CHENNAI: A single-member bench of the Madras High Court recently ruled that private engineering colleges are entitled to have in their custody the original education certificates of their staff. The court accepted the arguments of the private colleges that the staff may quit the job suddenly unless the managements are in custody of the original certificates.
But labour rights experts are worried that the court might have unwittingly created a facilitating ground for a kind of bonded labour even in the organised sector. If the same logic is accepted, then private companies in other sectors too might start demanding original certificates from their employees. Such a trend might spell doom to the career freedom that millions enjoy now.
The high court was hearing a petition by the All India Private Educational Institution Associations challenging a circular by Anna University issued on December 4, 2018. The university’s circular had directed all its affiliated colleges that certificates of teaching and non-teaching staff should be returned to the staff immediately after verification. The university’s circular was passed in the context of suicide of a staff of a private engineering college in Chennai. Among the reasons cited for the suicide was the refusal of the college management to return the original certificates of the victim to allow him to take up another lucrative career option.
Ruling in favour of the college managements, the high court’s order (issued on July 17, 2019 and recently made available to the parties) interpreted the context cited in a related notification by the All Indian Council of Technical Education dated March 29, 2019. The council’s notification said that it has been receiving complaints that college managements are refusing to give back the certificates of staff who wanted to quit. It went on to warn colleges who refuse to return the certificates of their staff. However, the court interpreted that the council’s notification is only pertaining to those staff who wanted to quit. Hence, the colleges are entitled to possess the certificates of staff who are in service. The court directed Anna University to release a fresh circular on these lines and also ordered that colleges should return the certificates only to those staff who wanted to quit.
The court’s order seemingly allows the employer to retain vital documents, earned by faculty members after years of hard work, until they quit their jobs. Staff of private engineering colleges said the order cannot be implemented in reality. They told Express that many institutions barely accept resignation letters, leaving no paper trail of their requests to quit their job. How exactly can a staff prove that he/she had indeed submitted the resignation letter and that the college is refusing to return the certificates? Not everyone can afford to file a case in the courts.
It is in fact common knowledge that private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu and other States collect all their faculty’s original certificates - including degree certificates and mark sheets - and use it as leverage against those who want to look for better prospects. The issue was in the limelight after the suicide of T Vasanthavannan, who was working as an assistant professor in a private engineering college in the city. His family members said that the college’s threats and refusal to return the certificates after Vasanthavannan got a better job opportunity triggered severe mental distress, ultimately pushing him to kill himself.
KM Karthik of All India Private College Employees Union said very few colleges have returned their staff’s documents despite repeated warnings from Anna University and AICTE even after the death of Vasanthavannan. With declining demand for engineering seats, many private engineering managements are fund-crunched. This has subsequently led to coercing existing faculty into doing more work for the same or lesser pay. “Colleges withhold certificates and demand a ransom if we want to switch jobs,” he said, charging that institutions use original certificates as collateral, preventing career freedom.
Shaky legal ground
Former Madras High Court judge, Justice K Chandru, speaking to Express said that the verdict could pave the way for dangerous modern “enslavement.” He said, “Degree certificates are an individual’s property and colleges have no right to hold on to it. They cannot enslave teachers by threat and collateral.”He further said that under the contract law, individuals have the right to leave any time they want and even breach a contract. “The best an institution can do is sue a person for breaching the contract and claim some monetary damages,” he added.
Chandru said that he himself had disposed of several cases after asking institutions to return the faculty’s original certificates and not harass them. “In many cases, I heard colleges have defrauded the government by presenting the same set of faculty certificates for different institutions under them to get approvals. Will the High Court take responsibility for such incidents?” he asked, opining that anyone with a basic understanding of the contract law should know it is the right of an individual to look for career prospects that offer contentment.
Advocate Mahaboob Fazil said that several courts across the country have held that colleges cannot retain faculty’s original certificates. He elaborated that retention of these documents puts faculty in a scenario identical to bonded labour. “It cannot be defined as bonded labour. However, when the employee wants to exercise his or her freedom of livelihood and find another job, colleges withhold their property (certificates) and ask them to pay a lumpsum to leave,” he said.
While the high court verdict draws reference to the context cited in a recent circular issued by AICTE, it failed to refer to more authoritative sources like the council’s Approval Process Handbook. The handbook states that institutions that demand original degree certificates from faculty members at the time of joining “shall be liable for any one or more of the following punitive actions by the council: No admission for one academic year; withdrawal of approval of the institution.”
When asked about the issue, a member of Private Engineering Colleges Management Association has this to say: “Often faculty members decide to resign in the middle of the academic year, leaving our students high and dry. It is also difficult for us to find a replacement mid-year. We have no way to stop them from doing it.” Hence, colleges should be permitted to hold back the original documents of the faculty members during their employment, he added.
However, top officials of both AICTE and Anna University said colleges are not allowed to retain the certificates of their staff. Speaking to Express, AICTE chairman Anil Sahasrabuddhe said technical institutions that hold on to faculties’ original records will be liable to the council’s punitive action. “AICTE stands by its faculty protection policy. Teachers must have the freedom to opt for better opportunities. They cannot be held back forcibly because colleges are not returning their certificates,” he said. Sahasrabuddhe admitted that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and is consulting with its legal team to see how it can be challenged.
The judgement itself may become defunct in a couple of years, as AICTE has directed all institutions, faculty and students to upload their certificates onto the National Academic Depository (NAD). When certificates can only be verified digitally, there will be no need for physical copies. MK Surappa, the Vice-Chancellor of Anna University said that he would discuss the matter with other stake-holders before commenting on the issue.