Money Cannot Buy Excellence in Education But Jio’s ‘Eminence’ Tag is Worth Crores

By Sandeep K. Shukla

In the fourth quarter of 2017, the University Grants Commission sent out a notification saying it was interested in providing funds of Rs 1000 crore each to 10 public institutes over five years and giving them  special status as “institutes of eminence”. The same notification also stated that 10 private institutions would be given the same tag, but without the funding. The notice also had a provision for greenfield projects, which was puzzling as educational institutes are not manufacturing companies that investors back in the expectation of rapid growth and profit.

Last week, the government announced that one of the private institutes receiving this tag of eminence will be the Jio Institute, soon be set up by Reliance. How a project could be given the special status of “institute of eminence” before it is even born was beyond the comprehension of most people in the education space.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, eminence means “a position of prominence or superiority”, or “one that is eminent, prominent or lofty – person with high rank of attainment”. Jio has no rank of attainment, though it clearly has a position of ‘superiority’ given the connections of its backers. Arvind Panagariya, who headed the Niti Aayog for three years and is now back in the United States, said on Friday that granting this benediction to Jio was an act of courage. Indeed it is, for only a brave government can so openly ignore the meaning of the phrase, blatantly show favour to its corporate donors and disrespect the idea of academic integrity and due diligence.

The members of the eminent committee who conferred the tag on Jio Institute should have consulted a few reputed academics before doing so.

According to the Economic Times, Reliance head Mukesh Ambani himself presented the Jio Institute proposal to the eminent panel accompanied by a right-hand man who was previously secretary in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and had retired in March 2017. The newspaper also claimed the “institute of eminence” idea was initiated during the tenure of this person as MHRD secretary, but the current secretary subsequently denied this. Whether the public believes this is a matter of personal inclination.

Another publication claiming to possess the original proposal published parts of the document. Reliance will reportedly invest Rs 9,500 crore to establish the institute as one of the best in the world. We know money in India can buy power and political patronage, but buying academic excellence is another thing altogether.

MHRD issues clarification

After the announcement, people searched without success for the website of this “Jio Institute of Reliance Foundation” and eventually took to social media to question the government’s decision to tag a non-existent institute as an “institute of eminence”. It created such a storm that the  MHRD issued a quick clarification that there is trial period of three years and the tag may be retracted. The government tried to put a spin on the decision, claiming if Reliance invests huge amounts into the institute, it would be reasonable to assume that it is worth the tag. That, however, did not calm the storm, as the public is not necessarily as foolish as governments often assume.

MHRD minister Prakash Javadekar. Credit: PTI

Confusion reigned regarding the funding part of the program. Some reports erroneously indicated that Rs 1,000 crore would be provided to both private and public institutes. However, that is not correct. The private institutes of eminence will not get this funding. This clarification excited the government’s social media army, which claimed that since no money is being spent by the government, there is no sign of cronyism. Anyone who suspects cronyism must be anti-national or does not want India to have private institutes of eminence. So much for academic debate and healthy discussion on actions taken by the government. However, it is too much to expect these days that criticising a government decision will be seen as the right of every citizen and a natural part of democratic discourse.

Despite multiple clarifications over the past few days, the avalanche of memes and jokes about Jio Institute have not subsided. Irrespective of whether the institute gets UGC funds or not, conferring the “institute of eminence” tag to it still does not make it right in my book.

The funding is a moot point here. For an institute that has not even put its pillars in place to claim it would hire world class faculty is a pipe dream.

Reliance’s past experience in education

This is reminiscent of an institute that was established in 2001 by the Reliance Foundation in Gandhinagar when the two Ambani brothers were together. The Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT) – now headed by Mukesh’s brother, Anil Ambani –  took on several retired faculty members from the IITs who were tasked with hiring faculty members from the US. I was also approached. They offered higher pay than the IITs, but this did not help the recruitment drive. There was no faculty member I know of who came to join that institute just because it paid more. Most eminent academics who came to India chose to join the IITs to build their career because academics cannot grow in a vacuum. They need an ecosystem, laboratories developed over decades, traditions of high standards and research.

According to the Economic Times, this institute was showcased as past experience in academic excellence by the Jio team during their proposal.

