Institutes of Eminence : Education or Spectator Sports?

  • August 30, 2018

Institutes of Eminence demonstrate yet another scam designed by the BJP government that corporatizes education, implements unscientific ranking system presenting false data, enforces an increasing number of bad educational loans, and plays cruel games with the future of the Indian youth. A GroundXero report.

BJP’s Achhe Din campaign promised an ‘inclusive’ education. As seen in other cases, this too turned out to be merely a media campaign. The review of BJP’s policies will reveal their corporate bias, especially towards the ones who contribute to the party’s coffer. Since the BJP government has come to power they supplemented previous government’s strategies like cut in educational budget, decrease in the number of INSPIRE, UGC-NET scholarships, and attempts at scrapping fellowships like Post-matriculate scholarship, non-NET awards etc. They further intensified their attack on education by strict surveillance in the campuses, introducing biometric attendance, CCTV and police check post, establishing overall control over the students’ existence and opinions. Each of these attempts culminated in students’ protests. As a response, the government promptly slashed down the autonomy of the UGC and individual educational institutions, replacing an albeit notional ‘autonomy’ with tighter direct Government control, ironically all in the name of ‘granting’ autonomy to the institutes. The latest significant move in this direction is a new bill – establishing the so-called the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) – scrapping the UGC altogether.

Institutions of Eminence (IoE)

The short public response time before passing of the HECI Bill indicates that the UGC’s demise is unavoidable. But even so the government does not intend to pass up any chance to puppeteer UGC. Case in point is the declaration of “Institutions of Eminence” by the UGC. The UGC recently declared a list of Institutions of Eminence, under which six institutes have been selected by the ‘Empowered Expert Committee’ chaired by N. Gopalaswami. The objective, as mentioned in the Guideline for Government Institutes for becoming ‘Institutes of Eminence’ is “To provide an enabling regulatory architecture to ten public and ten private Higher Educational Institutions to emerge as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions.” The present list however contains only three public institutes – the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and Mumbai, and Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and  three private institutes – the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, and the Jio Institute. Answering a question regarding why only three institutes were selected from each of the categories, Gopalaswami remarked that it was due to the poor quality of research and teaching. We will discuss later what he means by quality research. What is first remarkable is the inclusion of Jio! This is contradictory as Jio does not have any academic record to fulfill the criteria, on the basis of which other universities were rejected. Jio in fact seems comparable only to those thousands of other institutes/universities that exist on paper, and till recently were considered as ‘fraud’ by the Government and UGC. Let us get back to the question of ‘quality research’ and how to possibly measure such a thing.

The Global Ranking System: Who rates? On what?

The Gazzette notification of UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017 mentioned that any Deemed to be University applying for being selected as an Institution of Eminence has to submit a “detailed fifteen year strategic vision plan and a five year rolling implementation plan, with clear annual milestones and action plans on how the new Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be University is to be set up, with identifiable outputs and outcomes.”

According to the Government, the selected institutes were judged based on their 15 years’ prospective plan towards securing a spot among ‘top 500 world ranked’ universities. The institutes are required to feature in ranking tabulations done by “renowned ranking frameworks” like The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) or Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) or SJTU (Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University) within the first 10 years of being declared as an Institution of Eminence.

In the countries that have pursued such ranking systems historically, enough flags have been raised against the unscientific nature of these ranking frameworks. The task of rating universities all over the world requires humongous amount of data and thorough surveys. Yet, the evaluating agencies have employed largely shortcut methods like tracking the number of Noble Laureates, ‘reputation’, citation data, faculty/student ratio, number of foreign faculties, among other things. As QS’ methodology for Academic Reputation mentions, “respondents (academicians based on their expertise) are asked to list up to 10 domestic and 30 international institutions which they consider to be excellent for research in the given area” and for Employer Reputation the employers are asked to do the same.In 2018, the QS World University Rankings by Subject claims to have drawn responses from 75,015 academics worldwide. Discipline-wise, the highest number of respondents can be seen in disciplines like Computer Science (close to 3000 responses), whereas the lowest rate of responses are typically seen in disciplines such as Social Science, where it can go to as low as 200.The proper evaluation of a social science or humanities department seems to be suffering from not just low response rates, but also from other quantification attempts such as the citation index for publications and ‘h-index’ (quantifies “impact and productivity”). In order to address this issue, QS introduced a Subject-wise rating but the response rate is still not uniform for different subjects. Given the low response rate, the threshold (for number of respondents) for disciplines like Linguistics and Literature is kept zero.

