Within two weeks of the government formally notifying the rules for institutions of eminence, Reliance group incorporated the Reliance Foundation Institution of Education Research (RFIER), a section 8 company under the Companies Act, 2013. It is this company of the Reliance group that shall set up the Maharashtra-located Jio University, which the government has selected for the institution of eminence tag.
Two specific provisions in these rules helped the freshly-minted Reliance company in a big way. One of these required the individual members of the ‘sponsoring organisation’ of the proposed university to have a collective net worth over Rs50 billion. The other provision required the promoting group to have a proven track record of ‘translating plans into real achievements in any field (not necessarily in the field of higher education, but preferably in it)’.
Not too many groups or foundations in India whose individual members can boast of a net worth of over Rs50 billion and also a proven track record of translating plans into achievements.
The ‘institution of eminence’ tag will help Jio University and other selected existing universities to develop with relative autonomy. They will not be encumbered by the regulations of University Grants Commission (UGC), including those of setting fee and launching new courses. These select institutions would also not need to undergo the regular monitoring by UGC. The institutions of eminence are expected to follow a set of guiding principles that the government has notified and a 15-year plan for each that the government has approved. Its progress towards formally attaining the brand of ‘institution of eminence’ will be monitored annually by the special committee the government set up.
The rules to this effect were notified on August 29, 2017, and the company, with Nita M Ambani and Mukesh D Ambani as the first two board members of the company, was incorporated on September 12, 2017.
The selection of yet-to-be-established Jio University by the Union government as an institution of eminence has raised eyebrows in some quarters. The announcement caught some observers by surprise because the fact that promoters of greenfield universities could also apply for the tag was formally introduced through the regulations in August 2017.
The August 2017 rules set the parameters by which yet-to-be-established educational institutes could apply.
Unlike public institutions, the selected private institutions will not receive any money from the government. They will have to secure their own funds.
“The notification clearly states that there are three categories of institutions of eminence: Public, private, and greenfield. The applications for becoming an institution of eminence were invited about eight months ago. We have received 114 applications,” clarified R Subramanyam, secretary, Higher Education.
The first reference to setting up such institutions came with the finance minister’s Budget speech for 2016-17. In the speech, the finance minister said: “An enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and research institutions.”
The Budget speech did not elaborate on the issue — Budget speeches do not provide such details.
A perusal of the rules and the application form to be filled by applicants shows that existing private universities wishing to meet the conditions have to provide details of their existing performance and credentials as well as plans for the next 15 years to develop the institute. The rules require promoters of greenfield projects to showcase only their detailed future plans.
The governing structure of the new company, Reliance Foundation Institution of Education Research (RFIER), lends itself to fit the criteria laid down in the August 2017 rules for institutions of eminence.
The company filings with the government as on July 10 show that the RFIER was set up in September as an entity different from but under the control of the 2010 incorporated Reliance Foundation.
The articles of association of the new company show that the Reliance Foundation has nominated Nita M Ambani and Mukesh D Ambani to be the first two members of the new company, RFIER. The Reliance Foundation has a right to nominate a maximum of seven members of the governing council, including five permanent members who will not be required to retire by rotation.
One member of the board, or the governing council as the company calls it, “shall include a chancellor and a vice-chancellor along with a maximum of six members who are experts in ‘academia, industry, and other fields’.”
The August 2017 rules require the applicant sponsoring institution to prove that it had members on board which will help the institution of eminence meet the expected high academic standards.
Responding to early media reports, the human resource development (HRD) ministry issued a clarification on July 9. It said one of the criteria considered to approve Jio University was the availability of land for constructing the institution.
The application form for promoters of greenfield institutions, perused by Business Standard, shows that applicants did not need to essentially possess the land. The applicants were asked whether they had acquired or were yet to acquire the land. Business Standard could not independently verify from the company filings with the government if the new Reliance company already possesses such a piece of land. The August 2017 rules note, “There should be an in-principle commitment from the concerned persons to make available adequate land for the development of the institution of eminence deemed to be university.”
The detailed plans and applications submitted by different applicants for the tag of institution of eminence have not been put in the public domain by the HRD ministry.