Quality Assurance in Indian Higher Education

NAAC has been striving to provide leadership to HEIs in the country by boosting benchmarking as quality improvement tool in line with the international standards.
Quality Assurance in Indian Higher Education
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Achieving excellence in teaching and research is the goal of every higher education institution (HEI), the world over. To achieve excellence, HEIs would need to have a greater focus on the quality of its teaching and research pursuits. Therefore, the sole objective of the HEIs and their regulators is to continuously make efforts to improve the quality of higher education. HEIs keeps on building capacities in terms of quality infrastructure, committed and highly qualified human resources and processes & programmes to harness the potential necessary to ensure better quality in their pursuits. HEIs also keep on reviewing its policies and programmes periodically so as to evolve to meet the changing requirements of the knowledge economy. However, the greater responsibility for ensuring quality teaching and research in higher education lies on the regulators, particularly the Accrediting Institutions. On the recommendations of NEP-1986 and the Programme of Action (POA), National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) was established as an autonomous institution of UGC to assess and accredit HEIs in the country. The only mission with which NAAC was created, that was just to stimulate the academic environment for the promotion of quality teaching and research in higher education. NAAC has been striving  to provide leadership to HEIs in the country by boosting benchmarking as quality improvement tool in line with the international standards.

 Over the past two decades, NAAC has been aiming to make quality the defining element of higher education in India through a combination of self and external quality evaluation, promotion and sustenance initiatives. However, the most pertinent question remains, "How far it has been able to achieve its vision and mission?" There has been no worthwhile study by anybody whatsoever to unravel this most pertinent question. However, there are clear indications that it has not been able to make any significant improvement in the quality of education offered by HEIs. It was expected that after putting HEIs to a comprehensive and rigorous assessment for accreditation, their academic pursuits will improve over a period of time, which will eventually help some of the institutions to figure at least in the list of world's top 200 or 300 universities. But as an today, none of the Indian Universities figure in the list of top 200 or 300 universities. As per the QS World University Ranking-2021, none of the Indian Universities/ Institutes could feature in the top 100, a total of 8 Institutes have found their place in the top 500, all these are IITs & IISc, Banglore which does not come under the ambit of NAAC. Such a gloomy picture is a reflection of poor performance of our universities at the global stage, which eventually reflects the failure of this important regulatory body i.e. NAAC. 

More than 800 universities and colleges so far have been assessed and accredited by NAAC more than once, or twice. Around 60% of these institutions have been granted A+ and above grade which means that these institutions are able to deliver quality education of a highest standard. This raises a question, then why none of these institutions are even able to make a place in the list of top 500 global institutions. This may be due to the fact that either NAACs quality parameters are not in line with the global ranking agencies or the assessing teams have miserably failed to assess HEIs thoroughly and honestly. The fact of the matter is that earlier NAAC assessment was only subjective peer reviewed, thus prone to human error and bias. To improve upon this and other shortcomings arising from the changing realities nationally and globally, NAAC launched its revised Assessment and Accreditation Framework in July 2017, which marks an explicit paradigm shift, making the whole process ICT enabled, objective, transparent, scalable and robust. It is also  that while comparing the assessment parameters of NAAC with Times-QS Rankings, there is a mismatch between their assessment parameters. This raises a Million Dollar Question "Does the meaning of the term 'Quality Education' differs for different ranking agencies which ordinarily should mean same thing for every agency, may be with minor variations to account for some perceptual differences.  

The central focus of Education Policies, Accreditation Councils, HEIs and other related agencies is on quality teaching and research, but without precisely having a very clear perspective of the term 'Quality Education'. Unless and until the term quality is defined precisely and accurately, we are likely to end up heading towards a dead end. The key for all this lies in the fact that we need to know what 'Quality' in higher education is all about. The term 'Quality' in management refers to the ability of a manufacturer or service provider to provide on demand the products or services that customers find of great value i.e. which meets or exceeds the expectations of the customers. This gives rise to two pertinent questions; One, 'Who are the Customers of HEIs'? Second, 'What are their expectations from HEIs operating in the Indian Landscape'? The customers of HEIs includes; students/parents, potential employers and the society in general. The students/parents want an educational opportunity that develops their overall personality so as to enable them to find a gainful employment with ease, while as potential employers require HEIs to provide human resources who are competent to manage socio-economic domains professionally and efficiently in their chosen fields of specialisation. The society wants HEIs to advance social & community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve quality of life by innovating new technologies, processes and find plausible solutions to the socio-economic problems being faced at the local, national and global levels respectively. Therefore, to develop students for gainful employment, deliver capable and competent brains to employers, and diagnose socio-economic and other problems confronting the economies and the society with plausible solutions, the most critical elements of quality education includes; Quality of Academic Programmes; Enabling Teaching-Learning Environment; Availability of Requisite Infrastructure & Learning Resources; Ecosystem for Quality Research; Effective Leadership & Governance and Community Engagement and Social Services. NAAC uses almost the same parameters to assess the quality of education at higher education level. However, the key indicators used to assess the quality of some of these parameters needs refinements.

