Let the 'Institutions of Eminence' All Be IITs

It's remarkable that 100 institutions, including some ordinary central and state universities, submitted their claims for 'eminence' status when no more than 30 of them should have bothered to apply.

A hundred Indian universities have reportedly applied to secure the ‘Institutions of Eminence’ (IoE) tag. The ‘winners’ – 10 public and 10 private institutions – will earn more than just bragging rights.

The IoE group will enjoy unprecedented administrative and financial autonomy in a wide range of matters, including faculty and staff salaries, student fees, course offerings and content, among others. Other than adhere to a reasonably flexible set of guidelines, they will also be completely free of University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations. Since the lack of autonomy is widely considered an enormous barrier to the flowering of Indian universities, freedom from the UGC can be a big deal.

The specific purpose of selecting institutions to accord this privilege is to propel Indian universities into the world’s top 100 institutions. Universities in the IoE group are expected to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 universities in 10-15 years and eventually into the top 100.

As things stand, a high-power selection committee – the Empowered Experts Committee (EEC) – will soon be announced. Its job over the next three months or so will be to select 10 public and 10 private institutions deserving of ’eminence’, from the pool of 100 submissions.

But is all this fuss for selecting the IoE group even necessary? The EEC’s job is really quite easy.

To become a top-ranked university worldwide, an institution must be, or become, especially strong in the sciences, engineering and medicine. This is because world rankings emphasise research productivity in these areas over others. Therefore, while many of the current top-ranked institutions in the world are also strong in several social sciences and humanities disciplines, there are no top-ranked institutions without substantial strength in the sciences, engineering and medicine.

Reputation among peers, employers and students is another important criterion in world rankings. Older, established institutions have a clear advantage over newer ones because reputation is not something that happens instantly but is only built over time.

India’s universities are at a disadvantage in several ways since engineering and medicine departments and schools are outside the university system. Further, conventional universities compete poorly with the IITs, IISc and specialised research centres in terms of hiring and retaining research-oriented faculty, their research environment and infrastructure and research output. In the 2017 national rankings, other than IISc (which topped the 2017 national rankings), seven IITs were placed among the top 10 institutions. The message from these rankings could not be more straightforward: the IITs and IISc are the most likely to complete effectively on the global stage.

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If we consider reputation, few Indian institutions other than the IITs (and a few universities) have an international reputation. It will take newer institutions at least a decade or more to build such a reputation. It is quite strange that greenfield private institutions were invited to compete in the first place because building an institution, finding capable faculty and competing internationally within 10-15 years is a tall order.

With perhaps two or three exceptions, therefore, the only Indian institutions which the EEC need consider for selection in the IoE group should be half-a-dozen IITs – and of which IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay should consider themselves selected – and the IISc, and perhaps one or two universities. Similarly, IIT clones in the private sector, such as BITS Pilani and Manipal University, have the best chance to rise up in the rankings, and not an institution like Ashoka University unless it has plans to expand significantly in the coming years.

Overall, it is quite extraordinary that 100 institutions – including some very ordinary central and state universities – worked hard for three months to prepare their claims for IoE status when no more than 30 of them should have bothered to apply. This may be because, as reports suggest, the UGC invited institutions in the top 50 of the 2017 (National Institute Ranking Framework) rankings or those ranking among the top 500 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the QS University Rankings or the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities to apply.

The other reason for so many applications may be that the UGC’s guidelines for IoE hints that the institutions thus selected will be a mix of science- and technology- focused institutions and comprehensive institutions. However, if the EEC follows up on this hint, it will only undermine the specific purpose of creating the IoE: for Indian institutions to break into the list of top 100-200 or top 500 institutions worldwide.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.

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