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Are NUJS online courses illegal? iPleaders, ex-SJA prez Arjun Agarwal argue out each side of the case

NUJS distance education courses
NUJS distance education courses

By July of last year, NUJS Kolkata’s interim administration had unilaterally shut down its distance learning certificate courses contractually provided by all third parties.

This resulted in one student approaching the Calcutta high court, which chastised NUJS for its decision leading to confusion about the status of already-enrolled students.

Distance education company iPleaders, set up by NUJS Kolkata graduates Abhyudaya Agarwal and Ramanuj Mukherjee, which was running 11 courses for NUJS, was the hardest hit by the ban.

iPleaders has reached out to us a while ago with a detailed statement arguing that its online courses were never illegal, and that the onus was on whoever alleges illegality having to provide such proof.

2016-18 NUJS Student Juridical Association (SJA) president Arjun Agarwal, who has since graduated from NUJS, has long claimed the opposite, which was later accepted by NUJS’ academic and executive councils. He had also written a letter to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) about this in March.

We have allowed both sides responses and counter-responses to the respective arguments (with Arjun Agarwal responding in a purely personal capacity), and have published the exchange below (due warning, the full documents of their arguments, included below this article, are quite lengthy).

Disclosures: iPleaders had been an advertiser on Legally India several years ago.

iPleaders arguments summarised

In summary, the iPleaders’ case is that its online courses with NUJS were not illegal on the ground of non-recognition, and that no legal provisions have been presented that such courses are illegal. UGC had specifically regulated all kinds of online courses through new regulations in 2018, by when new admissions to the courses were already discontinued, it argued.

iPleaders has provided the following summary of its position:

  1. UGC started regulating kinds of online courses through regulations issued in 2018 (applicable from 4th July). By then, admissions in all online courses conducted with the assistance of iPleaders had stopped. These regulations are prospectively applicable, and cannot therefore impact the completion of courses of ongoing students or despatch of certificates to students who had already completed the courses by then. No students were admitted once the regulations were in force.
  2. Until 2018 regulations were issued, non-recognition by UGC guidelines only implied that the degrees granted without such recognition are not valid for Central Government recruitment purposes. It does not imply illegality or a prohibition from launching and conducting courses through online mode. This was the case with all the other online courses being offered by India, including by various institutions of eminence as UGC gave no recognition for any online courses in absence of a governing legislation.
  3. NUJS, being a statutory university, was empowered by Section 5 of the WBNUJS Act, 1999, which is a law passed by the West Bengal Government, to run its own certificate and diploma courses without requiring any additional approvals from IGNOU / UGC unless there was a clear provision to the contrary in another instrument.
  4. NUJS had also applied for recognition of its online courses under the IGNOU Distance Education Council’s (DEC) Guidelines in 2014-2015, which were applicable at that point in time. However, no action was taken on NUJS’ application by UGC. UGC has itself admitted that it did not recognise any new institutions as distance education providers between 2013 and 2017.
  5. The outright prohibition by specified UGC through its 2016 letters that Arjun Agarwal cites was not applicable to NUJS, as it was applicable only to universities recognized by UGC for offering distance courses which conducted online courses (the letter was specifically addressed to these universities), or to universities which were not recognised by UGC but misled interested applicants to believe that they are so recognised by UGC. NUJS’ online courses were not recognized by UGC and NUJS did not mislead applicants about non-recognition of its online courses, and rather specifically informed applicants through website and admission forms that there was no UGC recognition and the consequences thereof.
  6. This position is agreed upon by UGC as well as all universities including IIMs and IITs and a number of central universities that offered online courses in large numbers in last 10 years. UGC never gave permission to any of these institutions or courses either, but they were successfully run and UGC has never objected to the same. UGC simply did not have any legal instrument under which it could regulate or prohibit any online course in the first place, until in July 2018 when such instrument was legislated. In absence of any clear provision of law that prevented NUJS from offering online courses without UGC recognition, ill informed persons such as Arjun Agarwal are trying to point at disparate instruments trying to claim that UGC prohibited NUJS from offering online courses without UGC recognition, which is absolutely unjustifiable.
  7. So far NUJS EC has given no opportunity to either students of the online courses or iPleaders to present its side of the case and the same has been systematically prevented. iPleaders is appealing that there must be an independent inquiry set up before which students of the courses affected as well as iPleaders should be given an opportunity to be heard.

