Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L), Reliance Industries CMD and Chairman of the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University Board Mukesh Ambani (R), British Petroleum Group's Chief Executive Bob Dudley (2L) and Gujarat state energy and petrochemicals minister Saurabh Patel (2R) during the 3rd convocation of the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University in Gandhinagar. Photo: AFP/Sam Panthaky

In an attempt to improve the global rankings of Indian institutions, the Human Resource Development Ministry has issued a list of universities to be granted Institute of Eminence status. The list included the as yet non-existent Jio Institute of the Reliance Foundation.

The report recommended six institutes – three each from the public and private sectors – that will receive regulatory oversight in order to pursue excellence and chase world-class status in years to come. The Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore are the three public universities selected. The Jio Institute of the Reliance Foundation, the Birla Institute of Technology & Science in Pilani, and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education are the private universities which have been granted “Institute of Eminence” status.

However, despite being featured on the elite list, the Jio Institute remains only at the proposal stage. Its nomination as an “Eminence” institution has raised criticism of the Narendra Modi government for “favoring” India’s largest corporate house.

The Jio Institute of the Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic flank of the largest private company in India, will receive no monetary assistance from the government but will be subject to less regulation than the education sector generally suffers. Only the public universities in the new list will receive 10 billion rupees each for the next 10 years from the government.

Maheshwer Peri, founder of Careers360, India’s largest education technology platform, gave an additional perspective to this. He told Asia Times, “For the first time, the government concedes that regulation impedes pursuit of excellence. It is an oxymoron.”

Currently, universities cannot appoint a foreign faculty or engage in collaborations, partnerships, exchanges or other forms of cooperation with any foreign University unless they are first granted permission from the University Grants Commission or the Human Resource Development Ministry.

“No University in India is well funded. Rarely do we think of research. Universities in India are largely teaching shops judged on creating glorified clerks and not entrepreneurship, researchers and creators. We create consumers. It is time we changed that,” Peri said.

He went on to give the example of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology which was set up in 1991 and is the youngest university in the world to have achieved world-class status. It attracted vast initial investment, and boasts research funding at around US$700 million per year. It also has faculty and researchers from the top 40 universities in the world.

“If there is any corporation in India which can provide funding in the billions, have a grand vision, and operate on a large scale, Reliance would be the first one,” he said.

According to Peri, Reliance’s wealth can ensure that India gets the world’s best faculty, researchers and academics. “The collaborations and partnerships that Reliance can strike with the best universities around the globe cannot be underestimated. There is already talk of a partnership with Harvard.”

But the question still arises why an institution that does not yet exist was chosen over an established private university, a question further complicated by the government insisting that the Reliance project qualified because it was the only institute which fulfilled the required parameters listed under the ‘Greenfield’ category for new universities. 

Also, critics are asking if, since private organizations are not required to reserve places for applicants from different social strata or faiths, will the new ruling defeat the purpose of social equality in education by promoting increasing privatization?

Ramachandra Guha, a prominent Indian historian and writer referred pointedly to the greenfield issue in a tweet: “To Sarkari apologists who say Jio Institute has been placed in the “Greenfield” category, a “Greenfield” university outside Chennai is being helmed by Raghuram Rajan, whose academic qualifications are in inverse proportion to those of the Ambanis. Why not choose that?”

Furthermore, the list saw India’s grand vision whittled down from 20 to just six universities. This is primarily because the Ministry of Finance did not have enough funds. All the ministry could manage was 30 billion rupees per year, and even that only came after a four-year delay.

“For me the question is not – ‘How could Reliance get the Institute of Eminence status?’ It should rather be, ‘When the government isn’t losing anything financially, why couldn’t they give Institute of Eminence status to a few more private universities and give wings to their dreams?” Peri said.

It is clear that Reliance has the money to create a truly world class educational institution. As Secretary for Higher Education R Subramanyam has said, it is only a letter of intent and they will have to create the institute in the next three years. However, questions are being asked about how much the institute will charge its students and whether it might create less access to quality education rather than more, remains to be seen. 

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