Former Chief Election Commissioner of India N Gopalaswami would have his critics know that the selection committee he led, which was tasked with selecting India’s “Institutions of Eminence”, did not recommend Reliance’s Jio Institute for that special status “on anybody’s pressure, request or direction”.

On Monday, the Ministry of Human Resource Development announced that six higher education institutions – three each from the private and public sectors – would be declared “Institutions of Eminence”. This tag frees them from many regulations governing higher education and fetches each of the public ones Rs 1,000 crore over five years as extra support.

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar’s announcement led to both protest and ridicule among members of the public. Along with Indian Institutes of Technology in Bombay and Delhi, the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, and the Karnataka-based Manipal Academy of Higher Education, was listed the Jio Institute, which is yet to be set up. The regulations allowed “greenfield institutions” – new projects – to apply and Jio Institute was proposed by Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Reliance India Limited that is led by industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s wife, Nita Ambani.

The empowered experts committee chaired by Gopalaswami is now in the midst of a storm. Some applicants from private universities, whose bids for the “Institutions of Eminence” tag was unsuccessful, said they knew that Reliance Foundation’s proposal would make it. Some suggested that the Union government’s alleged closeness with the Ambani family that runs Reliance influenced the decision. Others wondered how any university can be judged worse than a non-existent one.

But Gopalaswami, 74, and based in Chennai, laughed off the controversy. “If it was another name [of a greenfield institution], you would not have raised this issue, I am absolutely sure about it,” he said. “This is a red rag and there are many bulls around.” He later added: “My integrity is known to everybody. I do not have to go about telling everybody that my integrity has not been breached.”

He also explained what the Union ministry had to clarify on Monday too – that Jio Institute will only get a letter of intent now, and not the title. A memorandum of understanding for the special status will be signed only if Jio Institute starts operations in three years and makes the progress promised.

The four-member committee also includes Tarun Khanna, director of South Asia Institute at Harvard University; Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, and Pritam Singh, former director of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. Established through regulations notified in August for this category of institutions, the committee’s functions did not end with the selection of the six institutions. Over its three-year term, it will be responsible also for monitoring their progress. The private institutions were selected from a shortlist of 40 and the public ones from a set of 74.

Gopalaswami, who was Chief Election Commissioner of India over 2006-’09, is Chancellor of the Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha at Tirupati and chairman of the Kalakshetra Foundation, a dance academy, and the Vivekananda Educational Society, Chennai.

He spoke to about the selection of the Jio Institute, how his team had recommended more public institutions for the special status and why the policy’s focus only on foreign university rankings meant that some of India’s best institutions of higher education and research could not make it to the Institutions of Eminence list.

Edited excerpts follow:

How was Jio Institute selected? And what are the conditions for such projects?
There are two main categories of institutions – government or public and private. Within the private category, there are two more – existing institutions and greenfield ones, which are proposed institutions. In the case of an existing institution, whether in the public sector or private, upon selection, and after entering into a memorandum of understanding, they become Institutions of Eminence. They get that status from day one. They can be called an Institution of Eminence, which means they will strive to be one. If you define eminence as being within the first 500 of a global ranking of institutions, they have been given the green signal to go ahead [and attempt to achieve that]. It is like saying, “We trust you, please join the race”.

With regard to a greenfield institution, it is a proposed one. So, when they are picked, they are not given the title but a letter of intent that essentially says this: “You have given a plan for an institution which, after getting into business, will within 10 years reach the top 500 in world rankings. You get three years to prepare yourself. In that time, according to the plan you gave, you will have a multidisciplinary university, all the facilities you promised [in the proposal] and the governing structure, identified courses and faculty. If you fail to do that, your LOI [letter of intent] will be cancelled. If you complete that to the satisfaction of the empowered committee, the committee will recommend issuance of a letter allowing you to join the race.”

Did you have to select a greenfield project in the private category?
No, nothing of that kind. The maximum number was given – 10 in either category. We listened to all 40 cases in the private category and from those 40 we happened to pick up two of this [existing institutions] and one of that [proposed institutions]. We could have done three of this and zero of that or the other way around. No particular brief was given…

Some said they always knew Jio would make it.
I can only laugh at this. If it had been anybody else, any other institution, they would not say this. This is unfortunate. In this country, if a pedestrian crosses the road wrongly and gets hit by a motorcyclist, the whole world will blame the motorcyclist. And if the motorcyclist takes an illegal turn and gets hit by a car, the car driver is blamed. That is the psychology. So if Jio makes it, something must be wrong. If there is anybody else, it is fine. Or maybe for some, the criticism is just sour grapes. But no institution has been selected on anybody’s pressure, request or direction.

