Even as the academic community in the country has reacted with a fair amount of scepticism and criticism to the concept of Innovation Universities, the United Kingdom has reportedly indicated its interest in the proposal and possible avenues for collaboration under the U.K. India Education and Research Initiatives (UKIERI).

A high level delegation comprising the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Oxford University; VC of Imperial College, London; VC Designate of Cambridge University; and president of Association of Universities of U.K., who will be accompanying British Prime Minister David Cameron, are expected to discuss it during their meeting with the Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal later this week.

But within the country, Innovation of Universities Bill has been described as “institutions with autonomy but without accountability.” “Any university is an institution for innovation. The concept discredits the existing universities,” Prof. Thomas Joseph, member secretary of the Kerala State Higher Education Council told The Hindu.

He suspected that Innovation Universities was a new name given to the deemed-to-be-universities concept abandoned by the Centre. “Earlier, universities were established under the Act of Parliament or State laws but now this job will be done by promoters and bureaucrats,” Prof. Joseph said while pointing out that the draft gave only broad guidelines and there were no minimum qualifications. But his main objection was to the entire concept of “setting up model universities”.

“The government could only set up some norms for world-class universities which could not be established overnight but evolved over time. Such concepts may be broadly relevant but do not take into account national requirements like reservations,” he said, adding that differential salaries and fee-setting freedom given to individual universities would set off a new trend.

Little innovation in Bill

However, the sharpest criticism came from Prof. Goverdhan Mehta, National Research Professor and former Director of Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) who said there was very little evidence of innovation in the Bill itself. “Though it is some improvement over the Central Universities Act, it needs to be re-looked in every aspect to bring in an element of novelty and innovation,” he said.

“While I do subscribe to the need for having universities that are visible globally, we do already have some good universities which have not been well projected,” he said, while describing the title of the Bill as “inappropriate terminology”.

“All universities are supposed to innovate. They have to evolve; not be established. The draft Bill in the present form is not commensurate with its title, and there needs to be an informed debate on it to that new ideas come up,” Prof. Mehta said.

The Tamil Nadu-based Sastra University has said establishing new universities either by private sector in the country or outside under the banner of “Universities for Innovation” would only discourage existing universities which are capable of such work, provided the right amount of independence.

While suggesting revamping of the existing 400 universities in the country by giving them full autonomy, Prof. R. Sethuraman, VC of the Sastra University — a deemed university — has demanded a transparent administration system in every university, and prohibiting of bureaucrats and political powers from interfering in the functioning, as that would go a long way in furthering research and academic growth of the institutions.

“The present attempt to introduce a new Bill to establish ‘Universities for Innovation' will pave the way for closure of existing universities, with a false hope that such new proposed universities alone will be innovative,” Prof. Sethuraman said.

Though welcoming the idea of setting up proposed Innovation Universities, Prof. Debashis Chatterjee, Director Indian Institute of Management (Kozhikode) said much would depend on the concept's implementation.

Access

Reacting to the draft, Prof. Chatterjee said if everything went right, the new generation would have access to the kind of education that the previous one never did.

“Such universities are necessary because the U.S. and the U.K. today are [placed so] essentially because of the kind of innovations they did in their higher education system. In India, at present we have straitjacket, typical convention education with little room for developing skills. This needs to be changed,” he explained.

Appreciation poured in from the ICFAI (Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India) Foundation that runs several universities across the country, who said autonomy was a welcome move, but wanted the removal of any kind of provisions for reservation from the Bill.

“If the endowment fund is to the tune of Rs. 1,000 crore or above, then there will be few takers,” T.R.K. Rao, Director, Corporate Communications of the Foundation said.