More ‘institutes of eminence’ to be selected despite row

The Indian government is set to expand its list of ‘Institutes of Eminence’ even as two of the private institutions listed among its first half a dozen institutions aiming for world-class status announced this month have come under question, and following rows over top public universities left off the list.

The government is also considering expanding the international panel formed to select the institutions to have more India-based academics to better monitor the progress of the selected institutions, according to the Human Resource Development Ministry.

The Empowered Expert Committee (EEC) was set up in February this year to select 20 Institutes of Eminence – 10 from the public sector and 10 from the private sector – to be granted increased autonomy and in the case of public institutions, extra government funding. However, only six were announced on 9 July, three public and three private, from the 114 eligible institutions that applied.

"As and when we get more suggestions by the EEC, we will declare a total of 20 institutes for the status," R Subramanyam, the secretary for higher education in the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry said recently.

It has since come to light from an EEC report on the process that the committee initially recommended three private institutions and eight in the public sector. However, the higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC), and the HRD ministry only accorded eminence status to three public and three private institutions to “ensure fairness” and a balance between public and private institutions.

However, of the private institutions named, the proposed Jio Institute to be built in Navi Mumbai is not yet in existence. According to the rules, ‘eminence’ status can be given to institutions not yet in existence on the basis of their vision plan, but the selection of the Jio Institute backed by Reliance, India’s largest company, sparked uproar over how a yet-to-be-established institution could be judged against the track record of institutions in existence for decades.

A second private institution, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani (BITS Pilani), on the 9 July list has been ‘kept on hold’ after it emerged that BITS is in a dispute with the UGC over its yet-to-be approved branches in Goa and Hyderabad, with a case lodged by BITS against the UGC in the Delhi High Court. The UGC insists that these branches are illegal as they were set up without UGC permission.

The third institution named under the private category is Manipal University. But critics expressed anger that the private institutions, such as Manipal, named under the eminence tag were ranked well below many publicly-funded universities in India’s national rankings that did not make it onto the July list.

Longer shortlist

It emerged that the EEC had shortlisted eight public sector institutions for the eminence tag – the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, the IIT Bombay in Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which featured in the July announcement, as well as Delhi University, Jadavpur University in West Bengal, Anna University in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, IIT Madras and IIT Kharagpur – with the status of the latter five to be decided later by the UGC, although the EEC head is on record as saying: “I am sure they will get it [eminence] in due course.”

MK Surappa, vice-chancellor of Anna University, which was recommended for the eminence tag by the EEC but dropped by the UGC, said: “We had made a presentation before the EEC and now await the government’s decision.”

Referring to IIT Madras and Anna University, C Pichandy, a former general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the two institutions shortlisted from the southern state of Tamil Nadu had been bypassed and said the government should “reconsider the entire process”.

The government has now said there will be a second selection round – though no dates were given for the announcement – even though it is acknowledged that it will be difficult to balance the number of public and private institutions.

Expanded committee

The EEC will be expanded for the second round. The current EEC is headed by N Gopalaswami, India’s former chief election commissioner. The other members are Pritam Singh, former director of the Indian Institute of Management Lucknow; Tarun Khanna, a professor at Harvard Business School; and Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston in the United States.

With two of the panel’s members based in the United States, the HRD ministry reportedly feels the EEC should have more India-based academics on board to “function smoothly”, as it will continue to be relevant after the selection process is completed, and to review and monitor all institutes of eminence. The ministry of HRD has so far not taken a final decision on the names of new EEC members.

But even with more Indian EEC members, academics say trust needs to be restored over the selection process. According to the EEC’s own report, the committee set up in February started work on 2 April, submitting its shortlist of institutes before the end of May.

It assessed the 114 applications within 45-50 days and did not conduct any field visits or tabular rankings of the institutions.

Nonetheless EEC Chairman N Gopalaswami said due process had been followed as, according to the UGC guidelines, field visits were only “recommendatory in nature and not mandatory”.

“We did not think field visits were necessary,” he said. “Field visits to all 114 institutes would have probably taken a year. Besides it was felt that doing any tabular ranking of institutes would have been unfair and improper in view of the narrow difference between institutes.”

Gopalaswami said institutes had applied with detailed information. They were called to give individual presentations and the EEC asked questions and sought clarifications from the concerned institutions. It was all conducted in a transparent manner, he said.

Institutes of eminence are expected to break into the top 500 in at least one internationally reputed university ranking framework within 10 years and come up in the top 100 over time.