It is now well known that the presentation made by the Reliance Foundation’s Jio Institute was led by Mr Mukesh Ambani and his Adviser, Mr Vinay Sheel Oberoi, an IAS officer of the 1979 batch who had retired in 2017 as Secretary in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the wing of government under which the University Grants Commission operates and the one that appointed the Empowered Experts Committee which selected the Institutions of Eminence.

According to reports, the presentation was ambiguous enough to raise questions on how the Empowered Experts Committee could possibly have reached the conclusion it did about Jio Institute’s suitability for inclusion. Jio’s presentation, according to Republic TV’s website, www.republicworld.com, was made up of in all of five brief slides that made the following claims:

o Promoters’ commitment of Rs 9,500 crore towards capital expenditure, gap funding and scholarships;

o Plan to recruit faculty from top 500 global institutions

o Merit-based admissions

o Fully residential, self-contained and inclusive campus

o Interdisciplinary research and world-class research infrastructure

o Multidisciplinary from the start

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There are several aspects to this presentation that raise eyebrows. First, how appropriate was it for Mr Vinay Sheel Oberoi to be a part of this exercise on behalf of Reliance? While the HRD Ministry claimed in a statement to a contemporary newspaper on 11 July that there was no impropriety or conflict of interest as Mr Oberoi was not involved in the framing of the regulation or implementation of the scheme, it may have been economical with the truth.

Mr Oberoi was appointed Secretary, Higher Education, in the HRD ministry in June 2015. He retired in February 2017.

The Institutions of Eminence scheme was announced by the Government in the Union Budget of 2016. It would have thus been very difficult for Mr Oberoi not to have been involved with the scheme.

But the proof of his direct involvement is available from the executive summary of the University Grants Commission’s annual report for 2016-17, which states on page 5, “The Commission approved (i) UGC (Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as Institutions of Eminence) Guidelines, 2017 and (ii) UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017.”

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The same report on its first page gives the composition of UGC in 2016-17 and lists Mr Oberoi as a Member up to February 2017 in his capacity as Secretary, Ministry of HRD.

Mr Oberoi’s involvement with Government and the HRD ministry did not end with his retirement. In April 2018, he was appointed by the HRD ministry as Chairman of a seven-member high-power committee to examine the system of Class X and XII examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education.

In February 2018, Mr Oberoi was appointed Chairman of the Raksha Mantri’s Advisory Committee on Ministry of Defence Capital Projects to review ongoing capital acquisition projects of over Rs 5 billion.

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With the matter having been handled thus, it is little surprise that those who are meant to be impressed by the Institutions of Eminence Scheme are less than sanguine about its prospects.

The Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings are considered one of three top global university indexes, the other two are by Quacquarelli Symonds and by the Shanghai Jiao Tao University respectively.

In a scathing report published on 31 May, Times Higher Education said, “But since the initial announcement, things have not progressed quite as planned. The UGC invited a select number of leading universities to submit their applications by 12 December. About 100 did so. Prakash Javadekar, the minister of human resource development – who looks after education – initially expressed great satisfaction. But a few weeks later, in late January, the UGC announced an extension of the deadline to 22 February. In a country where irregularities of all kinds are commonplace, it came to be rumoured that the extension was to enable select private universities, which had missed the first deadline or were unable to make up their mind earlier, to apply. It did not help that the names of the 100 universities that had applied initially were not made public.”

The report added: “Most higher education experts believe that the institutions of eminence initiative is a good one. Many point to the success of China in building highly ranked universities over the past two decades and hope that India can emulate it. However, the entire process so far has been amateurish. The guidelines issued by the UGC in September 2017 are poorly written and often lack clarity. The decision to extend the deadline several weeks after the first deadline passed was strange. So is the secrecy about the applicant institutions. And the confusion over the criteria the EEC is permitted to use is just embarrassing. Supporters of India’s higher education can only hope that the government, the UGC and the EEC get their act together. So far, the opacity and coordination problems are just feeding the idea that, as it has with many other big initiatives in other sectors, the Indian government will make a hash of the institutions of eminence initiative.”

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The questions raised by Times Higher Education are pertinent. The University Grants Commission was dogged in its refusal to name the universities that had applied for the Institution of Eminence tag immediately after the first deadline ended on 13 December.

A query under the Right to Information Act filed on 13 December was disposed of with the remark that it did not pertain to a particular section. An appeal was similarly dismissed.

What were the UGC and the HRD Ministry hiding? When contacted, the Secretary, HRD told The Statesman on 12 July that a 23-day extension was granted at the request of some persons but refused to specify who they were.

Detailed questionnaires sent to the HRD Minister, Mr Prakash Javadekar at his official e-mail address, to Mr Mukesh Ambani through his authorised corporate communications official and to Mrs Nita Ambani through the official e-mail address of the Reliance Foundation, too did not elicit a response.

These questionnaires had among other things pointedly asked when Jio Institute had applied for inclusion in the scheme – before the first deadline or the extended one. None of them chose to answer.

ACT III: LETTERS OF INEXPLICABLE INTENT