Though from 2017, the accreditation process is claimed to have been made more robust, objective, transparent and scalable as well as ICT enabled, yet there are still some question marks, stemming from its data validation processes and integrity of the members of peer teams. It is known to one and all that the visiting peer teams though are being paid handsomely by NAAC, yet still they are found enjoying the Five Star Hospitality of visiting institutions, thus posing a question mark on their credibility. Generally, vigour and resolve to undertake inspection thoroughly and objectively has largely been found missing among the assessors. It is in view of these and other limitations, NEP-2020 has recommended that onwards the assessment shall be arranged through independent 'Accrediting Institutions' supervised and overseen by NAC. In US, the accreditation is a voluntary and non-governmental process in the sense that the whole process is carried out by the private accrediting agencies, duly recognised by the Department of Education. But ultimately this new process will yield due dividends only when credible and competent 'Accrediting Institutions' are involved and effectively monitored. Assigning assessment and accreditation process to nationally or internationally recognised 'Credit Rating' agencies like CARE, CRISIL etc. would be a step in the right direction. Besides, the accreditation should be discipline/ Dept. specific rather for an institution as a whole which is a universally accepted criterion. Some total of the scores of different Depts/ Centres should become the overall institutional score. The Dept./Centre specific assessment will usher HEIs into greater competitiveness internally, thus will act as a force multiplier to continually achieve excellence in academic pursuits at each & every level.

NAAC, on the basis of Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) assigns eight letter grades viz; 'A++',  'A+', 'A', 'B++', 'B+', 'B', 'C', & 'D'. Institutions assigned letter grades from A++ to C are declared as accredited and the institutions which gets letter grade 'D' are declared as not accredited. The validity period of NAAC accreditation is five years, however, for third/fourth cycle, it can be extended from five years to seven years, with a condition that they have obtained highest grade. This grading scale is too wide, as a result allows institutions to operate even with B+ or B or C grade, which implies low or very low quality, though ineligible for funding from central government. It is in view of this fact, we may need to revisit this grading scale on the pattern of US. In US, Accrediting Institutions use five point grading scale viz; 'Outstanding' (3-4); 'Standard' (2.0-2.9); 'Acceptable' (2.0-2.8); 'Insufficient' (0-1.9) & Nule (less than 1.9). Institutions getting 'Outstanding Grade' needs no improvement and are required to get its rating reviewed after 5 years whereas 'Standard Grade' implies that such institutions may require to improve and are mandated to get its rating reviewed after 12 months. Institutions with 'Acceptable Grade' are granted temporary accredited status for one year. Such institutions must undergo a new accreditation within next 12 months and if full accreditation is not achieved by such institutions, the accreditation status is denied. Institutions getting 'Insufficient or Nule' grading are denied accreditation, however, can re-apply for accreditation after 12 months. The above system of grading implies that actually institutions with 'Outstanding' grade only are given full accreditation and the rest are either granted accreditation for one year or denied. This approach is more appropriate than the approach of NAAC because the accreditation process needs to be very strict and not based on a very loosely grading scale. The perception world over is that the US accreditation is a 'Gold Standard'.

As stated above, there are very serious question marks on peer team visits, therefore, there is an urgent need to relook at their current modus operandi used to assess and accredit institutions. To standardise the peer team visits, the following guidelines based on the best practices are recommended to achieve due results from the their visits:

  • The peer team should consist of assessors belonging to all subjects/streams offered by the visiting HEI, however, each member shall be required to give an undertaking that he or she is or has not been in any way connected with the visiting HEI.
  • Before visiting the HEI, the accrediting agency should organise a  'Pre-Visit Meeting' of the Peer Team Members to review the SSR with the purpose to decide about how to proceed to conduct the visit.
  • Make an unscheduled visit to the institution and arrange all the logistics for the visit at their own.
  • After having a meeting with the top administrators of HEI, subject specialists should visit to the departments and as per the SSR check all the required documents, physical infrastructure, and have discussions with the faculty members, scholars, students and non-teaching staff in a very informal manner. Conduct Satisfaction Surveys where ever required.
  • Assess and accredit Dept.-wise rather than the institution as a whole. Some total of the scores of different Depts/ centres should become the overall institutional score. This will serve two purposes; One accredit each department/centre individually. 2nd; it will enable to differentiate between good and poor performers which in turn will cultivate a competitive culture within the institution.
  • Exit meeting should be aimed only to thank the administration of the HEI rather than disclosing impressions about the institutions accreditation.
  • Final Assessment Meeting of the members of the peer team should be conducted to decide about the revision of the computer generated score on the basis of the verification of claims made in the SSR. Besides, a detailed report delineating the type of improvements that an institution shall have to make within a specified period of time shall have to be prepared for submission to NAC.
  • If the peer review team comes to the conclusion that the claims made in the SSR report were false and mere fabrications, the team will be mandated to recommend panel action to be taken against the HEI to NAC/ Higher Education Commission of India.

Author is Professor in the Dept. of Commerce , University of Kashmir.

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