On November 21, 2015, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) held the first meeting on a proposal to set up world-class universities, later called Institutes of Eminence (IoEs), to enter top global rankings and encourage investment. The Secretary, Human Resources Ministry, in the room was 1979 batch IAS officer Vinay Sheel Oberoi.
Cut to April 4, 2018 when Reliance presented its Jio Institute bid for IoE status to an expert panel. Vinay Sheel Oberoi was in the room again but this time as a member of the Reliance team.
Bureaucrats joining the private sector after retirement isn’t uncommon but official records accessed by The Indian Express under the RTI Act show that Oberoi brought to Reliance an insider’s knowledge of the framing of the policy under which the Reliance bid was chosen for the eminence tag.
For, Oberoi, as Secretary, from June 2015 to February 2017, played a key role in getting the IoE project off the ground — from navigating through divergent opinions to agreeing to the PMO’s changes.
Consider the sequence of events, as per official records:
The first meeting
* On November 21, 2015, a presentation was made to a top official in PMO on “setting up of Quality Higher Educational Institutions in the country”. In this meeting, it was decided that to encourage investment and excellence in education, the department of higher education would prepare an action plan in 15 days on how to get public and private educational institutes to emerge as “globally renowned teaching and research institutions”. Oberoi was at that meeting.
* On January 23, 2016, Oberoi drafted and signed the first official note on IoEs that outlines the broad contours of the scheme (called world-class universities then) and underlined the autonomy issue.
“The PMO’s thrust in the context of world class universities has been on a non-legislative route to establishment of both green-field and brown-field institutions. This will necessarily require amendments to the University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, in effect creating a separate scheme of approvals and review which would not be subject to UGC monitoring and control,” Oberoi wrote.
A month later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the world-class university (later called IoE) scheme in his Budget speech.
Differences in opinion
* From December 2015 to June 2016, the concept note and draft UGC regulations went back and forth between the HRD Ministry and PMO multiple times with the latter making sweeping changes to HRD’s draft. As reported by The Indian Express, serious differences of opinion emerged between the two over autonomy, land, finance and academic norms for institutions of eminence.
* On June 17, 2016, Oberoi sought time with then HRD Minister Smriti Irani to brief her on these points of difference. He had also seen the file noting, drafted by a joint secretary in HRD ministry on June 27, 2016, carrying strongly worded remarks against each of the 13 changes made by the PMO to the HRD’s version of the draft regulations
* On June 30, 2016, Oberoi wrote to a senior official in the PMO requesting him to revisit some changes made by the PMO to the draft UGC regulations on IoE. “The suggestions are welcome and have added fresh and different perspectives…There are however some areas which may need a little more attention and detail and I have listed them out …I would request that the same may be examined and necessary advice given to us.,” he wrote in his letter. He listed 13 changes made by PMO (mainly pertains to private IoEs) to the draft UGC regulations and ministry’s reasons for not agreeing to it.
* On July 2, 2016, the concerned joint secretary in the PMO wrote back accepting HRD’s view only on a few points of contention. Nine days later, Oberoi attended a meeting in the PMO to discuss issues raised in his letter of June 30, 2016. After this meeting, HRD ministry conceded on eight of the 13 points of contention.
HRD agrees to changes
* A file note of July 12, 2016 shows that the HRD Ministry agreed to monitor IOEs once in three years as opposed once every year, dilute the specific requirement of education experience for members of sponsoring society of private institutions applying for IoE status, reduce the corpus fund of private IoEs and delete the provision on CAG audit of private IoEs, among other things.
This note, seen by Oberoi, then proposed that the ministry get the draft UGC regulation vetted by the Department of Legal Affairs under Law Ministry.
* A note dated September 22, 2016, reveals further changes made by the PMO to the draft UGC regulations on IoE. Oberoi saw this note on September 23, 2016.
The UGC regulations, which by now were in their final shape, were put up for public consultation from October 8, 2016 to October 28, 2016. A total of 82 inputs were received by the government. Based on these suggestions, a few more changes were proposed to the IoE regulations. The public feedback was discussed in a meeting held with the then HRD Minister, Prakash Javadekar, on January 4, 2017.
The ministry decided to change the name of the scheme from world-class universities to Institutions of Eminence and reduce the corpus fund of private IoEs from Rs 100 crore to Rs 60 crore, among other things. Oberoi was privy to all of it as he has seen the note of January 5, 2017, listing all the above developments, on January 9, 2017.
* Oberoi was still the higher education secretary when the ministry circulated the final note on IOEs on January 23, 2017. By the time he retired February end, NITI Aayog, Finance Ministry, Ministry of Science and Technology, Corporate Affairs Ministry, AYUSH Ministry and Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry has written back to HRD with their comments.
The Finance Ministry, in its comments dated February 23, 2017, warned HRD Ministry against giving eminence tag to non-existent or greenfield institutions stating that it defies all logic and could hurt the education ecosystem.
His final noting
* The last file noting pertaining to IoEs that Oberoi saw was related to a tentative timeline prepared for achieving targets like union cabinet approval, seeking applications for IoE status and announcement of 20 IOEs. He saw this note on February 10 and 16 in 2017.
Oberoi retired in February end that year.
A few weeks later the IoE scheme was approved and so was the proposal to give Rs 1,000 crore to each of the 10 public institutions selected for the eminence status. Five months later, the Union Cabinet approved the scheme.
As per rules, Central government officers have to wait for a year after retirement before they join a private firm. Reliance’s presentation to the expert panel, which was meant to screen all candidates for the eminence tag, was on April 4, 2018, more than a year after Oberoi’s retirement.
The four-member panel is headed by former Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami and has Renu Khator, president of University of Houston, R Pritam Singh from the Management Development Institute and Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at the Harvard Business School, as its other members.
Of the three public and three private IoEs announced last month, Reliance’s proposed Jio Institute was the only one chosen under the greenfield category.
HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar said in Rajya Sabha that Jio Institute didn’t get the IoE status right away but a Letter of Intent, instead, for three years. In this time, it has to achieve the milestones it has promised to the expert panel which, after a review, will award the status to the institute. Also, the government will offer no financial assistance to the private institutions (read Jio), he said.
Oberoi and Reliance did not respond to the questions sent by The Indian Express.
The IoEs are proposed to have greater autonomy. They will be free to decide fees for domestic and foreign students, and have a flexible course structure. Their collaborations with foreign institutions will be exempt from approvals of government or UGC except institutions based on a list of negative countries prepared by External Affairs and Home ministries.
The 10 government institutions, in addition to autonomy, will also get Rs 1,000 crore each from the HRD Ministry to achieve world-class status.
Once identified, the target for the IoEs would be to break into the top 500 in at least one internationally reputed ranking framework in 10 years and come up in the top 100 over time.
IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, IISc-Bangalore, Birla Institute of Science and Technology and Manipal Academy of Higher Education were the others selected for the eminence status.