“[Reliance] also cited its experience in the field of education, pointing to the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, 13 Reliance Foundation Schools that have 13,000 students, the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University and Mukesh Amabni’s own association with the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.”

Until three days ago, the DAIICT website had a downloadable list of documents they had submitted for the MHRD’s National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF). These have now been retracted. The report said that in 2016, the faculty (about 104 members) published just one book, one book chapter, 28 journal papers and 52 conference papers. This is not even a quarter of what an established IIT department produces.

According to a report on DAIICT’s undergraduate placement records, about 184 students were placed in 2015-16. The highest salary was Rs 12 lakh per annum. In 2015, only 50 students entered their post-graduate program, of which none were from top institutes. That is a ratio of about 0.5 PG student per faculty. Of the students who graduated in 2015-16, 18 went for higher studies to foreign universities and two to the Xavier School of Management (XLRI). The sponsored research funding that year was Rs 24.76 crore, which is less than 50% of the funding received by the computer science, electrical and electronics departments of older IITs.

Do these records inspire a notion of eminence or excellence? The figures pale when compared to the IITs, Jadavpur University and many other universities around the country. To showcase DAIICT as past experience does not inspire confidence in the Reliance Foundation’s ability to create a world class university.

I want to cite another example to illustrate that money cannot buy excellence. Ashoka University promised high salaries to prospective faculty members to run its computer science program. However, even four years after its inception, the university – to my knowledge – could only recruit two or three permanent faculty members for its computer science department. While these members work hard and are burdened with teaching, their research output is not comparable to faculties of IIT or IISc by any stretch of imagination.

Ashoka University. Credit: Facebook

Further, in order to cover the curriculum, the university has been paying up to Rs 10 lakh to faculty members from other top institutes to teach a course or two. The floating faculty commutes from various parts of India once or twice a week to cover the curriculum. Since the research labs of these faculty members are not located at Ashoka, they cannot impart any research experience to the students. Students from this institute are also at a disadvantage when it comes to placements or seeking admission for further studies. My point is not to discourage the university, but that the promise of high pay does not necessarily attract good faculty. Ashoka University still does not have a post-graduate program in computer science.

According to reports, Jio Institute has been engaging Nobel laureates in their planning phase. Nalanda University had a chancellor who was a Nobel laureate and what did the government do to him?

While the government does not trust existing top universities to excel, it is unclear on what basis the committee believed that a university still on the drawing board will become an El Dorado for Indian academia in just five years. It seems that the entire category of  “greenfield institutes” was created with just Reliance in mind.

Monetising the tag

My suspicion is that the tag itself is worth many times the disputed funding of Rs 1,000 crore. I am willing to believe that the funding will not flow to private institutes as declared by UGC, but it does not matter. The “institute of eminence” tag can be monetised. Exorbitant tuition fees can be charged and foreign students can be admitted. Foreign students do not prefer India and would rather choose universities in the US, Canada and UK. That is a fact, especially given the reputation the country has gained for lack of safety for women and mob lynchings. So, one can safely assume that the foreign students paying top dollar are unlikely to be of the highest quality, but will provide an opportunity for the institute to make money.

Second, currently, government departments – such as the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) – prefer government institutes and universities for very large projects. Even if a private university comes with a proposal, they are reluctant, with few exceptions such as BITS Pilani and Amrita University. This can change with the “institute of eminence” tag. Government funding agencies cannot but entrust an institute tagged by its own government as eminent.

Those who believe the fact that the government is not infusing funds into Jio Institute makes the decision acceptable are in deep denial. The government is blessing its corporate friends to exploit students and providing them a license for funds from various government agencies to freely flow to them.

That is why the outrage is warranted. I would like to be proven wrong and wish Jio becomes the Harvard of India. But remember, Harvard did not become eminent in three years or even ten years. Its research structure, faculty strength and tradition of great education have been built over centuries.

Disclaimer: I was a member of the institute of eminence proposal team of IIT Kanpur and am disappointed that it was not selected, but not outraged by it. What is outrageous is an elected government playing fiddle to a corporation which has no experience in higher education excellence.

The author teaches at IIT Kanpur

Note: The amount Reliance has promised to invest Rs 9,500 crore in the Jio Institute and not Rs 1,950 crore as was erroneously stated in an earlier version.

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