Counter-case summary of Arjun Agarwal

In his rebuttals, Arjun Agarwal categorically opposed iPleaders’s contentions, relying primarily on the Supreme Court of India’s 2009 decision in Annamalai University vs. Secretary of Government, Information and Tourism Department & Ors.

Explaining his counter-position in summary, responding to each of iPleaders’ points above, Arjun Agarwal explained:

On #3: All guidelines/ regulations as prescribed by the UGC are mandatorily binding on all Universities, including NUJS, as per Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Annamalai. The 2006 DEC Guidelines, as enforced by the erstwhile IGNOU DEC and later the UGC DEB, are binding in view of an express stipulation in the DEC Guidelines as well as Punjab & Haryana andSikkim High Courts’ cases. The Punjab & Haryana High Court case specifically confirms the applicability of DEC Guidelines to statutory universities and further holds that awarding certification in violation of DEC Guidelines is an illegal act. While NUJS had UGC affiliation to run its regular undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral programmes, NUJS never had any approvals for distance education courses, thereby making all such courses illegal.

On #1, 2 and 5: The UGC circular dated 06.10.2016 unequivocally clarifies that no online courses are to be run till the notification of relevant regulations by UGC. Such notification of t took place only in July 2018, well after iPleaders’ courses were shut down by the 32nd AC in May 2018. Admittedly, the said UGC circular was not marked specifically to NUJS since NUJS never had the requisite approvals for even the otherwise allowed offline courses. In effect, iPleaders is arguing that NUJS could exempt ‘itself’ from the mandatory applicability of a blanket prohibition against all online courses applicable to all Universities by simply not complying with the DEC Guidelines with respect to its offline courses. No one can benefit from their own wrong. Annamalai clarifies that any relaxation is not possible for “basic things necessary for conferment of a degree”, much less a self-relaxation as argued by iPleaders.

On #4: Differences in the number of entries in various lists of approved distance education providers (for instance, 26.05.2015 and 26.08.2016) published by the UGC between 2013 and 2017 clearly bely the same. In any case, Annamalaiunequivocally holds that such inaction, even assuming iPleaders’ assertion to be true, by the UGC does not result in automatic approval.

On #6: The claim that UGC has agreed with iPleaders’ position is based on convenient reading of a purported RTI response. Apart from that, there is no express or implied agreement by the UGC, as claimed. It is settled that an RTI cannot be used for obtaining legal advice, and in any case, RTI responses are not to be read as statutes. The rest is mere name-dropping and legally irrelevant to that extent.

On #7: Arjun has himself been supporting a thorough investigation, with fair opportunity of being heard for all relevant stakeholders, since the very beginning. Curiously, neither iPleaders nor its students have claimed (either before the courts or the EC) that the basis of the 32nd AC’s, 61st EC and 62nd EC decisions, i.e., the courses were being run illegally, is incorrect. In fact,iPleaders’ students’ W.P. No. 25595 (W) of 2018 before the Hon’ble High Court of Calcutta was recently dismissed on the basis that it merely challenged NUJS’ belated notices to suspend/ terminate distance education courses and not the 32nd AC’s decision itself. It has been over a year since the 32nd AC first suspended iPleaders’ courses.

Full arguments below

We had given both sides several opportunities to respond to the counter-cases, and have uploaded their full arguments below.

iPleaders - Are NUJS courses illegal (PDF)

Ajrun Agarwal response to iPleaders (PDF)

iPleaders counter-response to Arjun Agarwal (PDF)

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