On Monday, the Minister of Human Resource Development, Prakash Javadekar, announced the names of six institutions of higher education – three each in public and private sectors – that have been granted the status of “Institution of Eminence”.

One of them is Jio Institute, an institution proposed to be set up by Reliance Foundation, led by Nita Ambani. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Reliance Industries, the largest private company in India. With this, the Jio Institute gets unprecedented freedom from the government’s higher education regulations from its very birth.

In the government’s view, an Institution of Eminence should offer interdisciplinary courses and conduct research in “areas of emerging technology”. It must have a mix of foreign and Indian students and faculty, with “student amenities comparable with that of globally reputed institutions”.

The Jio Institute has none of these. It does not even exist. Yet, it has been declared an “Institution of Eminence”, at par with the Indian Institutes of Technology at Delhi and Bombay, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the Birla Institute of Technology at Pilani, Rajasthan, which was set up in 1964, and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, which began with Kasturba Medical College in 1953.

The government’s original plan was to bestow this special status upon 20 institutions – 10 each in public and private sectors. But the four-member expert committee led by former chief election commissioner, N Gopalaswami, found only six that deserved it. Gopalaswami told the Economic Times: “We considered the eligibility criteria carefully and we could not find 20 institutes that we felt would be able to find a place among top 500 global rankings in ten years.”

He added that most American or British universities at the top of academic rankings “have been in existence for a 100 years” while Indian ones are “much younger”, and, therefore, “not many can achieve the same feat”.

This insistence on quality does not square with Jio Institute making the grade, several administrators in leading private universities told Scroll.in.

“You cannot say you could not pick 20 institutions because they had an unimpressive track record and then pick one that has zero track record,” said a member of the governing body of a private university in north India, asking not to be identified. “The inclusion of Reliance makes the whole thing look dodgy. It is standing out like a sore thumb. The government will probably argue that BITS Pilani was started by the Birlas, but come on!”

Scroll.in sent detailed questions about the selection of Jio Institute to Gopalaswami. He did not respond.

Through the day, the Ministry of Human Resource Development maintained silence. By evening, however, an official of the Press Information Bureau released a six-page document to the media, containing some general ideas about the proposed Jio Institute – it intends to be the “youngest global top 100 universities”, and will “empower students to learn and excel in their chosen disciplines and empower faculty”. Admission will be merit-based. It will be multidisciplinary from the start with 10 schools and over 50 disciplines “including humanities, engineering, medical sciences, sports, law, performing arts, sciences, urban planning, etc.” It will create a “fully residential university city”.

The official also pointed out that the government’s policy allowed greenfield institutions – essentially, new projects – to apply.

As controversy mounted on the selection of Jio Institute, around 8.30 pm, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released a note with clarifications. “The purpose of this provision [for greenfield institutions] is to allow responsible private investment to come into building global class educational infrastructure, thereby benefiting the nation as a whole,” it said.

Eleven applications had been received from greenfield institutions. The expert committee had adopted four parameters for judging them: the availability of land, a core team with “very high qualification and wide experience”, available funding, and a strategic vision plan with clear annual milestones and action plan.

“The Committee has come to a conclusion that out of the (11) applications, only Jio Institute has satisfied all the (4) parameters stated above, and hence was recommended for issuing a Letter of intent for setting up an Institute of Eminence,” the ministry’s note said.

But administrators and even teachers in private and public institutions say the policy itself was flawed. A senior official from a private university that had applied said: “I have no problem if a new institution is supported. But the idea of equating an existing institution with a record of achievements with a non-existent one is problematic.”

In fact, teachers had been suspicious of the proposed or “greenfield” category from the start. Said the teacher at a Noida-based private university – also an applicant for the tag: “What does this mean? It means whoever gets it just has money and land. We knew Reliance would get it from the start.”

The vice-chancellor of a private university said: “To have one greenfield institution with two existing ones is not an unreasonable selection when greenfield projects are expected. But how can you put them in the same category? How can you tell any university that they are not as good as a non-existent one?”

