In July, the government announced an educational reform that had been on the anvil for more than two years. Six institutions — three public and three operated by private bodies — were designated Institutions of Eminence (IoE) and given significant autonomy in operations. The move evoked a mixed response. The government was applauded for recognising that academia had to be unshackled from bureaucratic restrictions. However, the criteria for certifying IoEs drew criticism. The Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry was faulted for bestowing the IoE tag on greenfield institutions. The selection of Reliance Foundation’s non-existent Jio Institute, in particular, sparked controversy. The ministry was called out for the lack of transparency in the process of designating IoEs. The questions raised in the matter, however, have resonance beyond this immediate context: They point to the opacity that characterises policymaking processes. A three-part investigation by this paper last week, that drew on official records obtained under the Right to Information Act, opened one such black box to public scrutiny. It showed that there were strong differences of opinion within the government over the procedure of certifying IoEs. It also drew attention to the controversial role of a former bureaucrat who was a part of the delegation that presented Jio’s bid for IoE status.
The documents reveal that while the HRD and finance ministries pushed for stringent norms on accountability, financial matters, and expertise, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) favoured a more liberalised regime. The PMO prevailed on most matters of contention. It might not be accurate, however, to see this as an instance of the PMO pushing its weight. The records show considerable debate between the ministries. More importantly, the PMO’s interventions brought about a more open approach in areas that have a bearing on academic freedom. For example, the HRD ministry wanted IoEs to follow the regulatory agency’s requirement of a minimum number of credit hours. The PMO struck down this provision saying “that it would impede the framing of inter-disciplinary courses”. The PMO, however, went against the finance ministry’s argument that granting IOE status to greenfield universities, “will give an edge to an institution, which is not yet established… This will be demotivational to the higher education ecosystem.”
The former bureaucrat, who was amongst those presenting Jio’s bid, played a key role in these debates as the Secretary, HRD ministry. He had, of course, retired and met the requirement that enjoins bureaucrats to wait for a year before joining a private firm. But as this paper’s investigation showed, this official brought an insider’s knowledge of framing the policy under which Jio was given the eminence tag. This only underscores the need for a more vigilant approach, especially when issues pertaining to a level playing field among bidders are involved. Most importantly, the investigation highlights that transparency in decision-making processes is critical to an informed debate on policies.