India’s richest man is on a mission to expand into newer industries and take them by storm. And his eyes are now set on the education sector.
On June 24, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL) said its Jio Institute, an under-construction multi-disciplinary university, will launch its first academic session this year. The university is being funded by Reliance Foundation, a non-profit organisation co-founded in 2010 by Ambani along with his wife Nita.
“We have worked very hard through these challenging times, to bring our dream project, the Jio Institute, to life,” Nita Ambani said during RIL’s annual shareholders’ meeting. “Jio Institute is envisioned to be an exemplary academic institution with a world-class platform for research, innovation, and lifelong learning.”
Jio Institute is being built on an 800-acre land parcel at the outskirts of Mumbai. The Reliance Foundation is estimated to spend Rs1,500 crore ($225 million) in setting up the university.
So far, Jio Institute has tied up with renowned global educational institutions—such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Stanford University, and Nanyang Technological University—to bring onboard experts for various subjects.
The university has appointed celebrated Indian scientist RA Mashelkar as its chancellor. Mashelkar—who has been awarded a Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India—has been a member of RIL’s board for several years. A chemical engineer by education, Mashelkar also heads the National Innovation Foundation under the Indian government’s department of science and technology.
In its first academic year, Jio Institute will provide courses in data science, artificial intelligence (AI), digital media, and integrated marketing communication, Nita Ambani said. The master-level course in digital media and marketing communication will be conducted by a mentor from Northwestern University, while the AI and data science programme will be headed by Jio’s chief data scientist Shailesh Kumar along with teachers from Northwestern. The admission process for the courses will start this year, however, specific dates or fee structures have not been made public yet.
Presently, Jio Institute is not running any courses but conducting workshops related to its proposed programmes for its social media followers. Most recently, on June 17, the university hosted an online workshop about data science with professor David Karger from MIT. On July 1, it is set to host its next event, which will be a fireside chat with Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of California University.
These events are open to all for now.
This is not the first time that the Ambani family has ventured into the education sector.
Education is one of the focus areas of the Reliance Foundation. In 2010, the foundation had launched a programme called Education and Sports for All. “Through a partnership with several NGOs, Reliance Foundation and Mumbai Indians [a cricket teams owned by Ambani] have positively impacted the lives of 200,000 underprivileged children during the last few years,” as per the foundation’s website.
RIL also runs a school in Mumbai called the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, which has been named after Mukesh’s father. Established in 2003, the school is among the country’s top-notch private co-ed schools.
In addition, in 2020, RIL invested around Rs500 crore in an AI-based learning platform Embibe, picking up a 73% stake in the Indian startup.
Jio Insitute, however, is the biggest education-related initiative by the Reliance Group. And it has attracted controversy even before its launch.
In 2018, the Narendra Modi government awarded Jio Institue the tag of “Institute of Eminence,” (IoE) which is usually given (pdf) to colleges that offer interdisciplinary courses, conduct research in areas of emerging technology, and have a mix of domestic and international students and faculty with “student amenities comparable with that of internationally reputed institutions.”
The tag grants private institutions freedom from regulators and allows greater autonomy. Public institutes under the IoE category are eligible to apply for funds from the central government.
This decision faced severe backlash as Jio Institute did not meet any of the prerequisites at the time. In fact, the institute did not even exist beyond paperwork.
As the chorus against Jio Institute became louder, union minister Prakash Javadekar clarified that the IoE status had been granted under a “greenfield” category, which is meant for new or proposed institutions. “The empowered committee interviewed all 118 applicants. There were three categories – government, private and non-existing but those who want to invest—greenfield. In the greenfield category, there were 17-18 applicants. They saw all presentations. They have suggested one and they can suggest more in future,” the minister said in 2018.
Along with Jio Institute, five other colleges were selected to be IoE institutes: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences (known as BITS-Pilani), and Manipal Academy of Higher Education. India currently has 20 institutions in the IoE category.