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KT Jaleel, Kerala's Higher Education Minister
KT Jaleel, Kerala's Higher Education Minister
Governance

University Autonomy Under Attack In Kerala

State Higher Education Minister KT Jaleel’s role in changing marks of students under the scanner

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

If it was the State Public Service Commission (PSC) that had been under a cloud for alleged malpractice and nepotism in selection to various posts in the government a month ago, last week it was the chance of the state’s universities to raise the flag.

The Mahatma Gandhi University, one of the most prestigious ones in the state did just that. Not by itself, but a reply to an RTI petition filed by the All India Save Education Committee, an organisation aimed at reforming the higher education sector in the country, showed that the state’s Higher Education Minister KT Jaleel had indeed over stepped his Constitutional duties in setting off a chain of what many academicians now label as “highly nauseating interference aimed at eroding the university’s very autonomous existence”.

As per directions of Jaleel, something which he has admitted on camera, an ‘adaalat’ was called by the Syndicate of the University in which one mark was awarded to Anuja Mohana Kurup, a B Tech student to enable her to pass in one paper of the sixth semester.

The official interference of a minister to award marks to a student is unheard of anywhere in the country. But more significantly, by doing so, the minister is in danger of violating relevant sections of the University Act of the MG University, whose statutes clearly state that the final say in awarding marks to any candidate lies only with the Pass Board. It is also a system followed across universities in the country.

Professor Rajan Gurukkal who is the Vice Chairman of the State Higher Education Council, the top most advisory body in the higher education sector, minced no words when he tore into the events that unfolded at the MG University

“The syndicate has no right to make a decision on awarding marks to any candidate. That is done by the Pass Board which is the statutory body concerned. Syndicate is only a ratifying body in such situations. Awarding moderation marks is a policy decision and is not the prerogative of the syndicate. How can you award moderation marks on individual basis? We should remember that the syndicate is not a legislative body but only an executive one. It has no right to frame new rules. The issue at MG University is surely a case of the syndicate exceeding its brief,’’ Professor Gurukkal told The Lede.

Gurukkal who is also a former VC at MG University told The Lede that conducting an ‘adaalat’ for awarding moderation marks to students is illegal and such a practice has no place in any University.

Autonomy Under Threat?

With his interference, many feel the LDF Minister in Kerala has diminished the autonomy of not just the Pass Board or the Controller of Examinations in conducting free and fair examinations and publication of results, but has also struck at the very core idea of the University’s autonomous structure.

“Frankly I have never heard of such an adaalat that gives away marks. Gurukkal too has made it very clear. But my issue is how much autonomy are you willing to give to the universities? If the minister and others are going to interfere in everything in the name of improving higher education it means we are going back. The biggest issue here is that University itself is in a mindset that the government is paying them so they are ought to listen to them. They are not able to get out of that mindset and the government uses that to gain control,’’ former Vice Chairman of the State Higher Education Council TP Sreenivasan told The Lede.

It is perhaps this mindset that the Minister and his two personal secretaries tapped into at the ‘adaalat’ and who by their presence at the ‘adaalat’ are alleged to have successfully arm twisted the Syndicate and the Vice Chancellor of the University to circumvent rules.

The All India Save Education Committee based on whose RTI the issue has come to light, along with the Congress led Opposition in Kerala, has now approached the state Governor who is the Chancellor to all universities in the state. The Congress led UDF (United Democratic Front) has also called for a judicial probe into the matter.

“There seems to be gross malpractice at the higher education level and this minister is leading the way for it. We cannot accept anything less than a judicial probe,’’ said Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.

Meanwhile the Governor has called for a report from the MG University Vice Chancellor.

“I have received complaints about this issue. I do not want to comment anything more till I ascertain all the facts. It is not right to be judgmental at the moment. We will get to the bottom of this,’’ Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan told media persons.

