Very rarely are educational institutes in India named in the same breath as the likes of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc). But on Monday, Reliance Foundation’s yet-to-be-established Jio Institute joined that illustrious list. This was after the Ministry of Human Resource Development selected Jio Institute and five other colleges for a new category of higher education institutes called Institutions of Eminence.

Of the total six institutions that have been selected three are in the public sector. These include IISc, Bangalore, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi. Apart from Jio Institute, the other two private sector institutions selected are Birla Institute of Technology & Sciences (BITS), Pilani and Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.

Announcing the names on Twitter, Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resource Development said, “The #InstituteofEminence [Institution of Eminence] are important for the country. We have 800 univ [university], but not a single university in top 100 or even 200 in the world ranking. Today’s decision will help achieve this.”

Javadekar’s tweet and the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s announcement sparked off widespread criticism on social media at the selection of Jio Institute among these elite institutes.

What is an ‘Institution of Eminence’? While it sounds like and endorsement of the institution’s academic prowess, the tag is nothing more than just another category of institutions under the University Grants Commission (UGC). Those institutions which fall under the category would have a different set of regulations that they would need to follow.

The idea of Institutions of Eminence stems from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Union Budget speech from 2016. Jaitley had said then that the government intends to create an “enabling regulatory architecture” for 10 public and 10 private institutions to help them emerge as “world-class teaching and research institutions”.

That regulatory architecture came on August 30, 2017 through two regulations. The first was for public or government owned institutions and was called the UGC (Declaration of Government Institutions as Institutions of Eminence) Guidelines, 2017. These did not allow for greenfield or yet-to-be set up government institutions to get the Institutions of Eminence tag and the benefits that came along.

Public institutions would get greater autonomy to admit foreign students (upto 30% of admitted students), recruit foreign faculty (upto 25% of faculty strength), offer upto 20% of its programmes through online courses, enter into collaboration with top 500 in the world ranking institutions and other such freedoms. These institutions would also get Rs 1,000 crore from the government by way of financial assistance for a period of five years.

The regulation for the private sector, called the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017 allows for both existing and greenfield institutions the opportunity to get the Institutions of Eminence tag. Private institutions would not get any government funding but they will get autonomy from the UGC’s normal set of regulations for higher education institutes.

With the regulatory architecture in place, in September 2017, the Ministry of Human Resource Development invited applications from institutes in order to evaluate them for the tag of ‘Institutions of Eminence’. Jio Institute was among the 11 other greenfield applications that was received by the government.

Very little was known about Jio Institute. But that was about to change on Monday evening. Overwhelmed by the questions on social media about how an institute that hasn’t even started was selected to be an Institution of Eminence, government officials disseminated a note containing broad plans of the Jio Institute outlined in its application. Like most things associated with Reliance Industries, Jio Institute has grand plans. It intends to be the youngest global top 100 university. It will be multidisciplinary from the start with 10 schools and over 50 disciplines including humanities, engineering, medical sciences, law and several other streams. Admission will be merit-based and it will be a fully residential university city expected to come up in three years.

Jio Institute’s application and 114 others was judged by a four-member Empowered Expert Committee (EEC), headed by former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami. Out of the total number of applications 74 were from the public sector and 40 from the private sector. Of the 40 in the private sector, 11 were greenfield applications. While 10 each were supposed to be selected from the public and private sector, the EEC recommended the selection of only three each for the tag of Institutions of Eminence.

The EEC, appointed on February 20, 2018, had a long list of criteria to judge the existing institutions both in the public and private sector. These included the institute’s offering of inter-disciplinary courses in areas of emerging technology and interest as well as those of relevance to the development concern of countries like India, a good mix of Indian and foreign students and faculty in the institute as well as amenities comparable to global standards and other such requirements.

For greenfield institutions seeking to be Institutions of Eminence the requirements were simpler. The sponsoring organisation of such an institutions was required to be a not-for-profit society or a public trust. Such an organisation needed to have members whose combined net worth was not less than Rs 5,000 crore. The proposed greenfield institution was also required to have all the necessary land and funding team in place.

In its response to the criticisms on social media, the Ministry of Human Resource Development spelled out the criteria on which Jio Institute’s application was judged. The four broad criteria were availability of land for construction of the institution, putting in place a core team with very high qualification and wide experience, making available funding for setting up the institution and a strategic vision plan with clear annual milestones and action plans. According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the EEC found that only Jio Institute satisfied all the four criteria out of the 11 greenfield institution applications.

Money is not a problem for the members of Reliance Foundation therefore net worth was never a problem. The details of the application reveals that Jio Institute also has also has a core team of administrators in place. Sources in the Ministry said that Jio Institute will come up on land that has been acquired by the Reliance Foundation in Karjat, Maharashtra.

Thus, even though the optics appear odd, on paper Jio Institute has satisfied the regulatory requirements to be recommended for an Institution of Eminence. The time to debate whether the policy was botched and the regulations were wrong has long since passed. All that remains is to scrutinise whether Reliance Foundation sets up Jio Institute within three years and then meets the requirements to be an Institution of Eminence. Being on the same list as some of the country’s oldest and most reputable academic institutions has put the spotlight firmly on Jio Institute. It has cleared the paperwork but over the next five years, it will need to pass muster with a discerning public.

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