Institute of Eminence: Ploy To Promote Corporate Cronies, Strangle Public Funded Higher Education

-- Sucheta De

The Minster of Human Resource Development Mr Prakash Javadekar, in yet another press conference on 9th July, declared six higher educational institutions as Institutions of Eminence (IoE). Of these six institutions, three are public and three are private institutions. Jio Institute of the Reliance Foundation of Mukesh Ambani and Nita Ambani is one of the six institutions declared as IoE. The shocker this time was the fact that the Jio Institute does not even exist till now and has already been conferred with the certificate ‘Institute of Eminence’. This declaration is the latest addition in the MHRD series of shockers that include earlier declarations of ‘Autonomy’ for 60 higher educational institutes and the proposal of an Act to scrap the UGC.

A reading of the UGC Guidelines[fn] [/fn] and Gazette Notification[fn] [/fn] regarding Institute of Eminence reveal that the declaration is nothing but an official government statement that private higher educational institutions should be promoted at par with, if not even more strongly than public funded institutions.

To begin with, let us examine the idea of an elected government certifying private educational institutions as ‘eminent’. In a country like India where access to higher education for the socially and economically deprived students remains the biggest challenge, private institutions with zero commitment to social inclusion are being certified as IoE. For example, private higher educational institutions do not provide for reservation for the socially deprived communities such as SC/ST/OBC or the PH. What kind of excellence does our government want to promote that excludes the communities that have been historically denied opportunities of education?

The exorbitant fees taken by private institutions are another mechanism of exclusion of underprivileged students from higher education. The IoE status, rather than attempting to correct this, promotes ‘freedom’ to charge any amount of fee from students in both the public and private institutions. For domestic students though, the UGC Guidelines mention that no student selected on the basis of merit should be turned away for lack of financing. The question then arises how will it be determined which student will be unable to pay the fee if selected? As a woman who pursued higher education from one of the country’s best public funded university, I know for a fact that if there was no JNU with such an affordable fee structure, I would not have been able to pursue academics till PhD. Like any other average Indian family, my family would have thought it an unnecessary and bad investment to pay steep fees for a daughter’s higher education.

The Curious Case of the Jio Institute

The IoE declaration came under fire mainly because of the Jio institute of the Reliance Foundation of Mukesh and Nita Ambani, which was given the Institute of Eminence tag even before it has been set up. When public outrage and mockery of the declaration started breaking the internet, Javadekar’s MHRD came with a clarification[fn][/fn] : that Jio institute has been selected under the ‘Greenfield Category’. The Greenfield category provides for institutes which do not exist yet, but are proposed to be set up.

Note: 11 applications were received in the Greenfield category, and it is only the Ambanis’ proposal that got the tag and will now venture into investment in higher education. How come only the Reliance Foundation qualified? Because, it turns out, the rules were tailor-made to suit it, and in turn it was set up to coincide with the UGC’s call for IoE proposals!   

Mitali Agarwal has traced the breathtaking cronyism whereby the IoE Rules were scripted by an MHRD official Vinay Sheel Oberoi who later joined the Reliance Foundation – copybook conflict of interest[fn][/fn]!  Agarwal notes that “The Rules under which the ‘Institution of Eminence’ tag was to be awarded by the Union government were notified on August 29, 2017. The UGC issued a press release inviting proposals for the ‘Institution of Eminence’ status on September 12, 2017. A simple search on the Ministry of Corporate Affairs website reveals that interestingly, on the same day, the Reliance Foundation Institution Of  Education And Research (RFIER) was incorporated as a Section 8 company under the Companies Act.”

As secretary, Higher Education, at the MHRD in 2016 when the IoE scheme, then called the World Class Institutes programme, was announced in the Union budget, Oberoi helped write the rules creating the “Greenfield” category. Oberoi then joined Reliance on leaving MHRD, and was by Mukesh Ambani’s side during Jio Institute’s presentation before the government committee of experts.

Nitin Sethi and Aditi Phadnis point out that “Two specific provisions in these rules helped the freshly-minted Reliance company in a big way. One of these required the individual members of the ‘sponsoring organisation’ of the proposed university to have a collective net worth over Rs. 50 billion. The other provision required the promoting group to have a proven track record of ‘translating plans into real achievements in any field (not necessarily in the field of higher education, but preferably in it)’….Not too many groups or foundations in India whose individual members can boast of a net worth of over Rs. 50 billion and also a proven track record of translating plans into achievements.”[fn][/fn] These two Rules that Oberoi helped script, ensured that Reliance Foundation which now employs Oberoi was the only institution selected out of 11 applicants in the IoE category!    

Even before setting up the institute, the investment of the Ambanis is considered to be ‘responsible private investment’ in higher education that will ‘benefit the nation as a whole’. What else can be derived from such a clarification if not the fact that the name of the Ambanis suffices to be recognized as responsible investment by our government? The Jio institute has no track record in higher education on which basis to claim “eminence”. But yes, the Ambanis run the Dhirubhai Ambani International School at Mumbai. Nita Ambani is the founder and chairperson of the school.  According to a Hindustan Times report[fn][/fn] dated September 23, 2017, this school charges Rs 2.05 lakh for LKG to Class 4 to Rs 9.65 lakhs for class 11-12. The claim to fame of this school is the fact that children of millionaires and celebrities study in this school. Now that’s a track record that the elected government of a country like India is looking for while granting ‘Institute of Eminence’ status!

In its application to the government, the proposed Jio Institute projected earnings of Rs 100 crore from tuition and hostel fee to be paid by roughly 1,000 students in its first year of operation. Allowing that it proposed to waive Rs 38 crore as scholarships in the first year, this amounts to an income of approximately Rs 6.2 lakh from each student. Think about how many Indian students can really afford such steep fees?

Why does the “Greenfield category” facilitate the ‘Institute of Eminence’ tag only for institutes with “a net worth of over Rs 50 billion”, why not for government or public funded institutions? Or is the government saying it has no plans of setting up any new ‘World Class’ higher education institute?

In its clarification the MHRD also says that private universities will not be given the 1000 crores grants as is being claimed on social media. Then what will the private institutions gain by the IoE tag? Firstly, with this tag given by the Government of India these institutions will now be credible enough to demand unlimited fees from students. Prof. Sandeep Shukla of IIT Kanpur has explained in his social media post that this tag will also help the private institutions to get government funding for research through DST, MEITY or any other government funding agency. That is the route through which these institutions will get public funding without any commitment to ensure social inclusion.

What Does IoE Status Mean for Government Institutions?

It is being said that the government institutions which have been given the IoE status will get 1000 crore financial assistance from the government. And because the private institutions would not get it, we are being asked not to make much noise over the IoE declaration. Let us examine this claim closely.

The UGC guidelines of IoE for government institutions categorically states that “The assistance would be up to an amount of Rupees One Thousand Crore OR 50 to 75% of the requirement projected in the perspective and detailed plans submitted by the institution, WHICHEVER IS LESS (emphasis added).” Along with this, note that accompanying documents needed by government institutions applying for the IoE status include “A sustainability plan for the period when the additional public funding ceases.” If both of these are read together then three things become clear.

Firstly, 1000 crore is not what the government IoEs are going to get. Secondly, the government does not take any responsibility of the rest of the amount beyond the 50 to 75% band for the required project to be undertaken by the government IoEs. And thirdly, because the government grant will be a onetime affair, the government IoEs need to develop a plan for sustaining their project without government funding. Is this not then a model of throwing government IoEs into uncertainty and insecurity; a model to push government institutions towards ‘self-financing’ (privatization) and fee-hikes which then exclude the poor and deprived?

The so called ‘autonomy’ or ‘freedom’ of the IoEs is the freedom to start new courses without the approval of the UGC or, as it may be, the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) in the coming days. This autonomy is only on condition that they avoid taking money from the government for new courses. Sounds familiar? Yes, the ‘Autonomy’ granted to 60 higher educational institutions earlier by the MHRD also meant the same: a push towards ‘self-financing’ and fee-hike.

While the proposed HECI that is supposed to replace the UGC will be empowered to determine learning outcomes, academic standards, employability of courses offered in other public funded institutions and order closure if any institute falls short of the determined standards, the IoEs including the private universities are given the freedom to determine courses without approval. This dual strategy formulated by the same government will end up disrupting the Indian education system altogether. In such a situation courses that suit the profit needs of the sponsoring body will be promoted. The government’s economic policies are, in any case, pro-corporate and anti-poor: will they not be all too ready to change the policies further to help courses offered in institutions like Jio to flourish? Courses that are needed for a self-reliant, democratic India are going to be the victims. These courses will not be able to survive in such a situation.

Lastly, what the MHRD should really care to clarify is the provision of 1 crore rupees to be paid as processing fee by any institution that applies for the IoE status. Out of this 1 crore only 75 lakh rupees are refundable by the government to those institutions that have not been granted the IoE status. This provision is equally applicable for government and private institutions. The public funded institutions that are already starved of needed funding from government are being taxed with 25 lakh rupees each in the name of applying for IoE status! And this, at the cost of urgently-needed academic infrastructure for students in these universities.

The IoE declaration thus is a part of a larger design to systematically promote private institutions and the ruling party’s corporate cronies at the cost of public funded universities that have been the destination of Indian students who deserve to get educated but don’t have the money to buy education. The Indian schooling system has already been pushed into the hierarchical system where those who can afford it get teachers and classrooms in their schools and those who can’t go to poorly funded and massively under-maintained government schools that lack both staff and infrastructure. The series of recent declarations by the MHRD including that of the IoE are intended to push Indian Higher Education in the same disastrous direction.

The Modi Government is saying ‘Jio’ (Live) to corporate profiteers wanting to run Higher Education shops, while saying ‘Maaro/Maro’ (Kill/Die) to the existing higher education institutions which today allow student from deprived backgrounds a chance to flourish.

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