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In the end the Jio Institute might be the last IoE standing in a global race

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On Monday the Union HRD Ministry awarded the Institution of Eminence status to six institutions, these include the two IITs at Delhi and Mumbai, IISc Bangalore, BITS Pilani and Manipal University and the proposed Jio Institute by Reliance Foundation. The last choice has proved particularly controversial because it is a greenfield venture i.e. t it has not commenced operation yet. For some. it raises the prospect of crony capitalism (because of the association with Amabanis, supposedly). However after a sober assessment of the decision one would understand why this is an absolutely correct decision.

The Institution of Eminence Status is given under the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations 2017. The purported objective of the IoE is to “evolve into institutions of world class in a reasonable time period”.

The basic idea is to create national champions in higher education, similar to the Chinese Model of subsidizing select centres of excellence and withdrawing fiscal responsibilities from them. These national champions would then represent the country in Times Higher Education rankings and QS Rankings where India so far has an awful track record. In last Times ranking in 2017, there were no Indian University in the top 250 in the world. The hope is that these institutions would then appear at-least in the top 500, if not top 100 in the rankings.

Presently private colleges and Universities increasingly dominate the higher education sector in India. According to the All India Survey of Higher Education 2016-17 about 77.8% of colleges and 313 of 864 Universities in the country are in privately managed and of them64.2 % were private unaided. According to a PRS Report (Role of Private Sector in Higher Education 2016) found that the enrolment in private unaided colleges is 64% of the total enrolment

Therefore it stands to reason that this status should be given both to State and private institutions, greenfield and brownfield ones. The Regulations permit that for a greenfield institution to be set up it needs “A detailed fifteen year strategic vision plan and a five year rolling implementation plan, with clear annual milestones” (Regulation 6.1 (vii)) and “It should have sufficient evidence to show that it has experience in translating plans into real achievements in any field (not necessarily in the field of higher education, but preferably in it) as per its plans” (Regulation 6.1(ix)).

While we are not aware of the precise nature of the plan submitted by Jio Institute, perhaps the worst enemy of Reliance cannot doubt its ability to execute plans. Hence no illegal means have been followed by the inclusion of Jio Institute in the IoE list.

 

Next, let us contemplate how this “world-class standard can realistically be achieved.

The IoE essentially has to attain the task of becoming world class in fifteen years, this means about three to four student generations (an undergraduate course being 3-5 yrs long). For the five other IoE of the IoEs, the requisite infrastructure is there but they will have to massively upgrade the same.

However for a greenfield, it means an University/Institute will not only have to set up, carry out admission and outreach, recruit faculty, set up multiple departments, set up Phd (takes about 3-7 yrs) and undergraduate programs all at the same time, it will also have to set up the academic outreach with other institutions and have a reasonable academic network within the same period. This is truly an industrial scale activity and has not been attempted at this scale anywhere on earth in such a short time.

The infrastructure is manageable, but the manpower would be an issue. Here upgrading is not necessarily easier than new recruitment. Most Indian Universities (including those being granted IoE status) are short on the faculty. Most of the old faculty has been hired under very strict socialist era UGC Rules, they will find it difficult to adjust to the new professional atmosphere that an IoE shall require. Horizontal hires from industry will add to personal conflicts. Radical new adjustment in established academic culture is far more difficult than setting things up from scratch.

The only way quality manpower can be recruited in such a short time is through aggressive poaching of faculty and stuff from established Universities, horizontal recruitment from industry and above all much higher levels of compensation. These are disruptive corporate tactics that Reliance specializes in.

The State is not offering much help in real terms. To its credit, it is promising to get out of the way.

The IoE is allowed a wide range of freedom in setting up new courses, off-campus centres, skill development centres, hiring foreign faculty’s students and finally setting up their own fee structure, ability to mobilize funds etc. However, the State has already given much these freedoms to about 60 Universities to a various extent through granting graded autonomy. Furthermore if the proposed Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Act 2018 becomes law, eventually much of the prescriptive the UGC Regulation would probably melt away, anyway. So the uniqueness of IoE status will give a diminishing return over a period of time.

The State unlike in China. is not providing any significant financial support.

The private players would not be entitled to even the paltry 1000 crores under this scheme. Indirectly they might be subsidized by land grants, a brand value in the student market etc. But these would a pittance when one is competing in a market against the likes of Harvard (endowment fund of 37.1 billion USD), Yale (27.2 billion USD), Oxford (£3bn) and Tsinghua (expenditure US$3.57 billion at approx.) to name a few. Even second-tier western institutions often have endowment over USD one billion.

The core expectation from IoE is, therefore “the ability to leverage alumni and alternative funding sources “ (4.1xii). These funds can come from services ( Universities often do consultancy, have publishing arms, own patents ), or investments ( that is what endowment funds do), or from philanthropy. Philanthropy, in turn, can be from ex-alumni, public-minded citizens or even CSR funds. Attracting funds is an art-form in itself which very few Indian Universities have cared to master.

Of all the declared IoEs Jio Institute alone has the massive endowment support of 9500 crores (1.4 billion USD approx). The amount is bigger if one considers it in purchasing power parity. This gives Jio Institute an obvious head-start over the others (the IIT Bombay, for example, has an annual budget of Rs. 100 crores)

If the Rankings are compared to a war the IoEs are expected to win it at their own cost and initiative, the State will hand over them its banners but little else. In that template, the Jio Institute with its long record of disruptive corporate tactics might just be the only one to achieve this goal.  It is a pity that there were not more applicants like that.

 

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