‘Institutes of eminence’ named – but not all exist yet

India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) last week named six universities selected for their world-class 'Institute of Eminence' status to enjoy heightened autonomy – and in the case of public institutions substantial extra government funding.

Out of the six announced, Reliance Foundation’s proposed Jio Institute near Navi Mumbai, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani (BITS Pilani) and Manipal University are in the private sector, and the remaining three – the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi) and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore – are in the public sector.

While five are established and well-known institutions, Jio Institute is not yet in existence, provoking sharp criticism from academics, intellectuals and the opposition Congress Party members, who questioned the selection process.

Academics said awarding the eminence tag to a not-yet proven institution with no faculty or students to assess against the criteria set out for institutes of eminence threatened to debase the award of such a title.

The Reliance Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Reliance Industries, India’s largest private company, owned by Mukesh Ambani. In its proposal it is said to have promised to hire “top faculty from global universities” and build research centres among other things.

Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister of India and a former senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party before he quit the party in April this year, tweeted: “Jio Institute has not even been set up. It is not in existence. Yet government grants it [the] eminence tag.”

Renowned historian, columnist and writer Ramchandra Guha tweeted: “This preferential treatment to an Ambani university that does not yet exist is shocking. Particularly when several first-rate private universities have been bypassed. Are they being punished for the brilliance and independence of mind of their scholars?”

"The close relationship between Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and the Ambanis is known to all, and we do not doubt it played a significant role in the inclusion of the Jio Institute in the list of Institutes of Eminence,” the opposition Congress Party claimed. While funding and availability of land (two of the criteria laid down for greenfield universities) are clearly not an issue for the Reliance-sponsored Jio Institute, nothing is known of its core team or strategic vision, the party added.

Well-known lawyer, activist and politician Prashant Bhushan tweeted: “Absolutely astounding! HRD ministry declares a 'yet to be opened' Ambani-owned 'Jio Institute' as one of six 'institutions of eminence', along with IITs & IIMs! Can't imagine a more grotesque joke on the country & a more blatant act of cronyism!”

‘Conditional’ status

According to the Reliance submission, the Jio Institute is to be set up on an 800-acre campus in Karjat in Maharashtra state, and Reliance cited its experience in the field of education including just over a dozen Reliance Foundation secondary schools and an international school, as well as the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University. Mukesh Ambani has also been a past chairman of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

In the face of intensifying flak which threatened to overshadow the announcement, the HRD ministry appeared to back-pedal a day later, clarifying that the eminence tag for the proposed Jio institute is ‘conditional’.

In an attempt to clear the air, HRD ministry Secretary of Higher Education R Subramanyam said that "right now they will not get the IoE [Institute of Eminence] tag, they will just get a letter of intent. If they are able to establish themselves in three years and meet the expectations of the expert committee, then they will get the IoE status.”

"The expert panel will also have the authority to withdraw the tag if the institution is not found to be performing up to the mark,” he said.

Subramanyam said Jio Institute had been selected under the greenfield institutions category under the government’s guidelines meant for institutes that are yet to be established. “We should welcome well-meaning and responsible private investment which could bring institutes of global standards to the country,” he said.

Not enough deserving institutions

The controversy was further fuelled by the statement by the Empowered Expert Committee (EEC), which has been tasked by the government with identifying 10 public and 10 private institutions with the potential to emerge as world-class teaching and research institutions, that it could not find 20 institutions that deserved the eminence tag owing to the weak quality of teaching and research.

The selection criteria included the quality of research, the number of research papers published in prestigious journals, as well as citation rates. The ministry has indicated that selected institutions should rank within the top 500 of any of the globally recognised ranking frameworks within 10 years of receiving eminence status, and consistently improve their ranking to eventually be within the top 100.

While the unknown Jio Institute was included, many top private and public institutions could not make the cut this time. While the Indian Institute of Science is ranked first in the all-India National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) established by the government, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi are ranked third and fourth respectively.

However, IIT Madras (ranked second), IIT Kharagpur (ranked fifth), Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi (ranked sixth) and IIT Kanpur (seventh) were not considered worthy of the eminence tag. The private Manipal University is ranked 18th by the NIRF and BITS Pilani is 26th.

Clarifying the exclusion of many top-notch public and private sector institutions, EEC head N Gopalaswami, a former chief election commissioner of India, said many institutions produced good research but that research should be considered useful by others. He was referring to the citation rate of papers.

The EEC considered the number of papers produced, how often the papers were quoted and the number of PhD holders teaching at the institutions, Gopalaswami said. The teacher-student ratio was also an important selection criterion as the quality of teaching is likely to be questionable in institutes where 25% or more teaching positions are vacant, he added – a reference to a high rate of unfilled academic vacancies at many IITs.

‘Greenfield’ proposals

Existing private universities have to provide details of their current performance and credentials as well as development plans for the next 15 years, while the ‘promoters’ of greenfield projects need to showcase only their detailed future plans.

The EEC report said 11 greenfield proposals had been considered but “very few of them [were] breaking new ground”.

Some appeared to want the status so they could leverage it. Others had weak financial standing, and in one case the land identified was under prolonged litigation. “Of all proposals, EEC found only one which appeared well thought out, well presented and taking an impressive multi-decade view of institution-building, leveraging that promoter group’s [Reliance’s] known competencies in infrastructure building and the timely creation of new ventures,” the report said.

“EEC found only that proposal created confidence of the new institution meeting the rather stiff goal of being within the [top] 500 of world rankings in a period of 10 years and therefore recommended it.”

According to India’s English-language Business Standard newspaper, the government’s criteria for private sector greenfield institutes of eminence were only published on 29 August 2017, while the company which will set up the Jio Institute with Mukesh Ambani and his wife Nita Ambani as the first two board members was incorporated on 12 September 2017.

The proposed institutes of eminence will enjoy unprecedented academic and administrative autonomy to thrive and develop their own curriculums unhindered by any government regulations and restrictions. Each public institution will get additional funding of up to INR10 billion (US$146 million) over five years, although those in the private sector are not eligible for grants.

As many as 114 institutions applied for the high-profile tag including 11 centrally funded universities, 27 ‘institutes of national importance’, many of them in private sector, top IITs and national institutes of technology (NITs), 27 state universities, 10 private universities, four greenfield institutes, and many other institutions, both in the public and private domain.