Nightmarish Visions? An Evaluation of the GoI Proposal for ‘Institutions of Eminence’
November 16, 2017
In early November, the JNU administration forwarded to all Centres/Special Centres/Schools, the Government of India proposal to establish twenty “Institutions of Eminence” to achieve world class status, from amongst the existing Government/Private institutions and new institutions from the private sector. It conveyed its intentions to submit an application to the UGC under the scheme and has asked Centres/Special Centres/Schools to provide comments on Part-1 – III [Vision for Institute of Eminence], Part-1 – IV [proposed fifteen year strategic plan], and Part-1 – VI [Proposed five years implementation plan] of the attached proforma.
This note from JNUTA is first to direct colleagues’ attention to the serious debate that this GoI plan has occasioned, in a country where higher education has simply failed to deliver in terms of access, quality, and justice — with a Gross Enrolment Ratio of just 20.4, as per the All India Survey of Higher Education (2013), it is the responsibility of educationists to query whether an outlay of Rs. 10,000 crore on ten institutions is warranted in the first place. (Please see the following pieces in favour of the proposal, and against it, in particular). Given that the goal of this whole initiative is a limited one of achieving a breakthrough into the world top 100 rankings, the teaching community must thoroughly discuss what rankings are good for anyway, and what significance the term ‘world class’ truly signifies, if the goals of education are essentially humanist and necessarily inclusive in character.
With regard to rankings, the JNU-DU faculty group Academics for Creative Reform has formulated a detailed position, which can be found here. With regards to ‘world class’, it is important to note that the parameters for assessment privilege a certain combination of parameters that there is no independent validation as having greater value than a positive estimation by peer institutions. See these articles for opinions highlighting the inherent flaws of a faith in the semanticity of world rankings.
Most immediately, it is necessary that given that the JNU administration has decided to pursue this application path, for JNU faculty to examine the exact provisions of this scheme and to evaluate whether the visions each academic unit has for its own and the university’s development can indeed be realised within the rubric provided by this scheme.
Beyond the hoopla: The Scheme
At the outset, it is important to note that all that exists is a set of non-mandatory guidelines for an application. (Please note that the Gazette notification associated with this scheme does not pertain to government-owned universities like JNU, but rather only to those “not owned or controlled by government”.) It is therefore entirely inappropriate for the university administration to decide that this scheme will be applied for without consulting Schools and Centres in the Academic Council, and for administrators to imply that this is the only means by which funding for the future can be secured. This is patently not the case, as the guidelines make no such statement.
In JNUTA’s view, there are extremely serious reasons for concern at JNU’s making any application under this scheme.
First, the scheme actually has nothing to do with the UGC. Rather, the decisions will be taken by an “Empowered Experts Committee (EEC), which will comprise three to five eminent persons appointed for a period of three years. The persons appointed to the EEC will be “as advised by the Central Government”, with “the approval of the Appointments Committee of Cabinet”. The EEC shall be responsible for scrutinising and appraising the proposals submitted all the way up to monitoring, assessing and reviewing the selected institutions. In other words, the scheme is to be operationalised by out-and-out political appointees whose decisions will have political sanction alone and will not be constrained by even the regulatory framework of the UGC. This has been admitted by the MHRD itself in answer to a Lok Sabha question, where it records the Solicitor-General as having categorically stated that the UGC Act, 1956 does not allow for the UGC to form an Empowered Expert Committee in this manner, such that the decisions of this EEC shall be deemed to be decisions of the UGC. Should JNU be associating its future as an institution with a scheme in which there is virtually no scope of autonomy and practically no regulation of the regulators? What impact will this regulation by a body have on the provisions for autonomy in the JNU Act then?
