The debate on equivalence between regular degrees and degrees through distance learning just got murkier, with drastic implications for students pursuing courses through the Open University system (OUS). The OUS permits individuals to pursue graduate and post graduate studies without prior formal qualifications. This judgment has questioned the equivalence of such degrees to one pursued through regular or correspondence mode (see our Decoder).

The case in question
Sanjay Kumar Katwal finished MA in English through Annamalai University's Open University system. He then applied for an LL.B degree programme offered by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar (GNDU), cleared the entrance test and gained admission. However, the university later rescinded the admission on the basis that his Open University degree was not recognised by the university as equivalent to a post graduate degree offered by GNDU. Sanjay appealed to the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, which rejected the university's contention and restored Sanjay's admission. GNDU then appealed to the Supreme Court against the High Court's decision.

The GNDU had presented three grounds for denying admission. The first contention was that the eligibility was a graduate degree with 45% marks, and a master's degree is accepted only if the candidate scored less than 45% at graduation. This was rejected by the court. The second contention was that a master's degree can only be offered to a student who is already in possession of a bachelor's degree. The court refuted that as well, citing the provisions of Open University eligibility conditions.

The third and main contention of the GNDU was that it does not recognise courses offered under the OUS scheme of Annamalai University. The Supreme Court held that equivalence is a technical academic matter and cannot be assumed. It agreed with the contention of GNDU that, as a matter of policy, the university does not wish to treat a correspondence course and OUS course as equivalent. The court ruled that this is a matter of university policy and the court will not interfere with the said policy relating to academic matters.

The court ruling, however, has a silver lining. It places the onus of identifying whether the candidate fulfills the eligibility requirements on the university. In Sanjay's case, the court held that the university granted him admission to the course and even allowed him to write a semester examination. So, citing previous rulings on similar cases {Sri Krishan vs. The Kurukshetra University (AIR 1976 SC 376)], the court ordered that students cannot be penalised for negligence on the part of the university in ascertaining eligibility. The court ordered the university to treat the admission as a regular one, permit the student to appear for the examination and declare his results for any examinations he had already completed.

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