What puts the Left government on a sticky wicket is that the Syndicate of the MG University, which seemed to have allowed the Minister’s whims and fancies to take wings, is filled with members owing their allegiance to CPI(M), making it seem nothing more than a concerted government effort to stifle the autonomy of the institution.

Making A Mockery Of The Marking System

If the case of Anuja is what has set off the present outcry, the rumblings of a mutiny among academicians started early this year when another BTech student Srihari S of TKM Engineering College managed to get his results reversed even after a re-evaluation by two separate professors failed to make him pass in the ‘Dynamics of Machinery’ paper in the sixth semester examinations conducted in 2018.

After failing in his semester examination where he managed only 29 marks, eleven short of the pass 40, Srihari had applied for re-evaluation. The outcome of this re-evaluation was just three marks more taking his tally to 32 and that too after being evaluated by two separate examiners at two different camps.

The student then directly approached the Controller of Examinations, who is the final authority on exams and results. But as per the letter from the Controller to Srihari his request was turned down citing the rule book.

“There is no provision in exam manual to conduct another valuation on the same B Tech answer book where valuation and revaluation is completed on it. So the request to re-examine the answer book by another examiner is not possible in this case,’’ reads the letter dated 23 February 2019 which is now in possession of The Lede.

It is here that the minister steps in. Through the Syndicate the minister sets up an ‘adaalat’ just seven days after Srihari receives the letter and bypasses the authority of the Controller of Examinations to pass the following orders.

“Taking this as a special case, a qualified professor is to be appointed to reevaluate the answer book and take necessary action against the first valuator and second valuators if there is truth in the claims of the student,’’ reads the minutes of the ‘adaalat’ which is possession of The Lede.

Academicians are of the opinion that the Higher Education Minister of the state was not only demeaning the reputation of qualified valuators by his interference but more alarmingly was also throwing the very Exam Manual out of the window.

On May 03 Srihari’s marks were revised from 32 to 48 as per the University records after a third evaluation, unprecedented, not just in the history of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University (KTU), to which the student’s college is affiliated, but across universities in the state.

“A minister and his two personal secretaries attend an adaalat of a university which is usually held to speed track files pertaining to administrative matters only and then go on to make a decision to re-evaluate a student’s marks. Not just that, the minister and his aides also sign the minutes of the meeting. Can there be a more glaring impropriety than this? Does this minister have no respect for any rules of an autonomous institution or does he think he can get away with anything just because he is a minister?’’ asks Shajar Khan, State President of All India Save Education Committee.

In the case of Anuja, a student of Indira Gandhi Institute of Engineering & Technology at Kothamangalam, the minister sensing the protest following him taking part in the ‘adaalat’ for Srihari’s case, did keep away from the second one physically, but ensured that his aide attended it and he even appeared for a few minutes via video conference.

From Misconduct To Malpractice?

On Friday, a letter written by a syndicate member of MG University, on his own letterhead and countersigned by the Vice Chancellor himself addressing the Controller of Examination demanding answer sheets of thirty candidates along with their false exam numbers, emerged. The Lede is in possession of the copy of this letter.

Though his office tried to deny that the minister’s Private Secretary K Sharafuddin had any role in reversing Anuja’s results, his presence at the meeting did raise enough suspicion given how the earlier case was dealt with.

But this time the ‘adaalat’ was saved the ignominy of calling for a re-evaluation.

Rather the modus operandi was different because the student had applied for grace mark of one mark which she hoped to get from her work with the National Service Scheme.

But the concerned section in the MG University rejected it as it was detected that she had already availed that facility in the previous year’s examination and as per rules no candidate could be given such marks twice. Here again the ‘adaalat’ stepped in and directed the university syndicate to award one mark as ‘special moderation marks,’ something unheard of before.

For starters, neither the ‘adaalat’ nor the syndicate can pass such orders as per the University Act. But more glaringly, it is also a complete violation of set procedures because no moderation marks can be issued to any candidate or group of candidates after the publication of the final results.

