The Supreme Court on Monday issued notice on the appeal filed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) against the order of the Kerala High Court that allowed the appointment of Priya Varghese as Associate Professor at Kannur University, treating the period spent by her to pursue her PhD to be counted as teaching experience. Priya Varghese is the wife of K.K. Ragesh, private secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The special leave petition filed by the UGC was before a division bench of Justice J K Maheshwari and Justice K V Viswanathan.
The UGC in its appeal before the Apex Court has contended that the High Court erred in treating the period spent by her to pursue her PhD as teaching experience.
In June 2023, in an appeal by Priya Varghese, a division bench of Justice A K Jayasankaran Nambiar and Justice Mohammed Nias C P had set aside the order of the single bench and held that the period spent by Priya Varghese on pursuing her Ph.D. degree under the Faculty Development Programme could not be excluded while considering the period of teaching experience.
During the hearing, Justice J K Maheshwari orally remarked that ‘We are making it very clear, to some extent High Court is wrong.’
The Division Bench had interpreted Regulation 3.11 of the 2018 UGC regulations to hold that candidates who are not at faculty members will be excluded from teaching experience but if the research degree is pursued by regular faculty members simultaneous with the teaching assignment, then the period will be counted as teaching experience.
“The prohibition against inclusion of the time taken for acquiring a Ph.D. degree in the computation of teaching/research experience is one that applies to ‘candidates’ by which term is intended a person who is not working as a teacher in any institution at the time of applying for the teaching post in question. ‘Faculty members’, on the other hand, refers to persons who are already working as teachers in an institution at the time of applying for the teaching post in question, and for them, the period spent on pursuing a research degree simultaneously with teaching assignment and without taking any kind of leave, will count towards teaching experience”, the High Court had observed.
The UGC in its appeal before the Apex Court however, has argued that this is the wrong interpretation of the regulation. Under the UGC regulation, teaching experience has to be in the ‘actual sense’ and not what can be ‘construed or inferred’, it has been argued.
Referring to Regulation 3.11, the UGC says that it is very clear from this provision that “the time taken to acquire PhD degree will not be counted as research/teaching experience except if it is done simultaneously with teaching assignment without taking any leave”.
It is the UGC’s contention that the period undergone by Varghese in obtaining her PhD degree cannot be treated as teaching or research experience, and hence she does not fulfil the requirement of 8 years of teaching experience required to be eligible for the post. Varghese while pursuing her PhD was not burdened with any teaching assignment and was a full time Research Scholar, UGC’s plea states.
Regulation 3.11 of the UGC Regulations, 2018 is the provision in question, which reads as :
“The time taken by candidates to acquire M.Phil. and/or Ph.D. Degree shall not be considered as teaching/research experience to be claimed for appointment to the teaching positions. Further the period of active service spent on pursuing Research Degree simultaneously with teaching assignment without taking any kind of leave, shall be counted as teaching experience for the purpose of direct recruitment/promotion. Regular faculty members upto twenty percent of the total faculty strength (excluding faculty on medical/maternity leave) shall be allowed by their respective institutions to take study leave for pursuing Ph.D. degree. (emphasis supplied)”.
The High Court had also held that the Writ Petition was bad for non-joinder of parties observing as below:
“the provisions of Section 3 of the same Act that declares the University to be an independent body with perpetual succession and a common seal that can sue and be sued in its own name. The statutory provisions leave us with no manner of doubt that what is envisaged therein is that any suit or like proceedings initiated against the University be done in the name of the University, represented by its Registrar.”
However, the UGC in its appeal has argued that the High Court failed to appreciate that the Kannur University Act prescribes that the suits against the University are to be instituted in the name of the Registrar. It also contends that the provisional Rank List under challenge in the writ, was issued by the Registrar of the University, who was a party to the petition.
The UGC in its appeal has also argued that the High Court erred in holding that the period spent by Varghese on deputation as Director of Student Services/Programme Coordinator of NSS was to be treated as teaching experience by the university.
The Division bench had observed that a finding that such experience is not teaching experience, would have disastrous consequences for the academic community teachers would be unwilling to go on deputation to such posts fearing that they would lose out on career progression:
“In our view, the answer to the question as to whether or not the experience gained by a teacher, while on deputation to a non-teaching post, qualifies as teaching experience must depend upon the nature of activities undertaken by the teacher in the post to which she is deputed and not merely by the classification – as teaching or non-teaching – accorded to the post.” The High Court had observed.
However, the UGC in its plea has argued that Varghese herself has admitted that she carried out the responsibilities of Director of Student Services, which was not necessarily teaching. Hence, this period cannot be taken as teaching experience, the plea states.
It has also been contended that when the UGC, being author of the Regulation has taken a stand on the matter, then Court cannot go beyond it. The UGC has also states in its plea that there are binding precedents of the Apex Court that hold that the Regulations of the UGC will override any contrary position in a Statute or a Legislation of the State.
The UGC argues that the Division Bench erred in setting aside the order of the single bench which was based on sound principles of law.
In November 2022, a Single Bench of Justice Devan Ramachandran had held that Priya Varghese did not possess the requisite teaching experience, to be appointed as Associate Professor at the Department of Malayalam at Kannur University and directed the competent authority of the University to reconsider her credentials and decide whether she should continue on the Rank List. Dr.Joseph Skariah, who was ranked after Varghese in the Rank List, had filed the writ petition challenging the inclusion of Varghese in the List stating that she was not qualified for the post of Associate Professor as she did not have the prescribed 8 years of teaching experience prescribed.
Case Title: UNIVERSITY GRANTS COMMISSION V. PRIYA VARGHESE, SLP(C) No. 15816/2023
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