How did you judge the greenfield projects?
Whether it is a greenfield or an existing institution, the proposal matters. Existing institutions have achievements or baggage. They could have something that is good or bad. In the case of greenfield projects, there is neither. Then your plan has to be complete and it has to make sense.

I will not give you names of the institutions but let me tell you about a few cases. One applicant said they had identified the land for their institution but it was not in their possession. They said it was stuck in court, that the case had been going on for seven years and that the matter will be resolved within a week. Do you want us to believe that a case going on for seven years will be decided in a week?

Another institution said they have the money but to move it to the trust that will set up the institution, they will have to pay a tax. They said they are now negotiating over whether that transfer of funds can be exempted from the tax.

A third proposal came from a group already associated with an institution. We said: “Your institution has not reached its full potential, why are you leaving?” They said they had started one hoping it would do well and were now starting another. So their background shows that if they start an institution, they may also drop it. What happens to that institution?

We studied each one of those cases in depth and after that we picked up one case that looked plausible. Unfortunately, it was named Jio. If it was another name, you would not have raised this issue. I am absolutely sure about it. This is a red rag and there are many bulls around.

Questions have been raised about the other decisions too. One teachers’ association pointed out that the Indian Institutes of Technology have had low participation of women. Some others observed that institutions focussed on the humanities and social sciences have been neglected. There is no university at all on the list – Central or state.
Will you go around finding out what IIT Bombay does? In fact IIT Kharagpur is even going for medical. It is short-sighted to say the list does not have humanities. These are comprehensive institutions, otherwise they would not have figured in the world rankings. And I am sure in the parameters considered for world rankings, there will be some emphasis on gender parity also.

What counts are the parameters laid down for the world rankings. On those parameters, where does an institution stand. Also, does it have a plan? If it is at 800 on a world university ranking system, does it have issues because of which it could not do better? Are they being addressed?

Some universities said they have many research papers but we could not find the numbers. When asked about the low research output, one representative from a state institution said their sanctioned faculty strength is 250 but only 150 posts are filled. The rest are all contract teachers who will not get into research.

Much of the problem is in respect of state universities. They come in the public category – they are hamstrung for money or, possibly, they are not a priority. State governments started universities that they once supported but no longer support effectively. A state may have had just two universities 50 years ago but now have 20, and hands money out to each with a small ladle.

Second, these institutes do not have high quality output. Papers may be published but not cited which means the work was not substantial enough.

One vice chancellor said there was a ban on recruitment at his university till last year, when the faculty strength was at 50% of the sanctioned posts. He said the ban was now relaxed and that he would recruit 125 people soon. The ban was relaxed because last year this scheme [Institutions of Eminence] was being talked about and everybody realised they had to meet certain standards. The money that was going to come was also an incentive for state universities. Many of them thought they will get Rs 1,000 crore over five years so they should fill the posts, and when the money comes, it will get adjusted.

In one case, a vice-chancellor had joined only a week before meeting us and his post had been vacant for three or four months [previously]. Another university in Tamil Nadu that had done reasonably well in the national rankings was in the newspapers for the wrong reasons. Its VC was sent to jail for making money from the recruitment of teachers. Do you think we can select them?

But there are also many wonderful public institutions. Unfortunately, since we were asked to pick only those which can get world ranking, they did not make it.

How is having a world-class institution different from having a great institution that features in the first 500 of global university rankings?
They are quite different. Take the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata – a fantastic institution that has done great work much of which is also useful to public policy. But as a standalone institution largely concentrating on one issue, they will never come into the world rankings at all. Tata Institute of Social Sciences will not make it to world rankings either. The Pusa Institutes [a popular name for the Indian Agricultural Research Institutes] made an excellent contribution for decades and is of much use to the country. All of them applied but were not eligible.

In a separate section in our report, we pointed out that these institutions are important for the country. While the selection is on parameters related to world rankings, these sectoral institutions were not eligible but that does not mean these institutions should not be looked after. We have asked the ministry to find ways to support and assist them in their work effectively.

The Indian Institutes of Management also fall in this category even though they are recognised all over the world as world-class institutions.

Were you asked to select an equal number of public and private institutions?
No, we did not have to. That was the government’s prerogative [to keep the numbers equal]. We had suggested more public institutions. In any case the [public institutions] shortlist was down to 74 institutions. If you take the state institutions out, you are left with only the central ones. But the government said: ‘Let there be parity and let us not be seen as being favourable to one and unfavourable to the other.’

What will your committee’s role be now?
We will be handholding the institutions. They will enter into memoranda of understanding, we will check the progress of that and also decide whether to withdraw the tag if they do not live up to the promise. In case it is a new institution, within three years it should be ready to start. If they have given a plan but are not sticking to it, [the special status] can be dropped. We will see what they do, if they are on course and offer advice where required.

Do you think the committee’s monitoring is adequate oversight given the freedoms being granted to these institutions?