Kannur: Priya Varghese is skating on thin ice in the Supreme Court as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and challenger Joseph Skariah are chipping away at her 11 years of experience she claimed to get the Associate Professor's post in Kannur University.
On July 19, 2022, when the university published its rank list for the post of associate professor in the Department of Malayalam, there were loud protest of favouritism. Varghese -- the wife of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's Private Secretary and former Rajya Sabha member K K Ragesh -- topped the rank list.
She aced the interview with 32 points though her research score was 156 points, the lowest among the six candidates short-listed for the interview. Joseph Skariah, an assistant professor at St Berchmans College, Changanassery, was placed second with 30 points, though his research score was 651 points, the highest among the six candidates.
Media went to town with the perceived irony. But when Skariah moved the Kerala High Court, he challenged Varghese on the grounds that she did not have the required eight years of teaching experience. After two rounds in the High Court, the case is now in the apex court.
Three different periods of her 11-year experience as a teacher are being questioned in the Supreme Court: 1) 16 months as a guest lecturer; 2) two years and six months, when she took 'study leave' or 'went on deputation' to pursue PhD under the UGC's Faculty Development Programme; and 3) one year and 10 months, when she was on deputation as Director of Students Services in Kannur University.
Onmanorama dives deep and trawls the petitions and affidavits to find where the stakeholders stand, where they are silent, and what the regulations say.
Of the 11 years and 20 days of teaching experience Varghese claimed, 16 months and 23 days were as a guest lecturer at University Teacher Education Centre, Kannur University.
The experience was gained in two spells -- from June 27, 2001, to February 25, 2002 (eight months) and June 5, 2002 to February 28, 2003 (eight months and 24 days).
What does the regulation say
Clause 10.0 of the UGC Regulations 2018 sets the criteria to count experience for direct appointment and promotion. Regulation 10 (e) says experience as a guest lecturer cannot be counted as experience for direct recruitment or promotion.
Regulation 10 (f) (iii) says 'The previous ad-hoc or Temporary or contractual service (by whatever nomenclature it may be called) shall be counted for direct recruitment and promotion, provided that: the incumbent was drawing total gross emoluments not less than the monthly gross salary of a regularly appointed Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor, as the case may be.
Priya Varghese's salary as guest lecturer
From June 27, 2001, to February 25, 2002, Priya Varghese worked at the University Teacher Education Centre in Kasaragod, where she drew a gross monthly salary of Rs 6,000.
From June 5, 2002, to February 28, 2003, she worked as a guest lecturer at the University Teacher Education Centre in Kannur, where she drew a gross monthly salary of Rs 6,750. This data was shared with Onmanorama by a senior official in the university.
However, in June 2001, the gross monthly salary of a regular lecturer was Rs 11,540; by February 2003, it increased to Rs 12,500, said Shino P Jose, president of Kannur Regional Committee of Kerala Private College Teachers' Association, which is affiliated to the Congress.
In other words, Varghese's gross emoluments were around half of the gross salary of a regular lecturer, and going by the 2018 Regulations, the tenures cannot be counted as teaching experience.
What did the courts say?
The single bench ruled that her experience as an ad hoc teacher cannot be counted because they were acquired many years (around 20 years) before applying for the job. Also, the service was rendered as a 'lecturer' and not as an assistant professor.
The Division bench of Justices Mohammed Nias C P and A K Jayasankaran Nambiar dismissed the proximity argument saying there is no rule that the qualifying experience should be attained closer to the date of applying for a job. Also, the post was merely renamed as Assistant Professor.
But the judges said her first spell of eight months as guest lecturer cannot be counted because it was before she possessed the National Eligibility Test (NET) qualification, prescribed by the 2018 UGC Regulations.
Varghese cleared NET in January 2002, and so her second spell could be counted, provided she met the conditions in Regulation 10 (f) of the 2018 UGC Regulations.
Neither the single bench nor the Division Bench delved into the condition of gross salary.
The UGC that is challenging Varghese's appointment in the Supreme Court does not discuss her ad hoc lecturer experience in its affidavit.
Varghese, who counted the experience, and the university that accepted it do not explain why they did so in their affidavits submitted before the Supreme Court.
PhD under Faculty Development Programme
The UGC's primary objection to Varghese's appointment is that the university counted her PhD tenure as teaching/ research experience despite the 2018 UGC Regulations explicitly excluding it.
In its Special Leave Petition filed before the Supreme Court, a miffed UGC gave nine reasons why the Division Bench of "the High Court committed a grave error".
After completing three years as an Assistant Professor at Sree Vivekananda College in Kunnamkulam, Varghese availed of the UGC's Faculty Development Programme to pursue a doctoral (PhD) degree at Kannur University.
She stayed away from her college for two years, six months, and 11 days for her PhD research work. Varghese claimed she was on "deputation" and not on "leave" and the period should be considered as duty and qualify as service.
