The government has conferred the status of Institution of Eminence (IoE) on three public and private educational institutions, unshackling them from restrictions under which higher education has laboured so far, and poising them for a leap into the global top 100 listings. Is this a game-changer in the higher education sector in the country? Yes and no. IoEs will have unprecedented freedom to fund activities and customise courses, bringing creativity to higher education. At the same time, the model for the sector remains dependent on state patronage. Besides, entry into the global education race could now become an overriding concern. To gauge institutions principally by their prospective rankings, without regard for the relevance of outcomes, would be reductionist.
A patronage system cannot but be controversial. Following the selection of three private IoEs, there is already a debate, for instance, over why the Reliance Foundation’s greenfield Jio Institute has been chosen but KREA University, led by former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and with considerable business and academic eminence on board, has been left out. A little more transparency in the selection process, and the public sharing of benchmarks and guidelines, may prevent such controversies in the future. Besides, the knowledge economy does not consist of multi-disciplinary universities alone, but by all accounts only they seem to be eligible for the IoE tag. Both in the interest of parity and for fear of losing opportunity, a separate category could be created to accommodate sectoral institutions, like the Indian Institutes of Management.
In the last instance, academic freedom depends, in great measure, on financial freedom. Public IoEs are to be rewarded with a Rs 1,000-crore handout, but their private competitors must fend for themselves. This distinction is rather pointless. All institutions, irrespective of their ownership, should be encouraged to compete for both public and private funds, and should be allowed to invest. For example, Trinity College in Cambridge, which claims 32 Nobel laureates as its own, has derived considerable incomes from land bought in the 1930s in Felixstowe, where Britain’s first container terminal was built later. Can Indian public universities ever hope for such commercial freedoms?