Given the furore over its decision to select the yet-to-start Jio Institute (Reliance Foundation) as one of the three private sector Institutes of Eminence (IoEs), it is not surprising that the education ministry has issued various clarifications on Jio’s selection ahead of several well-known private institutions like, say, ISB. A “separate category of applications”, it said on Monday, “have been invited from the sponsoring organisations for setting up new or Greenfield projects”, and on Tuesday, the higher education secretary said that the IoE tag was conditional—Jio, he said, would just get a letter of intent for now, and “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 have the authority to withdraw the tag if the institution is not found to be performing up to the mark”. Apart from the fact that even others, like IIT Delhi in the government-IoE category, have to be reviewed every three years—and, so, can lose their tag—what has caused a furore is not Jio’s IoE tag, it is the fact that the panel doing the choosing did not think India had even 10 private education institutions that made the cut, but included Jio nonetheless.
In an interview to The Economic Times, N Gopalaswami, who headed the panel, said that he could not find 20 top-class institutes—10 each from the private and government sector—since “our institutes are mostly much younger (than foreign institutions billed as world-class), not many can achieve the same feat”; that is why he chose just three IoEs each from the public and private sectors. The panel may have been right to argue that many did not have an impressive track record, but why did it choose one that had no record? More worrying than the panel putting a Jio on a par with an IIT-Delhi or an IIT-Bombay for all practical purposes, and ahead of an ISB or an Ashoka University, is the fact that, while the idea was to free up 20 institutions to compete with the best in the world, in many ways it got reduced to a battle of the cheque books. The initial guidelines specified that the institution had to have a corpus of at least Rs 200 crore, a guaranteed pipeline for another Rs 500 crore and a credible plan to raise another Rs 1,000 crore at least; in addition, the sponsors together had to have a total net worth of at least Rs 8,000 crore, and one of them had to be worth at least Rs 2,000 crore. A later iteration of the regulations said the sponsors’ collective net worth had to be Rs 5,000 crore. If a university acquires a good reputation, as it will, when backed by good academics/professionals, will it surely be able to raise the money?
A related issue, now that the first phase is over, is that of whether IoEs are needed at all. When it was conceived, much like the SEZ policy, the idea was to create a hassle-free operating environment unlike in the rest of the country—in this case, the only attraction for private institutions was the complete autonomy they would get from the UGC in fixing their curriculum, admission policies, staff salaries, mix of students, and the like. But, now that the government is trying to make the UGC process less rigid, so as to give autonomy to all educational institutions, why even have the IoE policy, unless the government believes the proposed HECI will be as rigid as the UGC? Just free everyone up and allow them to soar—giving universities operational freedom should not be a favour being bestowed upon the chosen few. Unfortunately, that is what the government has reduced it to.