Second, the scheme will drastically alter the composition of the JNU faculty, restricting the university’s ability to recruit the best from India. By the “indicative list of parameters” provided in the guidelines, JNU shall have to move in a specified time period to having “a good proportion of foreign or foreign-qualified faculty”, where foreign faculty is defined simply in terms of having non-Indian citizenship, but a foreign-qualified Indian must be one who has a degree from the top 500 institutions in the world and also be “one who has spent considerable time in academics in a foreign country”. Further, hiring need not be restricted to permanent positions alone, and the sourcing of faculty from ‘industry’ without the requisite qualifications will be an option that can be exploited. The UGC may somewhat shockingly (particularly in these times of hyper-nationalism) be ready to consider the simple attribute of non-Indian citizenship as a qualification and to devalue a domiciliary status in India, but is JNU ready to do the same? If what is meant by a good proportion of foreign faculty is 25%, is the university ready to commit to an imminent process that will restrict all hiring to non-Indian citizens for the foreseeable future? And what of the objects enjoined upon the university then in the Second schedule of the JNU Act, of the special measures it must take “to facilitate students and teachers from all over India to join the University and participate in its academic programmes?” And most of of all, what happens to the reservation policy with regards to faculty recruitment?
Third, an application under this scheme also entails an explicit commitment to an exclusionary model of student admissions, in which social justice has no substantive part. There is no mention of maintenance of reservations anywhere in the guidelines; instead we are told that the focus “must remain on getting meritorious students”, and that admissions must be “purely on merit”. Further, admissions for Indian students are capped to 70% of the total students admitted, as 30% is now to be ‘reserved’ for foreign students. Is JNU ready to give up both reservation in admissions as well as deprivation points and other measures for social justice?
Fourth, the scheme also can (indeed, will) entail massive fee hikes without any regulation, both for foreign and domestic students. As per the document circulated, there are admonitions about ensuring that no ‘meritorious’ but ‘needy’ student is denied a scholarship, but we are all aware the sharp constriction if access that is produced by exorbitant fees. Furthermore what is categorically not envisaged in this business model is a university in which most students study on fellowships. Is this the vision of a university that the research that JNU is known for can be done?
Fifth, the scheme actually seems to have no defined parameters of academic evaluation whatsoever. In the guidelines provided, and indeed in the proforma that needs to be filled out, evaluation for eligibility for the grant seems largely to be premised on a willingness to work towards institutional eminence, which is essentially defined in terms of getting into the world top 100 rankings. The simple fact of the matter is that no Centre/School/Special Centre can develop a purely academic plan to get to a particular world ranking. It can only plan to identify areas of development and research focus and to ensure that research funding is available for every faculty and student in these areas. But that’s what seems to be of little interest in the scheme of things it seems, as there are no provisions of the academic evaluation by subject experts that seem to be involved.
Sixth, there can be no doubt that an award will contribute to a fundamental loss of autonomy in academic pursuit for every faculty member and Centres/Special Centres/School. Award of the scheme involves signing a Memorandum of Understanding with “the government”, as the agreement “that would guide and govern the development of the institution”, failure to abide with which shall result in penalties. It does not take much imagining from then on to conceive of scenarios in which the MoU shall be elevated to the status of a categorical imperative, leading to an enforced obedience that can only be detrimental to research.
Seventh, that the actual financial details of the scheme are beneficial even in the medium term is far from clear. An injection of Rs. 1000 crore sounds attractive, but is it to be replacive of, in whole or part, the outlay the university receives of roughly Rs.200 crore p.a.? If so, this in effect works out to just five years of funding, with no clear understanding to what happens to existing funding — does it go or stay? The scheme also spells out the university will be responsible for raising money from outside sources, largely without regulation — indeed, the incentives to attract faculty are to be entirely self-funded. To add to this, the strong penalties for failing to achieve as yet unspecified targets introduce a level of uncertainty that does not inspire any confidence either. All this for what a freedom to do what exactly — to give up university autonomy with respect to admissions and recruitment, to violate national reservation policy, and transfer the costs of education to the students?
First published in JNUTA.
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