Scroll.in sent a detailed questionnaire to Reliance Foundation. It did not respond. If it does, the story will be updated.

The criteria for selection

The plan for selecting Institutions of Eminence was first announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech in 2016. Then, the plan was to pick 20 public and private institutions and make them administratively autonomous, even from the main higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission.

The policy was drafted for consultation in 2016 but abandoned because of several concerns, including the proposal to extend financial support to private institutions. By the time the policy was notified in August 2017, it had mutated into one for “institutions of eminence deemed to be universities”, with public funds to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore promised only for the 10 public institutions.

Section 4 of the regulations contains an “indicative list of parameters” that institutes are expected to meeting within five to 15 years of being granted Institute of Eminence status. They should be “multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary”; have foreign or “foreign-qualified faculty”; a mix of Indian and foreign students, there should be at least one teacher for every 20 students at the time of granting “institution of eminence” status and the staff strength should be increased so that it is one for every 10 students in five years.

While the regulations focused on the record of existing institutions, they also allowed new institutions to apply. To be considered, the “sponsoring organisation” – compulsorily a non-profit under Indian law – has to furnish a blueprint and show evidence of financial strength. It needs to have a “fifteen-year strategic vision plan and a five-year rolling implementation plan, with clear annual milestones and action plans” to meet the required standards. At the time of applying, the sponsors of a proposed institution “should have identified” the first Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and the “core team” that will set the institution up. The applicant “should have sufficient evidence to show that it has experience in translating plans into real achievements in any field”.

A proposed institution, like an existing one, must have an “initial corpus fund of Rs 60 crore” to be increased annually to Rs 150 crore in ten years, a “guaranteed pipeline” of Rs 500 crore and a “credible plan for additional Rs 1,000 crore”. The members of the sponsoring society or trust that is yet to set up an institution, should have a collective net worth of Rs 5,000 crore. For an existing institution, the society members can be collectively worth Rs 3,000 crore.

The document released by the official of the Press Information Bureau said Reliance Foundation will commit Rs. 9,500 crores towards the project.

‘World class institutions’

All selected institutions, set free from all other higher education regulations and even state university legislations, will now be governed only by the regulations defined in this scheme. These regulations will apply to “every existing or proposed” institution granted the special status, the official of the Press Information Bureau said.

The main goal of the institutions will be to achieve a respectable rank in the global university ranking system. Section 4 of the University Grants Commission (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017, says:

“[The institute] should come in top five hundred of any of the world renowned ranking frameworks (such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or QS or Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University) in the first ten years of setting up or being declared as Institution of Eminence, and having achieved top five hundred rank, should consistently improve its ranking to come in the top one hundred, eventually over time.”

Toward this end, they will be free to employ foreign faculty, admit foreign students, decide their own fee structures but also ensure low student-faculty ratios and high-quality teaching, research and facilities.

Limited winners

No private university will receive public funds for meeting the Institute of Eminence standards.

Administrators of private universities say they applied because they “constantly struggle” to navigate the various regulatory structures – the University Grants Commission, the state government, the professional education councils such as the Medical Council, Bar Council, the Council of Architecture and others.

“We were given the hope that if we were selected, we would be freed of these regulations,” said the vice-chancellor of a private university. “That is the only reason anybody applied.”

Many are feeling disappointed with the selection of just three private universities.

“This was meant to be a reform process to free up 20 institutions,” said Pramath Raj Sinha, one of the founders of Ashoka University which, too, was a contender. “My impression was that it was about picking 10 people and giving them an opportunity, not to pick three winners. This is a missed opportunity for significant reform.”

He was not the only one to think the committee got it wrong. The governing body member of another private university said: “In the process of execution, everything got subverted. They had to bet on the right people and the right model – I think the committee was not properly briefed and I think they decided they have to include Reliance.”

The vice chancellor of the private university said: “The good way to build world-class institutions is to develop a much larger pool the way many East Asian countries have. To say that there are only six institutions of eminence is a damning indictment of the higher education system in India.”

This story was updated at 9.30 pm to incorporate the clarifications issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.