Building World-Class Universities in India: Realizing the Vision of Institutions of Eminence

Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) announced the names of six Institutions of Eminence (IoE) with the overarching goal of institutions achieving global rankings and the status of world-class universities. Here is an excerpt from “The tough road to academic excellence” originally published in the Hindu with Philip G. Altbach with a focus on India’s richest man–Mukesh Ambani’s “greenfield” Jio Institute.

The Institute faces significant challenges which includes clarity on the basic organising principle. How does it plan to differentiate itself from other universities in India and abroad, and at the same time match up to the best academic practices elsewhere? While the Reliance empire is the largest private business in India, the cost of creating a competitive world-class university is daunting especially when starting from scratch. For example, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Saudi Arabia, established in 2009, spent $1.5 billion on its facilities and has an endowment of $10 billion for a current enrolment of 900 master’s and doctoral students.

While each world class university is unique there are three essential ingredients: talent, resources, and favourable governance. These will of course be necessary for all the IoEs. But let us focus on the specific needs of Jio Institute since, in our view, it faces the greatest challenges. We have mentioned resources already (a daunting challenge), especially since no public funds will be made available to Jio or the other private institutions. Let us focus on talent (faculty and students) and governance.

Faculty are at the heart of any university, affecting every aspect of realising and implementing the university mission. In the case of rankings ambition, research output is a key metric. So, attracting top research-oriented academic talent will not only require financial resources to pay faculty at global compensation rates but also providing an attractive quality of life for their families on and off campus. Would Karjat be able to provide an ecosystem of soft and hard infrastructure critical for attracting the best international talent?

Student demand for quality education in India remains strong, and the Reliance brands and an innovative curriculum would make it relatively easy to attract top students. However, the real challenge would be in attracting international students. International student decision-making process is complex, with many global choices available to the best students. For example, an “institute” does not command as strong a recognition among international students and faculty as a “university.” Can the Reliance, Ambani or Jio brand impress the global market and influence student choice towards India and the institute?

A positive element of the IoE programme is the high degree of autonomy and freedom from government policy and regulatory constraints. However, Jio (and the others chosen for IoE) need to have creative ideas for the organisation and governance of the institution. For example, to what degree would the decision-making process be collaborative with faculty involvement as compared to a top-down mandate? Traditional corporate management styles do not align with the governance expectations of a creative university.

Building world-class universities is a resource-intensive and highly creative endeavour which will be a test of patience and persistence. Indian higher education is in dire need of exemplars of excellence. Jio must align resources, talent (faculty and students) and governance for achieving global rankings and reputation.