09 th Oct October
Ravi Bhardwaj

High Court declares 100% weightage to viva-voce for M.Phil./Ph.D. admission as arbitrary, unconstitutional says more weightage to written examination

The Delhi High Court in a landmark Judgement has declared that UGC Regulations in so far as it permits filling of M.Phil./Ph.D. entirely on the basis of cent percent evaluation of performance in the viva voce process is arbitrary. However, it has refused to interfere with the issue of supervisor researcher/student ratio and has held the prescribed ratio to be valid. The Petitioner, had alleged that the UGC 2016 Regulations permits that 100% weightage is given to viva voce assessment and makes the written examination as a mere qualifying process which means that the candidate whose eligibility on account of passing or clearing the examination, (for attempting which the candidate must obtain at least 55% marks) would be of no avail. It submitted that the lack of or in the absence of any credit given to the core performance in the written examination – which is part of the qualifying process for selection, and the complete and exclusive weightage given for interview and viva voce is disproportionate and unreasonable.

The Petitioners had also challenged the new norm whereby professors, associate professors and assistant professors cannot guide more than a specified number of candidates. In specific challenge to the admission process of Jawahar Lal Nehru University admission process, it was contended that no relaxation of marks in the “qualifying exam” to the candidates of reserved category, thus keeping them at par with that General Category (i.e. the unreserved category), effectively restricting them at the entry level itself, defeats the objectives of the 93rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 2006 as well as the CEI Act.

UGC defended the 2016 Regulations as reasonable and argued that it accords to weightage at each and every stage for admission process to a candidate on merit and performance. It was pointed out that at the first level to determine eligibility, the candidate should possess minimum marks (with some concession to SC/ST candidates) followed up with a written qualifying test which evaluates the student in the particular subject as well in his/her research capabilities is necessary. It is only if the student qualifies the examination, he or she is called for interview and based upon the power point presentation made in the course of the interaction and assessment (viva-voce) the decision whether to admit a particular candidate or not admit is taken. This procedure has been prescribed to maintain the quality and to check the mushrooming of substandard research degree.

It was also argued in defence that unlike in the case of normal courses such as entry level courses at the under graduate level, those who wish to join M.Phil/Ph.D have to display high degree of not only proficiency and familiarity in the subject but also the ability to think originally and creatively and hence no fault can be found with the Regulations. The Court noted that Admission is by a two-stage process, wherein first the candidate has to qualify (secure at least 50%) in a written test that evaluates her knowledge and aptitude by testing research method and knowledge in the subject (both of equal value 50% each). The candidate is declared successful entirely based on the performance in viva voce. Here again, the interview board or selection board is not obliged to indicate any sub division towards knowledge of the candidate, her aptitude, ability to communicate, evaluate the power point presentation, etc. Nor are the marks scored by the candidate in the written exam given any weightage.

The Court felt that “the entire weightage to performance of a candidate in the interview, or viva voce, based on the evaluation of the “power point” presentation affords 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.”

The Court noted that a candidate having cleared the qualifying examination, the candidate is evaluated by a panel. Members of this panel are allowed the widest discretion; no separate marking or evaluation by each appears to be mandated; (no weightage is given to marks in the written test). Whereas one- of the panel, may be objective, the others might give full reign to their prejudices, – regional, caste, sectarian or as to all those extraneous factors, which are proscribed as arbitrary.

The Court also pointed out drawbacks and deficiencies in the oral interview test and the conditions prevailing in the country, held that allocation of as high a percentage of the total marks for the oral interview as infecting the admission procedure with the vice of arbitrariness and selection of candidates made on the basis of such admission procedure cannot be sustained. As regards the second issue of absence of any concession to reserved category candidates – SC/ST/OBC in the qualifying examination goes, this Court notices that the eligibility criteria lowers the acceptable minimum from 55% in the case of M.Phil./Ph.D. aspirants respectively, the concession is to the extent of 5% inasmuch as certain reserved category candidates can compete in the qualifying examination though they possess lower than the minimum cut-off of 55%.

The Court considering the prescribed pattern of admission and the procedure adopted where 100% or entire weightage is given to the interview process, the Court felt that there is a possibility of bias and also adverse impact to SC/ST and other reserved category candidates as palpable and real. Having regard to these facts, the Court is of the opinion that the JNU and UGC ought to have worked out a criteria to give some concession to SC/ST category candidates – and to the extent permissible under the Rules, to the OBC category candidates. The same considerations would also apply to persons with disabilities (PWD) candidates for whom a 5% reservation is statutorily mandated.

On the last issue of fixation of a cap on a number of students that the faculty at the level of Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor can supervise, at any given point of time, the Court felt that it cannot be a matter of judicial review. The Court observed that it should remain within the expertise of regulatory bodies such as UGC.

The Court finally held as follows:

  • That Regulation 5.4 of the UGC Regulations in so far as it permits filling of M.Phil./Ph.D. entirely on the basis of cent percent evaluation of performance in the viva voce process is arbitrary. The said regulation is, therefore, declared void and contrary to Article 14;
  • The absence of any concession with respect to the minimum qualifying marks in the written test, in the UGC Regulations of 2016 to Page 35 of 35 reserved category candidates (SC/ST/OBC) and physically disabled candidates is also without proper application of mind. Appropriate concession is to be given by the UGC and the JNU, taking into account the seats filled, having regard to the implementation of the regulations in the last two academic years;
  • The JNU is directed to take suitable review action to ensure that in any given academic year, no M.Phil./Ph.D. seat is left unfilled. It is also held that the UGC guidelines of 2016 in so far as they prescribe the supervisor researcher/student ratio is valid.

The Petition was disposed with this directions.

EduLegaL View:

Interview or viva is basically test of personality of a person. In case of employment prescribing a higher percentage, personal characteristics and traits are extremely relevant for the purpose of selection is permissible. However, In the case of admission, the candidates are still in developing stages, their personality is yet to develop, and hence personality test may be a pre-mature selection parameter.

In my view, in the admission process greater weight has be given to performance in the written examination. Oral Examination is absolutely discretionary, a candidate is not given more than 4-5 times, then nerves of result is also there and considering all these importance to be attached to the interview-test must be minimal.