A newspaper report last week that the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development has drawn up a list of 11 so-called “under-performing” universities whose teaching and research functions will be audited has left teachers and students across campuses scratching their heads in bewilderment. According to the report in the Times of India, the 11 universities to be audited include Aligarh Muslim University, Allahabad University, Central University of Rajasthan at Kishangarh, Pondicherry University, and Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.

The confusion among teachers and students is understandable. Several of the 11 universities under the scanner according to the report, have been rated quite highly by the government’s National Assessment and Accreditation Council, some as recently as 2015 and 2016. The council is an autonomous institution of the University Grants Commission – which has now been tasked with auditing the alleged non-performers.

“This makes no sense,” said Faizal Hasan, president of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union. “The NAAC [National Assessment and Accreditation Council] rating is the government’s assessment and this list is the government’s too.”

Aligarh Muslim University, Central University of Rajasthan, Pondicherry University and Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University were all awarded As in the last cycle of the council’s ratings. The institutions are graded from A++ to D with A++ to C being accredited, and D being not accredited.

In 2012, the University Grants Commission made accreditation compulsory for institutions under its purview. These universities and higher education institutes were required to get accreditation certificates from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council with the final aim of linking funding to it. Grades awarded by the council are valid for five years. When this period expires, universities must apply for another round of accreditation. Of the four universities mentioned above, only Pondicherry University’s rating, awarded in 2011, has expired. Allahabad University, also on the list of 11 non-performers, was awarded a B++ in 2004. It has not been graded more recently. Others are yet to be rated.

‘Politically motivated’

The University Grants Commission had not officially informed Aligarh Muslim University that it featured in the under-performers list when this reporter contacted its spokesperson, Omar S Peerzada. But the news nevertheless has caused consternation among the university community.

Hasan said that an American agency had ranked Aligarh Muslim University higher than even Delhi University last year. “This is clearly an attempt to defame our university and students are angry and upset about it,” he said.

With little clue as to where the university has been found wanting, many in the Aligarh Muslim University community wonder if the acrimony between the university and the Union Human Resource Development ministry over the university’s minority status could be a reason. There is an ongoing court battle on the subject, and the ministry had told the Supreme Court in September that it did not support the university’s minority tag.

“What are the criteria for judging?” asked Mohammad Mohibul Haque of the Department of Political Science. “This is the first time this premier institution is being discussed for this reason. The teachers here suspect the decision to include AMU is politically motivated because it claims to be a minority institution.”

However, Aligarh Muslim University has had its share of troubles. In addition to the court case and an investigation regarding financial and administrative impropriety initiated against its vice-chancellor Zameeruddin Shah, two students were killed in campus violence last year, and the university closed for a few days. But Aftab Alam, also a political science teacher at the university, argued that none of this explained the allegation of under-performance.

Aligarh Muslim University vice-chancellor Zameeruddin Shah.

“That isolated incident did not affect the impact of the institution,” said Alam. “There is a rush of students every year. The faculty is engaged in research and there are publications in almost all branches of knowledge. There have been substantial cuts in funds and these lists and audits could be a way of justifying that.”

‘What’s the yardstick?’

N Dastagiri Reddy of the Department of Chemistry at Pondicherry University said that he would like to know what yardstick had been used to categorise universities as “under-performing”.

“I joined 12 years ago and have seen tremendous improvement in the quality of research, number of students and the type of placements [at Pondicherry university],” he said. “It is totally unjust to include us.”

Pondicherry University has been participating in the accreditation process from the 1990s, and its ratings have improved in successive cycles.

But there was a spell of trouble at this university too. Protests by the teacher-student community against the previous vice-chancellor in 2013-’14 had even reached Delhi. More recently, there are fewer science projects coming its way and government funds are being squeezed too, said Reddy. “The functions of the university were affected in that period but the impact was not permanent,” he added.

This reporter sought a response to allegations and questions raised by teachers and students from the official responsible for central universities at the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, and from the University Grants Commission. However, there was no response to text messages, phone calls or emails.

However, an official working in the ministry, who wanted to remain anonymous, confirmed that a list of under-performing universities had indeed been drawn up. “It is true that 11 institutions have been identified as non-performers,” said the official. “The UGC [University Grants Commission] will audit these and based on its reports, further course of action will be decided.”

This report will be updated if and when an official response is received.

‘Centre to blame’

Allahabad University vice-chancellor Rattan Lal Hangloo said that he had not been officially informed about the audit but was told informally that it was in the offing. Though academics outside of that university are puzzled by its inclusion in the under-performers list, Hangloo thinks its inclusion is justified.

“The university is at its lowest ebb right now,” he said.

Hangloo recalled the state of Allahabad University when he joined in 2015: “Financial irregularities… crowding because after [the introduction of the 27% Other Backward Classes quota in 2007] there are over 160 students in some classes…and staff shortage because there has been no recruitment in 30 years.”

He is of the view that the university, which has two institutes and 11 affiliated colleges, needs help, and urgently.

But Hangloo said that the Central government was responsible for letting things slide this far. “Ultimately, accountability rests with the government,” he said. “People complained to the ministry but no one bothered. At the same time, there is interference in matters of recruitment and disciplinary action.”

Hangloo had famously threatened to resign in 2016, alleging interference by the Union Human Resource Development ministry.

‘Part of a plan’

Abha Dev Habib, former executive council member of Delhi University, agreed with Hangloo that the government, now sitting in judgment, first “allowed the rot to set in”. She also echoed Hangloo in saying that the government was answerable first.

“In a public institution, the government is ultimately responsible for infrastructure, appointment of staff, promotions and quality,” she said. “Instead, there is complete inaction in case of misgovernance.”

Delhi University is not on the list of 11 under-performers, but the list has worried its academics too. “What are the implications for these institutions?” asked Habib. “Does the government have a plan for fixing them? If it does, it must make these 11 its priority.” But teachers fear that may not be the final goal.

Habib pointed out that the committee to develop a new education policy headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian had recommended that the government “weed out institutions that fall below an accepted benchmark of performance”.

“Many of the policies recommended by the committee are being implemented even though the policy has not been finalised,” said Habib. She fears that the ground is being prepared for “weeding out struggling institutions or handing [them] over to the private sector like primary schools in some states were”.