Only a student’s appeal to re-evaluate could be considered if it merits so. “See this girl’s claim for moderation marks was rejected outright by the Vice Chancellor of the University because she had already got it. Even after that if the ‘adaalat’, which is otherwise toothless, goes on to award her marks then the question is who has such an authority which is even above that of the Vice Chancellor?

It is very evident there is only one such force which is the minister. This is where the question of political interference comes in,’’ well known political commentator and policy maker Joseph C Mathew told The Lede.

Academicians reiterate that it is to cover up this interference that the syndicate then went one step ahead and made it look like a policy decision. For that the syndicate decided to award five marks as ‘moderation marks’ to all candidates who have failed in any one paper in any semester of the B Tech examination.

But the Exam Manual clearly says it can be decided only before the publication of final results and not after it, and that too by the Pass Board only.

“Moderation marks are given to balance situations in certain cases where the number of students who passed might be very low or the questions were out of syllabus. At that time the controller of examination levels the situation by moderation in the wake of a known mistake which is a policy decision. Not like this,’’ added Sreenivasan.

The syndicate was only committing a greater error to cover up for an earlier one, arguably to shield the minister. In doing so every rule pertaining to conduct of examination and publication of results were being torn apart.

“This is a gross misuse of the adaalat. There is no doubt about that. Adaalats are conducted to clear pending administrative files and not interfere in examination procedures or results. Here you are infringing on the very sanctity of the University which is its autonomy,” said Professor Jancy James, former Vice Chancellor of MG University.

Copy of the letter demanding answer sheets
Copy of the letter demanding answer sheets

False numbers are those which are assigned against each candidate’s real exam number so as to maintain secrecy during evaluation. It is this very concept that has been taken apart by the issue of such a letter by a syndicate member.

Academicians are now fuming at this revelation.

“I simply cannot understand this. How can you give answer sheets to a syndicate member? I have never heard of such a situation. It is just outrageous,’’ added TP Sreenivasan.

“This smells of a scam now, no doubt about that. How could a Vice Chancellor ask the Controller of Examinations to hand over answer sheets to a syndicate member under any circumstances? I think the VC has no right to continue in that position now,’’ added Joseph C Mathew.

But perhaps minister Jaleel has a set agenda and if one were to closely examine some of the other orders he had been passing at the so called ‘adaalat’, that he himself decides to call, it mirrors a kangaroo court passing judgments while in reality it has no rights to do so.

In the same adaalat that passed Srihari, a few dubious and overarching decisions were also made. For instance, in a complaint regarding less marks given in internal examinations at SCT Engineering College, the ‘adaalat’ directed the Vice Chancellor to summon the concerned teachers and take action on them.

In another case of one student Salman Salim whose certificates were allegedly not returned by a college the adaalat ruled that if not returned immediately the affiliation of the college be withheld by the University. Again, another student of Providence College was allowed to write the next supplement examination against existing norms.

Hence every decision that the adaalat took was out of step simply because it did not have the legal right to do so. But with the minister himself signing the minutes, the Vice Chancellor nor any other official of the University dared to question it.

MG University much like the KTU earlier this year was becoming an open playing field for the minister and his staff.

Minister Caught In No Man’s Land

If Jaleel was donning the garb of a saviour out to reform the higher education sector in the state by awarding marks to whom he calls as ‘worthy candidates’, the minister over the last two days has been forced to take a step back.

On Saturday he had an entirely new take on the issue and like any other politician, was busy passing the buck. “See I have been doing my best to reform the higher education sector. Now if there are some procedural lapses found then it is the responsibility of the Vice Chancellor. What can I do for that? Neither I nor my personal staff had any role in any decisions taken at the adaalat,’’ Jaleel told media persons.

The ball is now in the court of the state governor and it could soon lead to a major overhaul at the MG University’s top brass.

Academicians also are eyeing the option of dragging the minister to the court which could have serious repercussions for the state government in days to come.