On March 20, the University Grants Commission (UGC) published its annual list of fake universities in India. Shockingly, fourteen of these names have been reappearing in the list since May 1, 2000, the earliest available date online. Established under an Act in 1956, the UGC is authorised to determine the standards of established universities and de-notify those which fail to meet them. According to its list this year, there are 23 fake universities and 279 below-par technical institutes (there are 266 private universities in India). Seven of the fake universities and 23 of the sub-par technical institutes are in Delhi, which accounts for the highest number among all states. Telangana, West Bengal and Maharashtra follow closely behind. The fact that some of the names on this list — based on the joint recommendations of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the authority that awards technical degrees — are recurring ones shows that no action has been taken against them so far.

While some on the list exist only on paper, others are well-established, awarding degrees as regularly as the UGC shoots them down, and have been doing so for decades.

An unrecognised problem

Vishwakarma Open University has been operating in several states without UGC recognition for two decades. Headquartered in a two-room office overlooking Azadpur industrial area in Delhi, this is certainly no dream campus. Tucked away on the third floor, with only a moderately visible signboard to give it away, the office is sparse. “If we had the money to buy our UGC recommendation, we would’ve long ago. Isn’t it proof of how service matters that 20 years later, we are still operating out of here?” says VS Mahajan, the institute’s technical consultant. “How is it that most universities have political patronage, and find it easier to get grants while there is no space for people such as us?”

A senior official in the UGC refutes such accusations of partiality.

“What can the UGC do to a university? Without an amendment to the UGC Act that empowers it to act against such institutions, it is toothless. It can operate in an advisory capacity, at the most. The UGC can fine you up to ₹1,000 and direct the institution to follow its standards. When the universities do not listen to the UGC, it has the power to stop their grant, but in my 24 years here, I have not seen it happen.”

Mismanaged studies

The UGC Act defines a university as one that has been “established or incorporated by, or under, a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act, and includes any such institution as may, in consultation with the University concerned, be recognised by the Commission in accordance with the regulations...” Which means that only a UGC-approved university can award a recognised degree.

While public universities are authorised to award degrees, private universities must be affiliated with the UGC to be able to do so, unless they have been declared a deemed university by an Act of Parliament.

In 2005, the Delhi-headquartered Indian Institute of Planning and Management was caught offering degrees without accreditation from either AICTE or UGC. This information, which the UGC publicised through a notice in major newspapers, came as a shock to the many students who had enrolled for the institute’s MBA/BBA/BCA degree courses.

Manas Mukherjee, a 29-year-old IIPM alumnus, had joined the institute in 2006 — a year after “the institute’s troubles began”, he recalls. His career was affected in the short run and his losses ran into ₹10 lakh — the amount he had spent applying for the course and studying for what turned out to be an unrecognised degree.

Till today, he has trouble getting his visa and other documentation for First World countries, despite being settled in Canada in a different field as a flight instructor. The worst-affected in such situations are the people who don’t have financial support, he says.

“Those of us who were well-connected had managed to squeeze something out of the situation, but the rest who were fresh and innocent ended up with mostly sales and CSR [corporate social responsibility] jobs. While I chose a different path and made something of myself, I won’t ever forget the harrowing lessons learnt from IIPM.”

Mahajan has a different take on the ground reality. “Where would you need all your UGC-approved degrees when it comes to getting a job? And do all institutes and universities that have been approved ensure that the student will be gainfully employed after studying there?” He is dismissive of the UGC’s categories. “The UGC categories are elitist. An organisation such as ours is employed in providing skill-based education to many who may have fallen off the education system after Std XII, for lack of money or access to education. Education is not free for all or open to all once you cross school, and school education does not provide you with a life skill that you can use to earn.” He claims his university provides low-cost education to those who may not have the marks to get into a public university, or the money to join private approved institutions.

Vishwakarma flaunts several referral letters from alumni now in state government jobs. Also associated with the government-led employment promotion initiative Rashtriya Rozgar Mission, the institute claims 100 per cent placement, subject to conditions.

Neither Indian nor genuine

Foreign universities, run either as franchisees or on private university campuses, also pose a problem for the UGC.

According to the UGC official, the absence of an effective legislation makes matters worse. “Kapil Sibal, during his time with the HRD [Human Resource Development] Ministry, had tried to set up the Foreign Education Providers’ Bill in 2010, which is yet to be passed. As of now, 311 foreign universities operate in India, and people are happy to receive those degrees.”

The UGC has notified all private universities that are affiliated to the off-campus centres of foreign universities that they are in violation of the UGC Act 2003.

“Private universities cannot affiliate an institution/college. They cannot establish off-campus centres beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the concerned State. However, they can establish off-campus centres within the concerned State after their existence of five years and with the prior approval of the UGC. So far, UGC has not approved any off-campus centres of any private university,” the notification stated.

In reality, however, many foreign universities have managed to set up shop in the country even in the absence of legislative approval, and this state of affairs imperils the future of lakhs of students.

The UGC is in no mood to assimilate students with degrees from unrecognised universities. Says the official, “Students should take an informed decision. We try to create as much public awareness as possible, giving notices in newspapers, and on our website. If students join a course blindly, then it’s their misfortune.”