Let's ask Elon Musk

If one wants one instance of how a good and perhaps well-intentioned idea can be converted into a pointless exercise, we don’t have to look far. The committee set up to select Institutions of Eminence is a prime example of a “how not to do it”.

Of course, even a child knows that institutions of world repute are not created through either a government diktat or any policy geared towards it (which policy or declaration created Harvard, Cambridge or MIT?). The intention behind this exercise was to pick a few people the government could trust to not misuse the freedom it would give them if they were chosen. 

The unsaid assumption here remains that we as Indians largely expect institutions to be set up by disreputable and untrustworthy individuals (read: Politicians and rich businessmen), as has so often been the case in the past.

So institutes of eminence essentially means we will breathe down your neck a bit less than others and offer you some room for manoeuvre in a sector that is highly regulated and yet miserably monitored at all times.

But right from the word go, the committee seems to have been flying its own kite in no particular direction — either due to the lack of proper briefing, a lack of clarity or due to its incompetence. In the first list, they came up with a total of six names which I thought painted a really grim picture of things: Thousands of public and private institutions in this country and we can only trust six (out of 113 that applied)! 

Thankfully — and probably in response to the uproar against the inclusion of the proposed but still on the drawing board Jio University and the exclusion of others like Ashoka and Krea created — the committee has come up with a broader list. So we now have 12 more private institutes and seven more public ones in the final list. I use the word final with trepidation as in our country, in some senses, nothing is ever final.

The new list, folks, although broader, is equally puzzling. In the private list, for instance, there is no mention of ISB, Hyderabad (I confirmed it is an applicant), which has a 15-year track record and is quite coveted at least from a student point of view while the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Karnataka, and the Institute of Public Health Sciences, Telangana, make the cut. What do we make of the inclusion of VIT, Vellore, or Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore? I am embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard of either but I put it down to my tendency to think the sun shines out of north India. Jamia Hamdard, too, came as a surprise especially since I happen to know a few students from it who had settled for it after failing to get the required rank for other places and who feel that the college is adequate but not quite up there.

The public institutions selection or rejection seems equally random. For instance, most of the IITs appear in the list including Mumbai, Delhi, Madras and Kharagpur. But for some reason IIT-Kanpur is missing (unless it didn’t apply). What, may I ask, has poor Kanpur done to be left out like this? That when the new public list includes the likes of Savitribai Phule Pune University and Tezpur University, among others. 

Of course it’s quite possible that I may be giving the whole thing too much importance while the government really doesn’t care much about this. That would explain why the recent UGC meeting that was expected to take up the matter and come up with a final list deferred it. It probably has better things to do.

This may sound like nit-picking at this stage but with the exercise heading nowhere, the credibility of the committee to select the gems is coming into question yet again. Many senior academicians who have been on innumerable committees over the last several decades argue that the academic standing of various committee members doesn’t hold them in thrall either. But hey it’s too late to worry about this.

So I have one final suggestion on this entire sorry mess. Let’s outsource it. Let’s ask Facebook, Google or even Elon Musk to pick our eminent institutes for us. As American stage and motion picture actor Will Rogers once said: If stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t it get us out.

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