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The Delhi High Court has struck down a UGC Regulation which permitted filling of M.Phil. and Ph.D. seats entirely on the basis of performance in the viva voce process.
The Regulation, the Court held, was arbitrary and in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
The Court also held that absence of any “concession” with respect to the minimum qualifying marks in the written test for reserved category candidates as well as physically disabled candidates in the said Regulation, was “without proper application of mind”.
The Court has, however, upheld the validity of the Regulation which prescribed a supervisor-researcher ratio in M.Phil and Ph.D courses.
The pronouncement was made by Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice AK Chawla in petitions challenging the implementation of the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.Phil./Ph.D. Degrees) Regulations, 2016.
The Petitioners had complained that the Regulations were unreasonable and arbitrary and they resulted in “a drastic reduction” in M.Phil. and Ph.D. seats all over the country, specifically in Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Admission to an M.Phil or Ph.D course, as per the assailed Regulation 5.4 of the aforementioned Regulations of 2016 was a two-stage process, wherein first the candidate has to qualify (secure at least 50%) a written test and then perform in viva voce. The candidate is, however, declared successful based entirely on the performance in viva voce. Marks from the written test were not given any weightage. The interview board or selection board was not obliged to indicate any sub-division towards knowledge of the candidate, her aptitude, ability to communicate, evaluate the power point presentation, etc.
The Court observed that a scheme that gave entire weightage to the performance of a candidate in the interview, or viva voce afforded “the widest latitude to 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 minimized; 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 M.Phil./Ph.D. levels would therefore be arbitrary.”
It also acknowledged that “given the pattern of admission and the procedure adopted where 100% or entire weightage is given to the interview process, the possibility of bias and also adverse impact to SC/ST and other reserved category candidates is palpable and real.”
With respect to absence of a “concession” to reserved category candidates, the Court stated that the materials placed on record as well as the pleadings of both the JNU and UGC did “not anywhere show” that an expert Committee had determined whether the change in the criteria, could impact reserved category candidates adversely.
Consequently, it directed UGC and Jawaharlal Nehru University to give “appropriate concession” to reserved category students after considering the seats filled pursuant to the assailed Regulations in the last two academic years.
The Court further noted that JNU, in implementing the 2016 Regulations, had either deliberately or on account of wrong implementation, left unfilled a substantial number of seats. This, the Court opined, was “not healthy” as it amounted “to a national waste and requires to be redressed appropriately”.
It was iterated that although the courts adopt a “generally deferential judicial review standard” with respect to academic standards, when it comes to exercise of delegated legislative power by “technical or expert statutory bodies”, if regulations are shown “to be plainly or manifestly arbitrary or unreasonable, they would be declared so.”
The Court thus refused to interfere in the fixation of a cap on a number of students that the faculty can supervise, at any given point of time, while it struck down the Regulation mandating sole reliance on viva voce marks for admission to M.Phil and Ph.D course.
The Petitioners were represented by Advocate Gaurav Bhardwa.
JNU was represented by Advocates Monika Arora, Harsh Ahuja, Kushal Kumar and Vibhu Tripathi.
UGC was represented by Senior Advocate JP Sengh with Advocates Manoj R. Sinha, Manisha Mehta, Vaishali Tanwar and Mrigna Shekhar.
Read the Judgement: