Jio Institute, whose online presence till Monday night was the digital equivalent of a tumbleweed rolling through the Thar, found itself the most searched institute overnight. That was after the Modi government declared it had been selected as one of the six ‘Institutes of Eminence’. Outrage ensued on social media with people questioning the rationale.
After all, what makes Jio Institute special?
Before answering questions about the institute’s eligibility, it is important to examine the necessity of a category like ‘greenfield’ that grants an unborn institute sweeping autonomy.
The University Grants Commission’s (UGC) ‘greenfield category’ has raised concerns about accountability, oversight and governance. “The category looks dubious because it seems that the reason for awarding such a title to the institute is to boost its brand equity and credibility to ensure a return on capital,” said a former higher education state secretary.
“It is like earning post-adolescent freedom at the embryo stage itself,” he added, on a lighter note.
Unlike public institutions like IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay and IISc Bangalore, Jio Insititute is not eligible for the Rs 1,000-crore grant over five years. Nonetheless, there are two important features of the “IoE” tag that grant Jio considerable clout.
First, the UGC Regulation states that “newly established private institutions” are eligible for “accessing government funds allocated for specific studies/projects”. This indicates that an institute chosen under the greenfield category is still eligible for monetary assistance from government coffers.
Second, and more important, is the provision of absolute autonomy granted to IoE, which elevates a non-existent entity like Jio Institute beyond the ambit of all the existing regulations and oversight of the UGC.
The UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations 20l7 state that “such Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities shall be exempt from all UGC Regulations and other guidelines, notifications and orders of the commission on matters pertaining to the subject areas laid down in the regulation”.
This raises questions about the disproportionate faith placed upon an entity that is still only a proposal on paper.
Social media has been abuzz with questions about the necessity of a greenfield category at a time when there is a large pool of existing and credible institutes for consideration. Eminent historian Tapati Guha Thakurta, who has served as the director of one of the leading social science research institutes, believes that this move brings attention back to the handling of autonomy in Indian universities.
“On the one hand, we have seen repeated interference with the autonomy of leading public universities, and on the other, the handover of sweeping autonomy to such private entities,” said Thakurta.
“There are so many eminent public universities that are worthy, but instead of getting more autonomy, they are coming under more government control,” she added.
What Does ‘Greenfield’ Category Mean?
The Regulation that governs the IoE, interestingly, does not define a ‘greenfield institution’ or the ‘greenfield Category’.
Further, in a letter inviting applications for IoE, the UGC identifies ‘greenfield’ institutions as one of the three categories of applicants. The first two categories being existing government and private institutes.
The third category is for institutes that are not yet established. The letter describes this category as “sponsoring organisations for setting up of new Institutions of Eminence”.
Cost of Eligibility? Net-Worth of Rs 5,000 Crore
In a “clarification” letter issued on 17 November 2017, the UGC answers a set of nine questions that reveals three important criteria for a greenfield institute to be eligible for the IoE tag.
- The UGC Regulation for IoE states under section 6.1.(iii) that the sponsoring organization for greenfield institutions should have members whose total net worth is Rs 5,000 crores collectively. Jio Institute met this criteria as clarified by the HRD Ministry.
- However, for existing private institutions, the collective net-worth of members has been set at Rs 3,000 crore. The clarification letter reveals that during the 27 October workshop, existing private institutions had complained about the amount being too high and had requested a reduction. To this, the response in the letter was: “The reduction in eligibility net worth cannot be considered”.
- Applicants had also requested a relaxation of the Rs 1 crore application fee. But the letter stated: “No, processing fee cannot be relaxed”.
- It also states that the corpus fund is required before the application for IoE.
Veteran education administrators have expressed shock over the eligibility criteria that many consider prohibitively high. It could potentially eliminate many existing standalone and proposed institutes because one of the four criteria is the availability of funding at the time of application.
Ticket to Autonomy
As an IoE, Jio Institute will find itself rewarded with an unconstrained level of autonomy at par with established institutions like IITs, IISc, BITS Pilani and Manipal Institute.
The IoE tag, once confirmed, will grant the institute extensive scope of autonomy in admissions, fee structure, course structures, faculty recruitment, academic collaborations, financial autonomy and inspections. Listed are some of the glaring contradictions and concerns in the regulation that grants sweeping autonomy to an entity that has no proven track record to vouch for.
- As per section 11.1 of the Regulation, since no existing fee regulation will apply to the IoE, the institute will have to appoint its own ombudsman to deal with student grievances. The issue of neutrality of such an ombudsman that has little regulatory oversight will be a concern.
- While the IITs and others have over half a century of experience to draw from in order to leverage this degree of autonomy, the lack of any quality checks on the curriculum structure of a brand new institute raises questions.
- The faculty recruitment provision carries within it a direct contradiction to the stated objectives of the Institutes of Eminence. Section 11.3.4 would allow Jio Institute to hire an industry practitioner who “may not have the requisite higher academic qualifications”. However, the same regulation identifies “highly qualified faculty” as the top-most characteristic of an IoE.
Complete autonomy with respect to inspections raises serious implications for accountability. According to UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations 20l7, “the existing UGC Regulations relating to inspection shall not apply” to an IoE like Jio Institute. Instead, it would have the autonomy to self-check its activities through a “self-disclosure-cum-review mechanism to ensure quality, with review being done by the Empowered Expert Committee”.
HRD Ministry’s Clarification
The HRD Ministry issued a clarification on Twitter on Monday evening, 10 July, following the social media uproar. The letter stated that the Empowered Expert Committee (EEC) has granted the ‘greenfield’ status to Jio since it fulfilled all four parameters.
According to the ministry, it had received 11 applications but only Jio fit the bill. The four parameters were:
- Availability of land.
- Putting in place a core team with “very high experience”.
- Making funds available for setting up the institution.
- A clear strategic vision.
The Quint tried reaching out to Reliance Jio spokespersons, but they refused to comment.
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