In 2015, the Ministry of Education launched the National Institutional Ranking Framework to rank India’s higher educational institutions by performance. On the whole, the National Institutional Ranking Framework has won acceptance from the academic community. It is less glamorous than international rankings like QS or THE, but might draw a truer outline of tertiary education in India.

But alongside this objective assessment, another informal and mischievous hierarchy has also implanted itself. It reflects the deep discrepancies in funding and empowerment between various categories of higher educational institutions, from the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management through the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, National Institutes of Technology and other Central institutions to the uniformly disadvantaged state-run universities.

In this parallel order, funding and official status become the sole and direct index of academic standing, regardless of actual performance as reflected in the ranking framework. This extraneous hierarchy is deeply embedded in the system, influencing academic policy, future funding and now, it seems, even routine procedures.

Funds for ‘excellence’

This was all too evident in the empanelling of the “Institutions of Eminence”. Chosen public universities qualified for Central assistance up to Rs 1,000 crore. Naïve observers might imagine the purpose of the scheme was to advance the nation’s best institutions as gauged by academic output. Poorly-funded ones might be thought to be more in need of support.

Instead, it emerged that the determining factor would be the funding already available rather than academic performance. The application fee was a staggering Rs 1 crore. Clearly, academic standing needed the seal of financial standing.

Two state-run institutions slipped past these defences: Jadavpur University from West Bengal and Anna University from Tamil Nadu. It then emerged that Central assistance would be tuned to a variable but always sizeable contribution from the state government: by one alternative offered to Jadavpur, Rs 1,000 crore from the Centre against Rs 2,000 crore from the state.

Faced with such demands, two of the country’s leading universities (as adjudged by this very exercise) had to forgo the “Eminent” status, to the detriment of the nation’s knowledge resources. Institutions with confirmed awards, to date, number eight Central campuses and four private ones.

This saga of anomalies can have two explanations: a bureaucracy so clerical-minded that it would not adapt the small print to the larger purpose of the scheme, or an unstated but overriding purpose to affirm not merit or excellence but a new super-privileged campus camaraderie, its exclusiveness ringed round with substantial funds. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given,” in the words of the Bible.

This insidious hierarchy, or shall we say a club of Centrally-empowered campuses, has been confirmed from an improbable source. But first, a disclaimer: I belong to Jadavpur University, which features largely in the narrative both above and below. But my account is so strongly based on facts and figures that I render it without apology.

What a degree is worth

The National Institute of Technology, Hamirpur, has advertised for teachers. To screen the applications, it has devised a scoresheet of degrees based on the universities awarding them. A PhD from an Indian Institute of Technology or Indian Institute of Management merits 25 points; from National Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, 20 points.

PhDs from “Other Centrally Funded Institutions” (note the wording), are worth 15 points while state universities featuring twice in the National Institutional Ranking Framework’s first 100 ranks, 10, and all others, five. The teaching experience of candidates is similarly graded by institution.

One could expand on the offence to academic principles in this bizarre ruling. Let me stick to facts. Jadavpur is the highest ranked of all state universities (13th in the National Institutional Ranking Framework’s “Overall” list).

Also among the first 50 are Anna University (18th), Calcutta University (23rd), Savitribai Phule Pune University (35th), Panjab University (44th) and Kerala University (47th). It may not be irrelevant that all are located in opposition-ruled states, with the equivocal exception of Savitribai Phule Pune University in Maharashtra.

Jadavpur and Anna Universities among the top 25 overall universities of India, as per the National Institutional Ranking Framework.

Let us plot these ranks against some others. Doctorates from Jadavpur and Anna Universities (the same culprits that fouled up the “Institutions of Eminence” exercise) will receive 10 points. Only eight IITs figure higher “overall” in the ranking framework, and one (Hyderabad) in between.

All other IITs rank lower, down to IIT-Bhubaneswar at 91, but their PhDs qualify for 25 points, like that of Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, (99th), topping the IIMs. PhDs from the National Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (all ranked lower than Jadavpur and Anna Universities, and varyingly below the other top state universities) merit 20 points. Among engineering institutes, Jadavpur ranks 10th and Anna University 13th.

Among research institutions, Anna University is ranked 13th and Jadavpur 19th – in both lists, bettered only by some (far from all) IITs. Among research institutions (seeing that PhDs are at issue), three Central universities (Banaras Hindu University, Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University) fare better than Jadavpur; but their doctorates will earn only 15 points.

‘Crony collegiality’

This ingenious ploy – literally “preposterous”, placing those behind before those ahead – ensures that recruitment is decisively skewed in favour of IIT and NIT alumni: it is virtually impossible to neutralise a handicap of 10 or 15 points. One is struck by the gratuitousness of the exercise.

If, however questionably, applicants are to be graded by the academic standing of their parent institutions, the National Institutional Ranking Framework rankings could be followed in totality. This byzantine alternative can be explained only by the compulsions of a crony collegiality.

NIT Hamirpur is not among the National Institutional Ranking Framework’s first 100 in either the “Overall” or the engineering list. It ranks 28th in Architecture and Planning. One wonders whether it would have set about this invidious exercise without external prompting, or at least without a sense of support from a congenial milieu.

But the contagion is spreading: NIT Warangal has demanded that applicants for postdoctoral fellowships must have at least one degree from a Central institution.

These prescriptions are contrary to regulations and probably to the law. More saliently, they violate basic educational principles. Heedless of the National Institutional Ranking Framework, the Indian academic establishment is insouciantly fostering a regime of cronyism and patronage determined by formal status and, hence, the source and quantum of funding. It may prove the last nail in the coffin of the state-run universities. More crucially, it is vitally depleting the intellectual resources of the nation.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University.