A nowhere degree

 Padma Rigzin |  2016-08-28 19:15:38.0  |  New Delhi

A nowhere degree

A college degree can become a matter of controversy. Even the person occupying the highest office in India cannot shy away from degree-related controversies. In May 2016, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), thinking of scoring some political brownie points, raised questions about authenticity of the Prime Minister’s degree. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) could have responded to AAP’s new found theme in their perpetual war by simply ignoring them. However, BJP readily obliged and within few days the saffron leaders released Prime Minister’s degree at a press conference even as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley kept saying: “It is public discourse at its lowest ever”.

Around the same time when PM’s degree was grabbing all the attention, Footwear Design and Development Institute (FDDI) also hit the news because of a degree row. The crux of the controversy is that the degrees of those students who joined FDDI between 2012 and 2014 were declared illegal by the University Grants Commission (UGC). In the middle of their courses in various campuses spread across India from Rohtak to Kerala, the students found out from a newspaper report that the degree they were expecting would be illegitimate because FDDI’s contract with a private university, which franchised degree to students in FDDI, was contravention of a UGC regulation. To bring this issue into perspective, students shelled out almost Rs 81,000 per semester for their three-year course.

Before going further, it would be better to bring the history of the institute. It was established in 1986 under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce. It is one of the rare institutes in India imparting skills in footwear designing, leather products, entrepreneurial and management. A government funded institute and a good record in placements attracted many students from across the country. The website of the institute boasts of “an impeccable track record of 100 per cent placement for all its pass-outs in major multinational and Indian companies. The FDDI alumni include vice-presidents and CEOs of some of the most renowned companies”.

In 2007, FDDI tied up with Punjab Technical University (PTU), a private University, under which students would get a professional diploma from FDDI and a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree from PTU. However, this deal was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2010. So, FDDI made an arrangement with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) to give out degrees. This deal also fell apart in 2012. 

Again on July 26, 2012, FDDI entered into an agreement with Mewar University (MU), a private university in Rajasthan, under which students were supposed to get a three-year degree from MU. But then in May 2016, when the illegality of the deal with MU was picked up the media, all hell broke loose. 

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Mewar University was declared as illegal, as it violated the UGC regulation (Establishment and Maintenance of Standards in Private Universities) of 2003. The UGC, in simple words, said that under the regulation a private university cannot offer degree beyond the wall of its campus. By the time this was noticed by UGC much water had flown under the bridge. More than 3,600 students had taken admission in FDDI in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The fate of these students became uncertain as they were going to get non-recognised certificates for no fault of theirs. The students who joined FDDI between 2012 and 2014 expecting regular degrees after successful completion of the respective courses, fell in “a turmoil of uncertainty” after the UGC’s declaration.

“Who would have thought that my decision to join a government institute would become such a big mistake? In the middle of the course, we come to know that the degree we were supposed to get would be non-recognised,” said Alok Nigam, a 2014 batch student. 

“With the degree row getting traction in media, students find it difficult to get placed. Those who do get placed, the package offered to them are a pittance,” said another student who didn’t wish to be named.

From September 2015, students from various campuses of the institute started raising their concern. On September 16, as reported by Millennium Post, 250 students gathered at Jantar Mantar demanding that the government step in to resolve the crisis. “I am the father of a 2012 batch student. We pay through our noses and this is what we get! Why are the FDDI authorities keeping quiet now after making tall promises during the admission? Utterly ridiculous,” commented a student’s father. 

The Jantar Mantar rally was followed by a more impromptu protest at India Gate after which many students were detained by the police. Using a unique way to make their concerns heard, students use empty shoe boxes while protesting at Connaught Place. As it became clear that the solution to the crisis was not to be found so easily, some students turned violent and broke window panes and damaged properties around the campus in Noida in May, 2016. Plagued with regular protests, FDDI closed the institute till August. However, the uncertainty prevailed when it opened in August. 

In 2015, the degree issue became subjudice in the Delhi High Court, Rajasthan High Court and Supreme Court. The students facing the dilemma have now pinned their hopes on the judiciary for a satisfactory solution.

What is very remarkable about this controversy is that the officials of FDDI were utterly ignorant about the rules and regulations of the UGC. It is shocking that these officials carelessly went about signing agreements with private universities, knowingly or unknowingly, gambling with the future of students.

“It is submitted that the Diploma being awarded by the FDDI too is not recognised by AICTE or any other competent authority. On being inquired about the date on which AICTE called back their recognition to FDDI Diploma, FDDI states that there are no such dates available with them,” wrote Sandeep Priyadarshi, a final year student, in a letter to the Commerce Minister.

After the MoU with MU was broken, FDDI made a deal with IGNOU to provide a degree to the students joining from 2015 onwards. “The MoU between FDDI and IGNOU was approved by UGC only for 2015-2016 batch and for six courses excluding BSc in Business and Entrepreneurship, MSc in Business and Entrepreneurship and BSc in Fashion Designing, then on which ground FDDI had started its admission process for 2016-2017,” wrote Priyadarshi in that letter. “Since UGC has not approved the two courses, the institute has shifted many students of 2015 batch to the approved ones. This is utterly wrong. You sought admission in one course but at the last moment you are forced to shift to another course,” said a student who requested anonymity.

Moreover, Priyadarshi is skeptical about the equivalence of the degree to be given by IGNOU and the diploma provided by FDDI because a new UGC notification says that the employers will decide the authenticity of the degree. The notification he referred to was put on UGC’s website on July 19 and read: “Equivalence of degrees, diplomas, certificates etc. are not determined by the UGC. In the case of higher education, equivalence is decided by the University concerned and in cases of employment, promotion etc, equivalence is decided by the employing organisation.”

On the day I visited the campus in the first week of August, students facing the degree issue had gathered under a big tree near the canteen. Priyadarshi was standing and enunciating the options available to them. What is interesting about the gathering was that many of Priyadarshi’s audience were students who took admission in the year 2015. The 2015 batch students also got involved in the controversy because many are not satisfied with the prospect of getting an Open University degree after paying a high fee.

The purpose of that meeting was to weigh the alternatives available to them in the degree issue. The first alternative proposed was to make FDDI a deemed to be university or a Central University. Interestingly, the government is working on granting a deemed university status to Footwear Design and Development Institute (FDDI). Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had recently said that talks are on with Human Resource Development Ministry and advice has been sought from Prime Minister’s Office on the issue.

“I want this issue to get a fair solution, the student should not be put to difficulties, but this is an inherited problem... We are working to have a deemed university status for them,” she said in an interview to a news agency. But Priyadarshi said: “None of the officials are concerned and even bothered to look at the existing regulations.” According to him: “UGC has made it clear through an RTI that students of FDDI cannot be awarded a degree in retrospect, according to section 6.7 of the said regulations, even if FDDI secures Deemed University status.” This is not a viable option. Moreover, students say, many teaching there will end up losing their jobs because many don’t fulfill the educational qualifications required in a deemed University.

The second option advanced was to shift the students of FDDI to other appropriate institutions, like IIFT, NID, NIFT for a degree. Students claim that there has been a precedent of this in the past from other institutes as well.

Thirdly, FDDI can be accorded the status of Institute of National Importance (INI) through an act of Parliament. This is the preferred solution for the students because they think that a special exemption can be inserted in the bill specifically declaring that the degree can be given in a retrospective manner. However, the Commerce Ministry recently shifted its proposal of INI status to Deemed to be University.

The FDDI matter is up for hearing in the Apex Court and these options would be presented to the court. In the meantime, the future of the students hangs in balance.

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