “powerpoint” presentation affords the widest latitude to the arbitrary and capricious behaviour of the members of the board, who know that the fate of admission hangs in their hands. Discretion, wherever allowed, is to be minimised; more so when it concerns admission to academic institutions. Academics are no doubt brilliant in their fields; however, they are not immune to baser tendencies, such as unconscious bias (subject matter mannerisms, perceived lack of respect, etc). This can tend to cloud their wisdom and conferring the exclusive power to admit a student at MPhil/PhD levels would, therefore, be arbitrary. Therefore, para 5.4 of the impugned regulations are held to be arbitrary.”

On the matter of concession in minimum qualifying marks for reserved category students, the court has directed JNU and UGC to work out a criterion of giving some concession to SC/ST category candidates and, to this extent under the rules, to the OBC category students as well. To the candidates from the persons with disabilities category (PWD), a 5% reservation has been statutorily mandated.

JNU Teachers Association reaction

In JNU, about 657 MPhil and PhD seats had been left unfilled, on implementing this regulation. The court was of the opinion that, “This is not healthy; it amounts to a national waste and requires to be redressed appropriately.”

The Teachers’ Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University, welcomed the Delhi High Court’s order. The court in its judgement criticised the JNU administration for wasting its valuable resources, the teachers. JNUTA, in it’s statement, said, “JNUTA has consistently argued that the seat cuts in JNU in 2017 and 2018 were in violation of the CEI Act [Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act] and that the 100% viva voce and uniform eligibility marks without concessions to marginalized communities were unfair, discriminatory, and antithetical to social justice.”

The university introduced online examinations based on multiple choice questions and the Teachers’ Association was against this. They went on to say, “JNUTA urges the JNU administration from desisting from such steam-rolling action that directly contradicts the fundamental precepts of social justice.”

The court summarised its conclusions as follows:

That Regulation 5.4 of the UGC Regulations in so far as it permits filling of MPhil/PhD entirely on the basis of cent per cent evaluation of performance in the viva voce process is arbitrary. The said regulation is, therefore, declared void and contrary to Article 14;

An appropriate concession is to be given by the UGC and the JNU, taking into account the seats filled, having regard to the implementation of the regulations in the last two academic years;

The JNU is directed to take suitable review action to ensure that in any given academic year, no MPhil/PhD seat is left unfilled. It is also held that the UGC guidelines of 2016 in so far as they prescribe the supervisor- researcher/student ratio is valid.

Students’ Take On The Verdict

Youth Ki Awaaz spoke to a few PhD students asking their opinion on the judgement,

Lozzan, a PhD student at JNU, said, “The High Court’s decision is very much welcome. I support it. In fact, we celebrated it with a sigh of relief! We students have been protesting against the decision to make viva voice the sole criteria for selection of students for research. What about those who do come from rural backgrounds and are not articulate? Or those who are not proficient in a preferred language, say English? The written exam is needed to ensure a more level playing ground for all students. In fact, the students had been struggling to reduce the viva voce marks from 30 out of 100 to 10 out of 100. Because there were obvious cases of discrimination in the past. And yet it was increased to 100 out of 100! Making interview the only criteria gives much room for discrimination. Those with a ‘wrong’ face, or a ‘wrong’ skin colour, or a ‘wrong’ surname may never get into research that way. The High Court’s judgment is a huge sigh of relief.”

Another PhD student Tunia expressed her happiness at the verdict but voiced her apprehensions about its implementation by the administration. “I believe the verdict came for the general good of all students but I doubt with this administration it will be of any benefit. Because this administration is a dictatorial administration. I doubt it will adhere to the court’s verdict,” she said when asked whether the judgement was beneficial or not.

She went on to say, “I believe it the verdict played a significant role in determining the future course but I have again doubts on the mechanism this administration follows because they will interfere in the viva voce procedure.”

According to her, the ideal response of the High Court should have been to scrap the regulation. “Instead of decreasing the number of students I believe they should instead work on filling the vacancies of faculties. How can creating a barrier for a common man from receiving higher education ever be supported? In a nation like ours, where we need to develop youth’s skill, this regulation is only acting as a barrier for educational institutions, Faculties, students, research scholars.”

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Image credit: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty
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