After UGC, Expert Committee Also Disappoints in Selecting Institutions of Eminence

The government's Empowered Experts Committee has not displayed good judgement in its selection, and in the process opened itself to charges of bias.

Earlier this month, the Empowered Experts Committee (EEC) constituted by the government, consisting of N. Gopalaswami (chairman), former Chief Election Commissioner; Tarun Khanna, Harvard University; Renu Khator, president, University of Houston; and Pritam Singh, former director, IIM-Lucknow, to select 20 Institutions of Eminence (IoE) (ten public and ten private), recommended 11 institutions, eight public and three private, to be given the IoE tag. The government limited their numbers to six, three each of public and private institutions: the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Bombay and Delhi among public institutions; and the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and Jio Institute among private institutions.

The selection of Jio Institute as one of the three private universities in the IoE list has sparked a national controversy. One commentator mocked Jio as “a paper institution dreamt up by a billionaire”. And just about everyone else has weighed in, with several newspaper editorials and commentaries taking the government to task for selecting a paper institution. In a scathing editorial, the Deccan Herald wrote:

It is a travesty of the very idea of eminence that an institution that is yet to be born has been given a stamp of excellence and bracketed with some well-established institutions that have decades of high academic and research performance behind them.

Criticisms of Jio’s selection may be popular, but some aspects of the controversy are needless, based on misinformation and even ignorance regarding the regulations and guidelines that were prepared by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the IoE initiative. For example, early on, even some senior journalists incorrectly tweeted (though corrected themselves later) that Jio would receive Rs 1,000 crore from the government for building its university when only public institutions are eligible for this amount. Part of the blame for the Jio controversy must go to the UGC as well, since the regulations and guidelines it prepared for the IoE initiative display a lack of clarity about the objectives of the initiative and the eligibility and selection of institutions. Finally, there is also no doubt that Jio has been getting a lot of flak because of the EEC’s decision to recommend only eight public and three private institutions, and the government’s decision to limit the number of eminent public institutions to three, based on the odd reasoning of keeping a balance between the numbers of public and private institutions with the IoE tag. Overall, the EEC has not displayed good judgement in its selection and in the process opened itself to charges of bias.

The eligibility of greenfield institutions

In September 2017, the UGC released the guidelines and regulations for Institutions of Eminence and invited India’s best universities to submit their applications. In retrospect, the origins of the current controversy about Jio Institute’s inclusion as a to-be eminent institution lie here because the UGC regulations also made greenfield private institutions eligible to apply for the IoE tag. There are two reasons why it was wrong and unrealistic on the part of the UGC to do so.

First, in principle, the privilege of an institution counting as eminent should be earned and not bestowed. In addition, it is hard to question the logic that only already-existing institutions can be “properly assessed, in terms of their promise to evolve into institutions that will achieve high rank in world university rankings”. Chairman Gopalaswami admitted as much, that the merit of paper institutions is “difficult to assess”. Still, the EEC felt sufficiently confident about Jio’s proposal and selected it as a to-be eminent institution.

Second, given that the expectation from the eminent institutions is that they break into the top 500 list in world university rankings, it is important to understand that “building an institution, finding capable faculty and competing internationally within 10-15 years is a tall order”. Paper institutions are severely disadvantaged since they must begin from scratch. These days, the competition among universities across the world to count among ranked institutions is extremely tough. Many countries and their universities spend a tremendous amount of time and resources to crack the list because it is considered to be a matter of enormous prestige to be among the top 500 or better. Already-existing institutions which have already achieved some degree of success, particularly in research, stand a much better chance of success. The Indian institutions that do well in world university rankings are all older institutions which have developed their strengths in some combination of sciences, engineering and medicine over a fairly period of time.

Greenfield institutions are further disadvantaged because of the importance given to reputation – among peers, employers and students – in world university rankings. Older, established institutions have a clear advantage over new institutions because reputation can only be built over time. As Simon Marginson, a professor of international higher education puts it, “existing reputation drives judgement”. According to Margison:

New institutions can’t crack the top group because reputations continue to recycle, and it protects their material position, because it keeps the research money flying in. Students and staff of quality keep wanting to go there and that sustains the quality.

