Survival of fittest, not fattest

The discrimination between public and private institutions over eligibility criteria in setting up  Institutions of Eminence must be addressed

Published: 09th October 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th October 2017 03:12 AM   |  A+A-

In 1904, when Mahamana Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya conceptualised the idea of a university at the Banaras Mint House, everybody including the King of Banaras applauded his vision. Nobody asked him about his net worth and in fact, he was called the “prince of beggars”. Mahamana toured the country seeking donations before he could realise the dream of a nation building university of excellence in the form of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1915. The BHU stands today as one of the country’s leading universities and a fountainhead of excellence in the global knowledge economy.

Exactly 102 years later, a similar move is being contemplated—to identify and create 20 Institutions of Eminence (IoE) through new regulations of the University Grant Commission (UGC). The important question is: If there are 20 Mahamana Malaviyas now, can they build a world-class institution? Here’s the answer.

The efforts of the HRD ministry to create world-class higher education institutions are laudable and in alignment with global trends towards building excellence in universities. The UGC needs to be mindful of the process, modality, timescale, funding, objective, etc., that academic and policy peers have put in place for a similar exercise the world over.

The American, European, Russian, Chinese and Japanese models of building excellence in universities have a common thread that needs to guide the new UGC regulations. The American university system that was initially influenced by the Oxbridge model to later become a global prime-mover or Germany’s Excellence Initiative or France’s Initiatives of Excellence or Russia’s Project “5-100” or Australia’s Group of Eight or Japan’s Global 30 or Top Global University initiative or Britain’s Research Excellence Framework or China’s Double World-Class Project, all have a grand vision to build world-class universities.

The extent of financial resources, selection mechanism, model for governance and academic activities, etc. have uniform global characteristics with room for meeting national objectives. Some countries like the UK, Germany and Australia are dominated by public universities while countries like the USA, Japan, China and Russia (to a limited extent) and India have a public-private university education system. Will a one-size-fits-all model for all countries work well in the context of building globally competitive universities? Though the answer is no, there are certain common threads unifying this global initiative.

The common drive that triggers an effort of this scale is the world university rankings. An important factor in building excellence in universities to achieve high rankings is committed policy making and financial resources. Germany’s Excellence Initiative had two rounds of funding: 1.9 billion between 2006 and 2011 and a commitment of  2.7 billion between 2012 and 2017. Russia’s Top “5-100” provided a budget of 750 million between 2013 and 2016, France’s budget is

7.7 billion in three phases beginning from 2010, Japan’s is $77 million between 2014 and 2023. China’s Double World-Class Project has an expected budget that can exceed its previous Project 211. The federal and state budget along with the tremendously rich endowments provide a pathway for excellence in US universities.

The budget allotted by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for the 10 government institutions totalling Rs 10,000 crore over a five year period is comparable and laudable. Considering the status quo of the “to be selected institutions of eminence” it is difficult to conclude whether the amount is sufficiently enough and if so, it should be ensured that the budget is not used to fix the existing holes but to promote excellence.

However, the decision to fund only government institutions and not deserving private institutions and the fat application fee of Rs 1 crore for private institutions doesn’t align with the global trends and is against the spirit of education. It is essential that the UGC policy to create institutions of eminence has positive differentiators to become a game changer in this effort to build excellence in universities.

In addition to the differentiators, the issue of gross discrimination in eligibility criteria between public and private institutions needs to be addressed. The process of identifying institutions has always been through a selection after application and not selection after elimination. The present IoE regulations eliminate many deserving private institutions because of the unreasonable criteria that the net worth of the sponsoring trust members must be Rs 3,000 crore and Rs 5,000 crore for new private institutions.

Though many private institutions meet the required NAAC or NIRF academic criteria, they are run by promoters who do not have a strong corporate support. Also, the institutions promoted by corporate owners and leaders should have become world class by now considering the amount of financial resources under their command. The regulation is also silent about the personal guarantees corporate promoters would have already extended to banks and financial institutions and their ownership of speculative assets. On the other hand, deserving private institutions which are comparable and are also better than the corporate-backed universities on various academic parameters are handicapped by this unreasonable criterion.

The MHRD should either withdraw this net worth criterion or accept a letter of support from corporates failing which genuine institutions will be handicapped. In short: If Mahamanas like Malaviya exist today, will they be able to replicate BHUs? Hope the answer is in the positive to promote the survival of fittest and not fattest.

S Vaidhyasubramaniam

Dean, Planning and Development, SASTRA University

Email: vaidhya@sastra.edu

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