The awarding of Institution of Eminence tag to Reliance's proposed Jio Institute is again in question after Vinay Sheel Oberoi, the then Secretary of Ministry of Human Resources Development, has been reported to be in a conflict of interest. Oberoi, a 1979 Assam cadre Indian Administrative Services officer, was part of Reliance group's team that made a representation before the Empowered Expert Committee for selection of Jio institute as the institution of eminence in April this year.
Interestingly, Jio institute was the only greenfield institute which was selected by the centre for the prestigious tag to form institutions of world class standards. The Institution of Eminence scheme has two classes of institutions- Greenfield and Brownfield institutions. While the Brownfield institutions are those institutions who have been functioning in the field of education for long, Greenfield institutions are proposed bodies by big industrial houses with credible financial backing to emerge as institutions of world class standards with an intent to get placed in top 100 universities in the world.
An Indian Express report, citing internal documents of the HRD ministry, stated that Oberoi was associated with the project from its beginning and had insider’s knowledge of the technicalities that put the Reliance group on an edge with other competitors. Apart from Reliance, Vedanta’s proposed university in Odisha, Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, Satya Bharti Foundation, Indian Institute of Human Settlement in Bengaluru, Indian Institute of Public Health in Gandhinagar, Maharashtra Institute of Technology in Pune, KREA University in Chennai, DICE Knowledge Foundation, Acharya Institutes in Bengaluru and Indus Tech University in Delhi had applied for the eminence tag.
The report also highlighted that Oberoi, the then senior most bureaucrat in HRD ministry, also agreed to dilute the stringent norms suggested by the Finance and HRD ministries with active intervention from the Prime Minister's Office. The extent of intervention can be gauged from the fact that strong objections from the Department of Expenditure, and the Ministries of Finance and HRD were summarily rejected.
In a letter dated February 23, 2017, the Department of Expenditure stated,"for the private institutions which are yet to be established, granting of the status of Institutions of Eminence based on future plans is beyond rationale and is not supported. The laid down criteria in this regard is highly subjective.” The letter goes on to underline that granting the institution of eminence tag will be "demotivational and therefore, detrimental to the higher education ecosystem." It added, "Grading an institution as ‘Institutions of Eminence’ only based on intentions and a plan defies all logic. Hence, the same should be revised.”
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Similarly, the Department of Higher Education stated that the granting of Institution of Eminence tag to non-existent universities will not help achieve the purpose of placing Indian institutions in top 100 ranking. Rather, more attention should be focused on the existing institutions. In an internal note, it stated, “Considering that established global reputation of alumni and research are crucial factors in these ratings (international rankings), new institutions cannot make this grade in a five-year period. The focus should, therefore, be on institutions which currently exist and are already in the global ranking scenario.”
A closer observation of the draft note of the HRD ministry reveals that the PMO went on to strike down every clause that could be a binding on greenfield institutions like Jio institute. While the HRD ministry wanted the members of sponsoring organisations of greenfield institutes to be persons involved in the establishment of universities, the PMO replaced the clause with the people having credentials demonstrating "commitment" to education. The removal enabled Reliance to appoint its members to its sponsoring organisation, Reliance Foundation Institution of Education and Research (RFIER).
Similarly, the PMO also struck down the provision of carrying the audit by Comptroller and Auditor General, in case of any financial impropriety in private IoEs. This apart, the PMO's benevolence to private IoEs continued when it also removed the clause that mandated review of promises and plans every year and the imposition of penalties in case of failure.
Commenting on consistent intervention by the PMO, experts maintained that this is the first time when it was actively involved in the framing of such issues. They said that the intervention was very less even when important schemes like Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan were being drafted. Rajib Ray, President of the Delhi University Teachers Association argues that this intervention is not surprising as the autonomy of institutions like UGC have been compromised. He added, “The PMO has emerged as the point where all power has been centralised and institutions like UGC has surrendered their autonomy.”
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Vikram Singh of the Students Federation of India has an important point to make. He suggested that the granting of eminence status to Jio institute is the beginning of a new era of a speculative business of education. He added, “The granting of eminence status is discouraging to existing national institutions. The Jio institute will be using the eminence status for profiteering with no performance."
He said that the appointment of Oberoi as Education Advisor to Jio institute only establishes the fact that the things have been pre-decided. He added, “It's a clear cut deal. You consider the interests of the private sector and you will be promoted to good positions post-retirement."
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