Existing varsities don’t qualify, yet-to-be-set-up ones do

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Published: August 7, 2019 4:36:59 AM

It is bewildering that the higher education regulator, instead, added to its long record of failures by not recognising this crying need.

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If KREA University, Azim Premji University, Ashoka University, apart from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and the Indian Institute of Public Health—all promising private universities—not making it to the University Grants Commission (UGC) list of Institutes of Eminence recommended to the government seems odd, its justification for rejecting these seems outright batty. The UGC says that since none of these institutes—and a handful of public universities—feature in global and Indian quality rankings, they weren’t included.

However, institutes that are yet to even commence academic activity—the Reliance Foundation-backed Jio Insititute and Airtel-backed Satya Bharti Foundation’s proposed institute—have been recommended as Institutes of Eminence.

It goes without saying that UGC’s fig-leaf of quality-rankings somehow don’t apply in the case of these two. When the expert panel headed by former chief election commissioner, N Gopalaswami, had recommended 11 institutions for the tag in July 2018 and 19 more in December, it considered institutes that were already ranking well and those that had the potential to be top-notch, globally competitive institutes.

Yet, UGC chose to see things very differently. It went with the rankings yardstick—to be considered, the university/institute had to feature in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) 2020 world university rankings, with QS 2019 India ranking and the HRD ministry’s National Institute Ranking Framework ranking serving as a tiebreaker. That itself isn’t free of controversies given Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Aligarh Muslim University and Savitribai Phule Pune University all feature in the 801-1,000 band of the QS world rankings, but BHU alone entered the list, because it was placed higher in the India rankings.

Unnamed government officials, as per various media reports, have sought to justify the inclusion of the Jio and Bharti institutes by saying that there is a need to attract investment to build world-class institutions and, therefore, greenfield institutes needed to be pushed onto the list. The Gopalaswami panel, it is true, had recommended the inclusion of Jio Institute in July 2018—and it featured in the list of three private institutions chosen—but Gopalaswami has claimed that greenfield institutes should have been treated as a separate category; the government was free to decide either way. The scheme, however, hadn’t been intended as one that would attract investment in the higher education space.

Rather, it was aimed at developing 20 world-class institutions, 10 public and 10 private, by giving them considerable autonomy on academic and administrative matters. Given how, despite the noticeable improvement in India’s R&D prowess in the recent year, the gap with a China or even a South Korea in terms of R&D in academia is yawning, the need was to support existing institutions that have, compared to universities/institutes that exist on paper, come some distance.

It is bewildering that the higher education regulator, instead, added to its long record of failures by not recognising this crying need. And, even if the investment angle were to be a weighty consideration, a functioning private institute of considerable repute would surely have been attractive to investors if it had got the Eminence tag, more so if big names from academia and the corporate world were associated with it?

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