In her affidavit, she said there was some ambiguity in the 2010 Regulations 2010, and UGC issued a clarification on February 4, 2016. "The period of active service spent on pursuing a PhD degree without taking leave may be counted as a teaching experience for direct recruitment/ promotion to the post of associate professor and above," UGC said in a letter to all the vice-chancellors and principals in the country.
However, the UGC's 2010 Regulations were superseded by the 2018 Regulations. Clause 3.11 of the new regulations says: "The time taken by candidates to acquire MPhil and/ or PhD degree shall not be considered as teaching/ research experience to be claimed for appointment to the teaching position.
"Further, the period of active service spent on pursuing a research degree simultaneously with teaching assignment without taking any kind of leave shall be counted as teaching experience for direct recruitment/ promotion," it said.
Varghese "was not pursuing her PhD simultaneously with any teaching assignment...," the UGC said in its Special Leave Petition, and added: "(T)he High Court committed a grave error in ignoring the fact that a teacher who is on full-time research is relieved from teaching assignment...," it said.
The UGC, the author of the Regulations itself, has taken a stand, then how can the court go beyond it or be at variance to the same, the commission asked in its affidavit.
Varghese and UGC disagree on the nature of the Faculty Development Programme (FDP). Varghese sees FDP as being on "active duty" but on "deputation" to another institute to complete her PhD.
But in the UGC regulations, it is not called 'deputation' but study leave. Clause 8.2 of the Regulations explains 'study leave'. Study leave provides an opportunity to avail of scholarships/ fellowships awarded to the faculty member who wishes to acquire new knowledge and to improve analytical skills. When a teacher is awarded a scholarship or stipend for pursuing further studies, leading to a PhD or post-doctoral qualification, the scholarship shall not be linked to the recipient‘s salary paid to him/ her by his/ her parent institution. The awardee shall be paid a salary for the entire duration of the fellowship. To be sure, when on deputation, the salary is paid by the host institute and not the parent institute.
For retirement & promotion, not for direct appointment
However, Clause 8.2 (x) says the period of study leave shall count as service for the retirement benefits such as pension/ contributory provident fund, provided that the teacher rejoins the parent institute at the end of the study leave.
In the assessment criteria for university and college teachers, a note on grading says: The teacher on different kinds of paid leaves such as maternity leave, child care leave, study leave, medical leave, extraordinary leave, and deputation shall not be put to any disadvantage for promotion under Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) due to his/ her absence from his/ her teaching responsibilities, subject to the condition that such leave/ deputation was undertaken with the prior approval of the competent authority.
The two clauses make it clear that study leave does not affect retirement benefits or promotion but it is silent on its effect on direct appointment as in the case of Priya Varghese.
'Cannot change rules retrospectively'
Kannur University, in its affidavit, argued that since the UGC in its meeting on February 4, 2016, decided that the period of active service spent on pursuing a research degree simultaneously without taking leave may be counted as teaching experience, it cannot change the rules retrospectively. The university said the 2016 clarification came right in the middle of Varghese's FDP tenure from July 29, 2015, to February 8, 2018. "She has not availed any kind of leave for pursuing PhD degree. She has been granted FDP by UGC and deputation by the State Government for pursuing PhD," it said.
However, the UGC's stance is that her FDP itself was the study leave because she was pursuing her PhD full-time and did not have any teaching responsibility.
If the Supreme Court accepts the UGC's argument and excludes her PhD days from her teaching experience, her total experience will come down to eight years, five months, and 23 days, which is still in the safe zone.
But if the Supreme Court takes exception to her 16-month tenure as a guest lecturer because her gross monthly emolument was not equal to the gross monthly salary of a regular lecturer, she will fall short of the minimum required experience of eight years.
Director of Students' Services
That brings the discussion to the third bone of contention, her tenure as the Director of Students' Services (DSS) at Kannur University.
When she was working as an Assistant Professor in Thrissur's Sree Kerala Varma College, the state government sent her on deputation to Kannur University to take charge as the DSS. She held the position for one year, 10 months, and nine days, that is, from August 7, 2019 to June 15, 2021.
Neither the UGC nor the university raised an objection in including the period as her teaching experience. But Skariah, Varghese's challenger, argued that it is not a teaching post and hence cannot be counted as her experience.
In her affidavit, Varghese drew attention to a division bench order of the High Court of Kerala dated May 25, 2012, which ruled that the post of the Director of Students' Services at the University of Kerala was a teaching post because the qualification and the role aligned with that of a teacher.
Back then, the university argued that it was a non-teaching post as defined in its Ordinances. "Also the pay scale of the dss is higher than that of the post of assistant professor," she has argued.
R S Sasikumar, chairman of the Save University Campaign Committee, the whistleblower organisation that is providing legal support to Skariah, said the three tenures -- guest lecturer's, her PhD period, and DSS tenure -- will be challenged in the Supreme Court.
On Monday (January 8), when the case came up before Justices J K Maheshwari and Sudhanshu Dhulia, one of the advocates of a respondent asked the bench to post the matter to a day on which it can be argued at length.
Justice Maheshwari replied that they have seen the documents related to the case and it did not require an elaborate hearing, and posted it for four weeks.