The central government’s choice of Jio Institute, backed by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group, to be one of India’s six Institutions of Eminence, alongside more distinguished names such as the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and BITS Pilani, has prompted many questions and clarifications from both the government and Reliance. Here is an explainer on how the non-existent institute became such a big deal.

How was Jio Institute chosen?

A total of 114 institutions had applied for the Institutions of Eminence scheme, aimed at building world-class educational institutions in the country. The public institutions chosen would get Rs 1,000 crore in funding and autonomy from stringent regulations while private ones would get autonomy but no money.

All but one of the applicants met the eligibility criteria, 73 public institutions and 40 private. Of the latter, 11 were “greenfield institutions”, meaning they were still only proposals and had not been set up. Eventually, three public and three private institutions made the cut, with Jio Institute being the only greenfield proposal.

The report of the expert committee which recommended the six institutions says Jio Institute’s proposal was the only one that “created confidence of the new institution meeting the rather stiff goal of being within the 500 of world rankings in a period of ten years”.

Did the selection committee have to choose a greenfield project?

No. Jio Institute beat 27 existing private institutions that had applied for the scheme, including Ashoka University, OP Jindal University, Azim Premji University and Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies.

In fact, even in the greenfield category, Jio Institute was selected ahead of the proposed Krea University in Tamil Nadu which has former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan as adviser and Vedanta University in Odisha. Even the well-established Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, was passed over.

How was Indian School of Business a greenfield project?

Sanjay Kallapur, who prepared the business school’s pitch for the special status, said they applied in the greenfield category “because of a University Grants Commission clarification dated November 17, 2017 that directed all institutions that are currently not a university or deemed to be university to apply in that category”.

Unlike universities established through state or central legislation, some existing institutions were declared “deemed to be universities” through a provision of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956, if they met certain requirements.

Although compelled to apply in the greenfield category, the Indian School of Business did not propose to start a new institution. Instead, it submitted a plan detailing how it intended to meet the required targets – have 10,000 students, undergraduate programmes and more foreigners on campus.

How did the panel justify choosing Jio Institute then?

N Gopalaswami, the former chief election commissioner who headed the selection committee, told in an interview that other greenfield applicants did not own land, were negotiating with the government for a tax exemption for the transfer of funds or had launched a project earlier and were now planning to start a new one.

Although it was “exceedingly difficult” to assess the proposal for Jio Institute, the panel chose to go by “the information relating to the promoter group [the Ambanis], their financial standing, commitment of finances and infrastructure for the new project, their reputation as leaders or doers in their respective field of activity”. On this basis, it arrived at “an understanding of the soundness of the proposal and the chances of it achieving the desired [Institution of Eminence] goals”.

So, Jio Institute’s access to Reliance funds and land was a factor?

The selection committee’s report says Jio Institute’s proposal was “well thought out, well presented, and taking an impressive multi-decade view of institution-building leveraging that promoter group’s known competencies in infrastructure building and the timely creation of new ventures”.

A document released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development said Jio Institute has “land in possession” and its sponsors have committed Rs 9,500 crore to build it. An official in the ministry said the land is in Karjat, in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. A Business Standard article from early 2013 shows that Mukesh Ambani was already acquiring land for a university at that time.

As the vice chancellor of a private university who only agreed to speak anonymously pointed out, setting up a new institution requires considerable resources. Catapulting it into the league of the world’s top 500 institutions – currently populated by much older institutions – within a decade requires even more. Therefore, he argued, focusing on the net worth of people involved in the project is not unreasonable, however crass it may seem.

What do we need to know about the selection criteria? Did some factors matter more than others?

The result of the exercise has left many university administrators wondering what mattered more to the selection committee – an existing institution’s track record or the quality of its plans for the future.

That having a track record mattered in the selection process is evident from the committee’s report. But ultimately, as the report states, “the goal was singular: to assess the potential of an institution to be globally ranked among the top 500 in 10 years and eventually among the top 100”.

Though the University Grants Commission (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017 did set out some eligibility criteria, the focus was on setting targets for the selected institutions. The targets were based on parameters adopted by international university ranking agencies. The “indicative list of parameters” that, if met, could get an institution into the top 500 league were:

  •   Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary teaching and research.
  •   Courses in “areas of emerging technology”.
  •   A “good proportion” of foreign or foreign-qualified faculty.
  •   A mix of Indian and foreign students.
  •   An admission process that is “need-blind” – no one will be denied admission for the lack of resources.
  •   Research publication at the “mean rate of at least one per faculty member each year”.
  •   One teacher for every 10 students in five years.
  •   Laboratories for “cutting-edge scientific research”.
  •   Achieve social impact through research and innovation.
  •   Student amenities comparable to the best in the world.

So the emphasis was on what they promised to achieve rather than what they had already?

The institutions were required to produce a “detailed and tangible action plan, milestones, and timelines” by which they planned to achieve these standards “mentioning milestones to be achieved in first five years and over 15 years”.

The regulations’ emphasis on plans and targets rather than tangible achievements and track records certainly made it easier for institutions with no history to compete effectively with those that do. Jio Institute has no track record but produced a plan that seemed tailor-made for the scheme. It had done nothing yet, but promised to meet every parameter.

But the focus on rankings damaged the prospects of some existing institutions. As the committee’s report states, the Indian Institute of Human Settlements and the Institute of Public Health Sciences, both greenfield applicants, did not make it because they “may not be eligible for a long time for world ranking in view of the focused areas in which they work”. For them, and similar public institutions such as the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata and the Indian Institutes of Management, the panel has recommended a separate scheme or plan. Institutions focusing on specific disciplines and fields of study do not fare well in “overall rankings” that favour comprehensive institutions.

Jio Institute has promised to be “multidisciplinary from the start” with 10 schools teaching over 50 disciplines, including the humanities, engineering, medicine, sports, law and performing arts. It intends to recruit faculty from the top 500 universities in the world, offering “start-up research packages” to attract them.

Is the fairness of the selection criteria in question?

Yes. Some have asked whether greenfield institutes should have been included in the scheme in the first place.

Several private university administrators who are not opposed to the selection of a greenfield project said that such proposals should have been considered a separate category. Teachers from public universities are more critical of the scheme being offered to proposed institutions and see it as a way of encouraging privatisation.

Is there anything else we need to know?

There are some other questions about how Jio Institute was selected. A report in the Economic Times pointed out that Mukesh Ambani was assisted by Vinay Sheel Oberoi, who was secretary of higher education in the human resource development ministry when the Institutions of Eminence scheme, then called the World Class Institutes Programme, was announced in the Union budget of 2016. The Business Standard meanwhile, reported that the Reliance group incorporated the Reliance Foundation Institution of Education Research, the sponsor of Jio Institute, just two weeks before the government notified the rules regarding the Institutions of Eminence.