A few days ago, I belatedly came across a news report about the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (WBNUJS), re-introducing courses which were arbitrarily scrapped midway four years ago, leaving over 3,500 distance education students in a lurch.
I, and my 50 other batchmates, are among those 3,500 who are still waiting for some modicum of justice.
This article, however, is not a rant against the regulatory structure governing distance and online education or the adoption of Edtech. By sharing the collective experience of aggrieved distance education students, I write about a deliberate denial of grievance redressal.
Timeline of events
In 2016, I enrolled for the two-year-long online distance education course, Master of Business Laws (MBL) offered by the WBNUJS and its “technical partner,” iPleaders – now better known as LawSikho. MBL, however, did not have the relevant approvals from the Distance Education Bureau (DEB) – UGC’s regulatory body in-charge of distance education in India. Both WBNUJS and iPleaders repeatedly gave assurances that the need for specific DEB approvals was optional because of two reasons. First, the university was established under the WBNUJS Act, 1999 – a law legislated under the state, and therefore with the power to directly grant degrees and diplomas. Secondly, UGC had already recognised WBNUJS as a “state university”.
Hence, on June 30, 2016, WBNUJS started the MBL course.
However, on September 1, 2016, we, the MBL students, received an email from WBNUJS, which said that in view of certain correspondences between Bangalore-based National Law School of India University (NLSIU) and the UGC concerning the NLSIU’s MBL course, WBNUJS, out of caution, would reclassify MBL as Master of Arts in Business Laws (MABL).
MABL students were also informed that although WBNUJS had already applied for DEB approval – which was previously deemed “optional” by WBNUJS and iPleaders – to provide distance/online education, DEB was yet to respond. Curiously, WBNUJS requested MABL students to sign off on additional disclaimers.
Like many other MABL students, I too misread this warning sign, thinking that things could not go wrong at WBNUJS. After all, it is one of the few National Law Universities that has the Chief Justice of India as its chancellor and legal eagles such as sitting and retired Judges of Supreme Court of India and Calcutta high court, the law minister and the advocate general of West Bengal, top-ranking state bureaucrats and senior advocates and academics as members of its statutory governing bodies.
‘All is (not) well’
Since disquieting whispers kept swirling, on behalf of 50 MABL students, I emailed a set of queries to WBNUJS and iPleaders on February 23, 2017. On February 27, 2017, the administration responded to the email, reiterating previous assurances concerning DEB approval and we were lulled into calm.
The storm hit us on June 27, 2018 when WBNUJS tersely notified that all distance/online education courses (including MABL) have been shut down with immediate effect citing decisions taken by the academic council of WBNUJS in May 2018. On June 30, 2018, iPleaders, the “technical partner” of WBNUJS for MABL and numerous other online/distance education courses (all lacking due approvals from DEB), issued a public statement on the then developing imbroglio.
In October 2018, iPleaders initiated an arbitration suit against (can be accessed here and here) WBNUJS to recover alleged unpaid dues. They also advised the aggrieved students to slap writs against the university in Calcutta and Delhi high courts; organise online petitions; and contact WBNUJS administration and members of its governing bodies.
While the aggrieved distance education students floundered for information until mid-February 2019, regular WBNUJS students won access to a trove of official records. A review of those records reveal that the executive council (EC) of WBNUJS held numerous meetings (here, here, here) to extensively discuss the complaints and writ petitions filed by the distance education students. The EC is composed of certain members drawn from the general council – the highest governing body of WBNUJS – and some other external members appointed by the CJI, Calcutta high court, Chief Justice of India and so on. The EC repeatedly underlined that given WBNUJS’ lack of specific approvals from DEB for running distance/online courses, the ban imposed in May 2018 will continue until further orders from the courts.
Interestingly, the EC members directed the WBNUJS and specifically those helming its school of distance and mass education (SDME), such as Dr Anirban Mazumdar, Ms Vaneeta Patnaik and Ms Sujata Roy, to diligently respond to aggrieved distance education students. WBNUJS was also directed to refund its share (30% to 40% depending on the course) of the student fees’ collected.
But WBNUJS did not follow through.
The EC also exhorted WBNUJS to complete the inquiry, which was initially ordered on May 12, 2018 and re-tasked on May 11, 2019 to Prof Saikat Maitra, vice chancellor, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology, following a complaint to the chancellor of WBNUJS, the then Chief Justice of India. WBNUJS has not publicly disclosed the exact contents of the inquiry report – the university’s public information officer and registrar never responded to the RTIs.
Despite a change in guard in WBNUJS (Prof N.K. Chakrabarti took charge as WBNUJS’ new vice chancellor (VC) in 2019); complaints and RTI requests from aggrieved distance education students; and aforementioned EC directions, the institutional stonewalling continued. For example, on December 21, 2019, the EC led by Chakrabarti, the VC, unanimously rejected Maitra’s inquiry report, but a discussion on a fresh inquiry has been quietly withheld till date by the VC. Since 2020, WBNUJS has also stopped uploading the records of the meetings of its governing councils.
Distressingly, in this news story, an unnamed WBNUJS teacher cites the aforementioned inquiry report to mischievously officialise re-starting online education courses while conveniently skipping the fact that the concerned report was unanimously rejected by the EC. It is when even more worrying to note that the VC is quoted peddling the same misleading narrative that had been rejected repeatedly by the EC since May 2018.
My friends and I have now realised that WBNUJS will continue to mislead its EC. The floundering progress of our writ petitions in the Calcutta high court reminds us of our gullibility. WBNUJS’ penchant to stall or dilute inquiries means that only a transparent and time-bound inquiry by the state government or DEB can bring a semblance of justice to aggrieved distance education students of WBNUJS.
P. Mohan Chandran is an experienced business content writer and has recently completed his LL.M. from Osmania University.
Featured image credit: WBNUJS/Facebook