However, despite such structural flaws, ranking frameworks have influenced education policies across different countries. Governments have regularly followed the productivity-oriented parameters of rating systems to develop institutes that can fetch positions in the league tables. Such college ranking systems first became prominent in the USA and in England, in the 1980s. Thanks to such systems, the entire debate around a better education system shifted to creation of a league of elite universities, rather than focusing on public inclusive education. Fund supplies were, and are, concentrated on these elite institutions. Also most of the times, it is only the economically affluent or culturally dominant who can afford to study in these places.

Corporatization of Education: Education For Public Profit

Why then the dependence of such quantifications and rankings? The Government responses to this question has typically been along the lines of ensuring quality control of education, evolving systematic vision concerning the direction and areas of future knowledge production, and building an ‘incentive-punishment’ based framework to increase the efficiency and commitment of educational institutions. However, if one needs to judge the real contribution of such ranking systems to the ‘betterment of education’, several aspects need to be looked at. Clearly, the so to speak ‘best universities’ of the world would figure in the top positions in any ranking system, if not anything else but to ensure that the ranking itself is seen as legitimate and factual. What therefore needs to be investigated is how many of the non-ranked or low-ranked institutions made it up the ladder in the past few decades, after the ranking systems were introduced. Further, for those institutions that did go up, what are the factors behind such ‘improvement’? – is it real improvement in academic output (and if so, what are the reasons for it in terms of several policies that the specific institution or the Government might have pursued), or is it about money being spent to secure high rankings. After all, we have seen too often how ‘rankings’ and ‘ratings’ from ‘audit agencies’ can be bought and sold if one has enough money – the latest most glaring example being the fake credit ratings that renowned Wall Street rating agencies such as Moody’s, S&P, or Fitch kept issuing for large banks till the last moment before the famous Wall Street Crash of 2008 that sent many of these large financial institutions into overnight bankruptcy.

This brings us to the question of linkage and mutual symbiotic dependence between ‘ranking systems’ and business or money-making. According to a report by The Indian Express, “Jio Institute has projected earnings of Rs. 100 crore from tuition and hostel fee to be paid by roughly 1,000 students in the first year operation.” It further states, the institute “on an average, works out an income of Rs. 6.2 lakh from each student.” The Jio Institute further goes on to claim that it will have 10,000 students in 15years, and net revenue (after fee waivers) from students in the fifteenth year is expected to be Rs. 1502 crores. Thus each student, at an average, will be paying around Rs. 15.02 lakh. The criterion for awarding some scholarship money, stated to be reserved for the “meritorious student”, has been kept vague. It should also be noted here that no reservation system exists in the private universities in India. And therefore, in the absence of enough fellowships, the only option left with a huge number of students wanting to get education (that is considered worthwhile by their future employers) is student loans. Besides the fact that interest on education loans are higher than car and home loans (interest rate of SBI education loans are more than 10%) in India, and the fact that the only people who can even get such loans are those with some property of significant bank balance to show as surety or keep as mortgage, there has been around 124 percent rise in bad education loans in the last 3 years. This is particularly attributed to the significant slowdown in hirings for new jobs and huge layoffs in the IT and related sectors. Politically, loans are clearly the best method to make students vulnerable, and structurally stifle student articulations and agitations. The mantra for the ‘new education’ thus seems handpicked straight up from the industries rulebook: control disruption, increase production.

