The selection of Reliance Foundation’s non-existent Jio Institute among India’s six Institutions of Eminence (IoEs) triggered a political firestorm with the Opposition accusing the NDA of favouritism and Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Prakash Javadekar responding by saying it was done by an expert panel and not the Government.
However, official records obtained by The Indian Express under the Right to Information Act tell an untold story.
Much before the IoE list was released on July 9 this year, records show, there was a strong difference of opinion within the Government, too — over autonomy, finance and academic norms for such institutions.
While the HRD and Finance Ministries pushed for stringent norms on accountability, financial commitment, penalties, land availability and expertise, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wanted a more liberalised regime on all these points.
So much so, that the concept note and draft regulations on the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017, went back and forth for almost nine months, from December 2015 to September 2016.
The PMO, eventually, prevailed on most points of contention.
Correspondence between the Ministries and the PMO record the divergence in opinion in detail.
The HRD Ministry’s draft states that members of the sponsoring organisation of a greenfield private institution should have experience, either as sponsors or heads — vice-chancellors or directors — in setting up a higher education institution. On June 13, 2016, the PMO replaced this with a clause requiring some members of the organisation to have credentials that demonstrate “commitment” to education.
Two weeks later, on June 30, 2016, HRD wrote back: “This requirement is a little generic and intangible; most persons would be able to satisfy that.”
In response, a joint secretary in the PMO wrote on July 2, 2016: “There are a large number of such people around who have been involved in establishment of universities earlier, and whose presence may not necessarily be good for the institution… A more principles based condition, as we propose, would give the EEC (Empowered Expert Committee) enough flexibility to eliminate such individuals, besides also encouraging sponsors to enlist the services of those genuinely interested.”
The final version reflected the PMO’s position. Jio Institute’s sponsoring organisation, Reliance Foundation Institution of Education and Research (RFIER), has Reliance Industries Limited and Reliance Foundation as members.
Land in possession
The Ministry wanted private institutions seeking IoE status to possess adequate land at the time of application but the PMO felt only an in-principle commitment to make land available would be sufficient. The PMO prevailed.
Incidentally, the expert panel justified its choice of Jio Institute over 10 other candidates in the greenfield category on the ground that RFIER had possession of 800 acres in Maharashtra at the time of application.
After selection, the IoEs should achieve a student-teacher ratio of 10:1 in three years, the Ministry proposed. The PMO wanted this increased to five years.
“Three years (in) itself is a concession, and there cannot be a much more reduced standard for a world class institution in comparison to a non-world class institution. The students in the first five years would be undergoing education through reduced academic standards which cannot be the hallmark of a world class institution,” states the official note of June 27, 2016, on why the HRD Ministry was resisting PMO’s suggestion. The final norms carry the PMO’s input.
Flexibility of course structure
The Ministry wanted private IoEs to have flexibility of course structure in terms of the number of years needed for a degree — but with the minimum number of credit hours, as prescribed by regulatory authorities. The PMO removed the minimum credit hours norm.
“This cannot be agreed to since this may lead to an anomalous situations of B.Sc degrees being given after 1 year without the total credit hours being satisfied, and, a supposedly would class university giving substandard degrees,” states the Ministry’s note of June 27, 2016.
The PMO responded that imposing minimum credit hours would impede flexibility in offering degrees in inter-disciplinary areas. As for fears IoEs could start giving “substandard degrees”, it argued that the institution would be risking its reputation. The final regulations reflect the PMO’s suggestion.
Finance, corpus fund
Private IoEs under the greenfield category, the ministry suggested, should have a corpus fund of Rs 1,000 crore. PMO reduced it to Rs 100 crore, but applicants were now expected to show availability of another Rs 1,500 crore to set up the IoE. In the final regulations, the corpus fund is further reduced to Rs 60 crore, based on public feedback. The PMO’s input on greenfield applicants showing availability of another Rs 1,500 crore is included.
Regulatory powers & audit
The Ministry wanted UGC to have the power to direct (upward) revision of the corpus fund of a private IoE, but this provision was deleted by PMO. “If not done, over a period of time, the corpus fund of ordinary deemed-to-be university would become more than the WCIs (world class institutions),” the Ministry argued in its June 27 note that lists its remarks against each change made by the PMO to the draft IoE regulations.
The UGC should have the power to order a CAG audit of a private IoE, after taking government’s permission, in exceptional cases of financial impropriety and diversion of funds, the Ministry proposed. PMO had this clause removed.
The Ministry wanted private and public IoEs to be reviewed once a year to see if they are adhering to promises and plans. PMO increased it to once in three years.
The Ministry proposed additional penalties for public IoEs, such as recovery of money and imposition of fines, for failing to achieve promised milestones at the end of the fifth year. PMO had them deleted.
The Ministry included a provision on recognising more private institutions, in addition to the 10 already selected, as IoEs after five years, but only after reviewing the scheme. PMO did not accept this.
Where HRD prevailed
Although the PM’s Office had its way on most of the disputed clauses, the Ministry got its way on a few issues.
For instance, the PMO wanted the restriction of employing foreign teachers upto 25 per cent of faculty strength at public IoEs to be removed. It was also in favour of allowing private IoEs to transfer their Letter of Intent with the permission of the expert panel. The Ministry did not relent in either of the cases.
The Union Cabinet approved UGC’s ‘Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities Regulations 2017’, in August last year. The regulations are aimed at creating an enabling architecture for 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class institutions.
The private IoEs can also come up as greenfield ventures, provided the sponsoring organisation submits a convincing perspective plan for 15 years.
The IoEs are proposed to have greater autonomy, including on deciding the fee, and course duration and structure. Their academic collaborations with foreign institutions will also be exempt from approvals. The 10 government institutions, in addition to autonomy, will also get Rs 1,000 crore each from the HRD Ministry.
A total of 114 institutions and universities — 74 from public sector and 40 from private sector — had applied for IoE status. Out of these, 11 are central universities, 27 are state universities, 10 are state private universities and the remaining are institutes of national importance (INIs), deemed universities, stand-alone institutions and organisations that intend to establish universities.
The EEC, which was entrusted to find 20 institutions out of 114 applicants, could only identify 11, including Birla Institute of Science and Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and the proposed Jio Institute.
Tomorrow: Part II – What Finance Ministry objected – and was over-ruled on