Winners and losers

The selection of Jio is also controversial because it was the only private institution selected along with BITS Pilani and Manipal, both established institutions and IIT-clones in many respects (like the IITs, they are heavily-focused on technology and sciences but with even more rudimentary programmes in the humanities and the social sciences than the IITs). No other greenfield institutions – such as Vedanta’s proposed university in Odisha; the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad; the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru; KREA University, Chennai; and Indus Tech University, Delhi – made the cut. Neither did brownfield institutions such as Ahmedabad University, Ashoka University, Azim Premji University and Shiv Nadar University. The question that critics have posed is why other private institutions, whether greenfield or brownfield, were not selected.

In the furore that followed the announcement of the six Institutions of Eminence, much of the explaining was done by Gopalaswami, the EEC chairman. While some of the explanations he provided – on Jio and other matters – were reasonable enough, others were not.

There are three broad set of statements that Gopalaswami made to the press which instead of convincing detractors about Jio’s merit may have hinted the opposite – that Jio may have been favoured by the EEC and institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) probably discriminated against.

First, according to Gopalaswami, “the basic criterion [for selection] is whether the institution has the capability (to break into the top 100 global rankings)”. The problem with this explanation for the selection of a greenfield institution – Jio Institute – is that the probability of such an institution breaking into the top 500 of world university rankings in 10-15 years is significantly lower than that of an already-existing reasonably good public or private institution. In fact, other than the five other public institutions which the EEC recommended for the IoE tag – IIT-Madras, IIT-Kharagpur, Delhi University, Jadavpur University and Anna University – but which were left out by the government, there are other public institutions which with greater government support are more likely to break into the top 500 (or are already there or have been in prior rankings) than BITS Pilani, Manipal and Jio. Institutions such IIT-Kanpur as well as JNU, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University are all vastly superior to BITS Pilani and Manipal in national university rankings and can be expected to outperform them in world university rankings. Strangely, the EEC chose not to shortlist these institutions even though there was room for another two institutions in the category of public institutions. What this suggests is that the EEC did not take the capability factor seriously enough in its selection process.

A second interesting statement that Gopalaswami made was that an institution has “to be a comprehensive university, not a sectoral one” in order to be selected, referring particularly to business schools. Then, in an interview, referring to the IITs, Gopalswami said: “These are comprehensive institutions, otherwise they would not have figured in the world rankings.” Finally, on another occasion, he explained JNU’s exclusion from the list of eminent institutions thus: “Many well-regarded institutes like the JNU were not considered because their academic focus is not comprehensive.” Put together, these statements lend to more confusion rather than more clarity.

Let us begin by defining comprehensive and sectoral institutions. Are IITs and IIT clones like BITS Pilani and Manipal comprehensive institutions and JNU not? For better-informed people, the answer would be that the former set of institutions with their emphasis on technology and science resemble an institution like the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) which also offers degrees in select social sciences and humanities disciplines. The IITs and Caltech are certainly not as comprehensive as the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which offer degrees in a far greater variety of disciplines even though they are known for their prowess in science and technology fields. JNU, in contrast, is dominated by social science and humanities disciplines with select science and related areas thrown in. This year onwards, it has also started engineering, which is likely to further improve its national ranking in the coming years. Both the IITs and JNU and other central universities are comprehensive institutions but with strengths in different areas of study and absences in others. Neither set of institutions is as comprehensive as most of the highly-ranked universities in the world.

