Amid controversy surrounding the legitimacy of United States-based Austin University, which reportedly inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) worth $42 billion with the Uttar Pradesh government, a member of the UP delegation has now claimed that the MoU was signed with Austin Consulting Group and not with Austin University.
The clarification came after Austin University’s credentials were questioned.
Sidharth Nath Singh, a former UP minister who was a member of the delegation that signed the MoU to develop a knowledge park, claimed that “there is no controversy” and only the names are similar.
"It is an MoU with Austin Consulting Group and not with Austin University. That's the basic confusion. The names are the same. It is like signing an MoU between Allahabad consulting group and Allahabad University. [For example] We have signed with Allahabad consulting group and Allahabad University does not come under it," Singh told The Quint.
However, the former minister added that Ashraf Al Moustafa, the president of Austin University, is also the president of Austin Consulting Group. The same is corroborated in a letter, a copy of which is with The Quint, from Austin Consulting Group to Arvind Kumar, Additional Chief Secretary, Infrastructure and Industrial Development, UP.
Moustafa signed the letter as the president of Austin Consulting Group.
Austin Consulting Group
The letter to Arvind Kumar from Austin Consulting Group was also signed by William Kent, Chancellor, Austin University, besides Moustafa.
The website of the group says it is “an American leading management consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area (Global Headquarters) with offices in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Geneva, Milan, Seoul, Delhi, Dubai, and Cairo.”
The US office’s address is listed in the San Ramon area of California. A call to the number mentioned on the website went unanswered.
The website's page on WHOIS – a database of registered internet domains – reveals that the domain tacgus.com was registered on 9 November 2022 through Domains By Proxy, a company that provides privacy to those looking to keep their contact information private while registering the domain.
Dubious University at the Centre of the Controversy
Multiple delegations of UP ministers and top bureaucrats had gone to several countries in the state's latest nudge to draw in foreign investment. One such group led by state Finance Minister Suresh Khanna, also comprising ex-minister Singh and Arvind Kumar, had gone to the US.
On 18 December, the news about UP signing an MoU with Austin University for $42 billion or Rs 3,69,000 crore Austin smart city of knowledge in UP, surfaced.
Soon after the announcement of the signing of the MoU in the media, the whopping amount of $42 billion started grabbing eyeballs. Questions were raised whether a lesser-known Austin University has resources to pool in such an investment.
Incidentally, just days before the signing of the MoU, the university had its approval revoked following a probe by California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE).
The approval given to Austin University to operate was revoked in an order dated 11 November, which came into effect on 8 December. A fine of $9,965 was also imposed, according to the order. BPPE is a regulatory body in California’s Department of Consumer Affairs.
In an earlier order dated 17 October 2022, the bureau had suspended approval to operate degree-granting programmes of the institution.
The order was a culmination of several citations issued against the university for various regulatory violations. In May 2021, when the BPPE conducted an inspection, and a bureau staff arrived at the address where the varsity claimed its office was situated, it found no one.
"Bureau staff arrived at the Institution's office space located on the second floor of the building and found that there was no one at the school, the front door was locked, and there was no furniture inside and the lights were off. Bureau staff could not locate any signage with the Institution’s name or business hours," an excerpt in the citation issued to the owner of Austin University on 19 August read.
The university, in its fact sheets uploaded on its website in compliance with the BPPE regulations, revealed that no student had enrolled in its Master of Business Administration (MBA) in the years 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Despite the mounting criticism from several corners over the MoU with a dubious university, the government is unfazed. Sidharth Nath Singh claimed the MoUs are not binding and would be implemented after due diligence.
"The government of UP has not given 5,000 acres to anybody. It is just an expression of interest. Now based on that, the government of UP will do all the due diligence and reach the conclusion on what needs to be done. But we always express through the media how many MoUs have been signed. Are they all investments? Yes. they are but after due diligence."Sidharth Nath Singh
However, at a public gathering in Prayagraj on 21 December, Singh announced the signing of a "4.7 lakh crore MoU" to the crowd, claiming it will generate 6 lakh direct jobs and 10 lakh indirect jobs in the state.
Clarifying his comments, Singh told The Quint, "What I said in the gathering is that in February (2023) some announcements will come which will benefit. Now, the announcement will come only if those (MoUs) get approved after due diligence."