It is not surprising that such marketization of higher education promises to have deep irreversible impacts not only on students, but also on the faculty and researchers employed by these Institutions. Though the government pay scale is applicable for the IoEs, the institutes are allowed to develop their own pay scale for attracting ‘foreign faculties’ through raising their own funds. The IoE notifications indicate that money for this is to be raised from alumni, industry and other forms of donation, constituting a decisive push towards self-financing, even for public institutions. The direction on hiring also points towards greater control of the industry, allowing hiring of “personnel from industry, etc. as faculty, who, while being experts in their areas, may not have the requisite higher academic qualifications.”

Ironically, or perhaps not, even this move of surrendering educational institutions to the mythical ‘unbiased even-handed mechanical forces of the market’, does not seem to observe unbiasedness when it comes to disciplines other that Science and Technology. Not to suggest that therefore other disciplines also must be incorporated into this framework, but among the universities chosen, there is none specializing on social sciences and humanities. The favour towards technological institutes is in fact clear from Mr. Gopalaswami’s utilitarian logic about what he considers as quality research and why humanities and social science was exempted. He states, “You may have produced good research but was it of use to anybody? Whether somebody found it useful and quoted that research?” It would be curious to ask Mr. Gopalaswami what he really means by the ‘use’ of good research. Does he consider research into social hierarchies, or research in history, or archeological expeditions to be useful for the society? Given that not a single institution with active Social Science or Humanities research (of which there are many examples in this country), would it be fair to conclude that according to Mr. Gopalaswamy, none of them have produced any research ever that “was of use to anybody” or that was “useful and quoted”? Therefore it seems that Mr. Gopalaswamy’s idea of utility of education is limited to economic productivity, as if creation of human social knowledge not directly geared for such aspirations can be devalued.

Control in the Name of Economy

Such quantification measures are clearly meant to provide high market value, with a cost effective targeted investment. The target is not only to control the topic of research but also to ensure that ‘meritorious’ students, with high product value in job market, are the one to access the best industries of knowledge production. Not just the act of ranking itself, but even the parameters it is based on, such as h-index, citation index, etc., also focus on the same productivity and control, over creation of knowledge as a critical exercise. And of course, once we set off on a path of exercizing control, there is no end to it.

The IoE document for example, further goes on to mention that government approval is to be required for academic collaboration with a “negative list of countries”, though educational collaboration with institutions ranked in top 500 in global ranking does not need any such approval. Though the ‘negative list’ of countries is still not available, it is presumable that if a couple of Indian and Pakistani physicists want to collaborate on their research, it would require permission from the Government of India!

State control like the above is only one side of the coin, the other being control of the industry. As can be easily gleaned from the US academic policy of “Publish or Perish”, enforced over the decades through such quantification processes, universities with funding from the industry became audit-intensive in order to retain their positions in the league tables. Academicians are required to perform more administrative work along with research, while there is also administrative bloat in hiring. The education institutes became bureaucrat hubs, and in many instances, sites of unbridled academic corruption. Universities came to be largely seen as agencies providing access to those who fetch greater price in the job market, while students from marginalized backgrounds keep getting treated as ‘bad investments’. Teaching became a less important part of the job while research got more adapted for the market, designed to reap high profits.

The race to climb up the league tables is a deliberate measure to control not just access to education, but therefore and otherwise, control education itself. Which is ironic, because education is supposed to that process that fosters future production of knowledge, and the very nature of new knowledge is that it is something that cannot be necessarily predicted (which is why it needs discovery and exploration), and therefore cannot be judged according to its relevance given presently what we think is relevant knowledge. Human history has seen too many examples of knowledge production that opened uncharted frontiers for future enquiry, though no one in their times predicted they would.

However, the present BJP government, following the footsteps laid out by their predecessors in the UPA, is forcing their control over education, in a bid to please their political and economic masters. Let us keenly observe what new strategies are developed by the government to become ‘World Class’. The competition to climb up the tables is steep, as Saudi Arabian universities are said to have provided highly cited academics with lucrative part-time contracts to use their Saudi affiliation when publishing. Some universities have now gone to the extent of hiring “rankings managers”. If GATS has made education a commodity to be sold, the ranking system has finally converted education into a spectator sport.

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