Gopalaswami’s explanation about JNU’s exclusion in unconvincing also because, according to the national rankings, it figures among the top ten institutions, and outperforms Anna University, Jadavpur University and Delhi University, all of which were shortlisted by the EEC in its list of eight public institutions. The EEC knew well that the national rankings are not research-blind. Indeed, the gap in scores obtained by JNU and the two brownfield private institutions that were selected – BITS Pilani and Manipal – is even more significant, of 10-15 points. And yet, the EEC’s decision indicates that it believes BITS Pilani and Manipal, which will not receive any financial support from the government, have better chances than JNU or IIT-Kanpur, which would receive Rs 1,000 crore from the government, to crack the world rankings!

Gopalswami is also wrong about sectoral institutions in that they are unlikely to break into world university institutions. It all depends on whether the sectoral institution in question is focused on sciences, engineering and medicine or social sciences, humanities and business studies. The simplest way to understand whether or not sectoral institution will make an impact in world university rankings is like this: while many of the 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. Other than Caltech, two Swiss institutions that are even more narrowly-focused immediately come to mind: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Both perform incredibly well in world university rankings because they are heavily research-oriented and very strong in the fields of science, engineering and medicine (in broad terms).

Third, according to Gopalaswami and the EEC report, Jio was the only greenfield institution selected because:

Of all proposals, EEC found only one which appeared well thought out, well presented and taking an impressive multi-decade view of institution building leveraging that promoter group’s known competencies in infrastructure building and the timely creation of new ventures.

This could well be true – that Jio submitted an outstanding proposal and its vision about what it wanted to become was unmatched among private institutions. But it is quite curious that while newspapers have reported extensively on details about how good Jio’s proposal is and absolutely nothing about the proposals submitted by other private institutions. How is it that we know good things about Jio’s proposal and nothing at all about the dismal proposals submitted by other universities? Did Ahmedabad University, Ashoka University and Shiv Nadar University, all of which are led by outstanding academics with extensive international experience, submit proposals that lacked the potential and vision to become a top 500 university? Somehow, that is hard to believe. Notably, none of these three are business schools or sectoral institutions focused on social sciences and the humanities and therefore have the potential to make an impact in world university rankings.

The lack of clarity on the part of UGC

Finally, there is no doubt that the UGC (and the government) has messed up the IoE initiative beginning with the regulations and guidelines it prepared for inviting universities to compete for the eminence tag. On the one hand, they stated that the expectation from applicant institutions is that they break into the list of top 500 universities in the world; on the other hand, all kinds of institutions, including sectoral institutions focused on business and social sciences were not only made eligible to apply but even encouraged to do so.

The UGC guidelines clearly mentioned that the selected institutions would be “a mix of technical institutions, management and arts institutions and central universities.” Incidentally, the EEC cleverly rephrased this sentence in its report and excluded management and arts institutions: “EEC has selected eight public institutions with a mix of technical institutions and universities, both central and state, as required under the IoE scheme (emphasis added).” But the reason why 114 institutions applied for the IoE tag, including several sectoral institutions with no hopes of becoming world-ranked (such as business schools and social science-focused institutions), with an application fee of Rs 1 crore, was because the UGC guidelines stated that a mix of different kinds of institutions would be selected. These institutions – business schools and institutions such as the IIHS and Tata Institute of Social Sciences – should be really angry with the UGC that they were encouraged to apply (or certainly not discouraged from doing so) and compete when they were never in the competition in the first place. Or perhaps UGC officials themselves were not clear about the details and communicated that to interested institutions which left in turn left it up to the EEC to interpret the guidelines as it saw fit.

The UGC’s sloppiness in preparing the guidelines and regulations, followed by the EEC’s lack of good judgment regarding the selection of eminent institutions has meant that the selection of Jio Institute has received disproportionate attention and criticism.

Overall, it is quite disappointing to see only six institutions make the list since the IoE initiative had clearly spelled out that ten public and ten private universities would be selected. The EEC and the government had a real opportunity to take India’s higher education sector forward but it has squandered that opportunity for now. There are some indications that a few other institutions may be considered for eminence status soon but in the meanwhile, rumours that the government has opened the gates for competitive bidding for seven empty spots in the category of private institutions will only gain momentum.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.