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For Quality Assurance in the Higher Education

Knowledge, which is at the heart of higher education, is a crucial resource in the development of political democracy, the struggle for social justice and progress towards individual enlightenment.

By Prof. P.S. Bisen

December 15, 2009

Knowledge, which is at the heart of higher education, is a crucial resource in the development of political democracy, the struggle for social justice and progress towards individual enlightenment. Academic and professional categories shape the pattern of teaching and research, the services which universities and institutes of higher learning are structured to support.

Autonomy of disciplines

In the context of modern higher education, knowledge embraces not only what the content and methods of particular subjects are but also why the larger intellectual and cultural questions they provoke and how their practical application to the solution of personal, social and economic problems. If the conditions that encourage the formation of knowledge are removed, the system loses its political utility.

So the autonomy of disciplines is not a privilege but a duty. This requires due emphasis in the 21st century, where higher education policy seems likely to be dominated by ideas of sales in the shape of sophisticated public relation and marketing, and of management, not least in the form of elaborate information and control system. The most important and central to the planning of higher education should be the notion of academic productivity, perhaps even fecundity.

Universities have to be elitist institution, transmitting at the highest level and contributing to the development of the best that has been thought and known: traditions of thought and experience can contribute our potential for knowledge, expressiveness and self-understanding. Traditions will die themselves unless they are passed on to the next generation.

In essence, the agenda for higher education is a simple one. For each generation, the questions are the same:

  • How many students should higher education be provided?

  • What and how should they learn?

  • How best can we solve the cost-effectiveness equation?
  • What kind of educational management is necessary for imparting quality education?

Quality education

In order to plan and execute quality education in a vast country like India, there’s a need for a two-pronged audit in higher education – academic audit and administrative audit. In fact, these will address some of the most pressing concerns such as:

  • Where we are,
  • What are the impediments in development of higher education in India, 
  • How to plan for the assurance of quality education.

The result of the academic and administrative audit could serve as a guide in the allocation of funding and as an aid to the evaluation of higher education institutions at all levels.

In essence, quality assurance is about ensuring that the standards are specified and met consistently. In its simplest form, quality in university teaching ought to satisfy the primary customer, the student. However this comes with a rider: a caution may be practiced here that in an obvious sense students consume or experience teaching, but who have to be satisfied include colleagues, funding agencies, employers, government and society as a whole. All of these may in some sense be identified as customers of a university.

Declining standards

A careful analysis of the administrative audit on higher education would identify the following common factors for the declining educational standards in

  • administrative mismanagement,

  • highly personalized dealing,
  • political interference and manipulations in matters of appointments and administration,
  • paucity of qualified faculties,
  • financial corruption,
  • apathy of students and teachers, and
  • passive and non-vibrant environment.

If we take an in-depth look, it seems that the above reasons are not limited to the university system. It is permeated everywhere and rotting the society.

In truth, the problem is a national crisis and a nation-wide awareness and debate is the needed to come out of this crisis. Ad hoc arrangements may yield quick results, however to have long-term gains, we need to take care a lot of things together to support deserving universities and colleges to uplift their standards of higher education. It is clear that the root cause of these problems is the lack of leadership qualities in the university system.

This is where the government may contribute positively by bringing in more transparency in the appointment of Vice Chancellors with leadership qualities. The existing system does not take into consideration the leadership qualities and contributions made by the candidate in the area of his/her activities. For example, if the candidate is from the academic background, which I think is preferable, then the following parameters may be used to evaluate the suitability:

  • contributions as an academician

o   impact factors of papers published

o   innovations brought about in teaching and research

o   placements of students who were guided for doctoral degree

o   feedback from students and colleagues

  • financial contributions to the university

o   in form of research project

o   consultancy

o   patent

o   infrastructure development

  • social contributions
  • administrative acumen

  • credibility

  • personal image and leadership qualities

Visionary needed 

A leader capable of extracting work from the group members, generating funds for development, taking far reaching decisions for the benefits of the higher education, who himself/herself will be a role model for the society is the need of the day. Such a person would inculcate confidence among colleagues and get support from all for uplifting the standards of higher education and put back the ailing system on the right track.

The second critical area, which needs special attention, is to bring about radical changes in the administrative set up in the university system. To facilitate management, there should be managers/deputy managers/assistant managers etc., instead of registrars/deputy registrars/ assistant registrars etc. Such a system will provide a clear job description of these officials, not merely of signing letters and note sheets but also taking decisions themselves or helping the Vice Chancellor to take appropriate decisions and actions in financial and administrative matters.

Each university should evaluate the functioning of its own staff – teaching and non-teaching – and must have clear rules to take necessary actions if their performances are found unsatisfactory. Besides, there should be a clear equation about the ratio of staff: work-load for each section. At present the universities have relatively few faculty members compared to the non-teaching staff. The administrative staff should realize that universities are the seats of learning; and that the two major partners of it are teachers and students. Their role is to support the academic development through proper management.

From the academic audit point, the situation is neither very bright nor too grim. Indian students have excelled globally. They are considered assets in the West both for their research and academic work. However, the percentage when compared to
India’s mammoth population may appear negligible.

Roadmap to excellence

To keep pace with time, higher education institutions in India should decide and specify their own aims and objectives. The quality of education may then be assessed, by subject, against the specifications and aims and objectives of the subject provider. This fitness-for-purpose would measure the extent to which the subject provider (university and college) is achieving its aims and objectives it has set for itself.

However, it must be pointed out that aims and objectives should concern the development of intellectual enterprise among students. It should ensure that individuals seeking a higher education qualification are able to develop relevant competencies and aptitudes, at least in part, through project-based work designed to be undertaken in a real setting. The assessment should involve experts from the host for the project and the student's own institution.

The six broad parameters that may be considered for quality assessment are:

  • Curriculum design, content and organisation.

  • Teaching, learning and assessment.

  • Student progression and achievement. 

  • Student support and guidance. 

  • Learning resources (e.g. Information technology, laboratories, libraries etc.), and.
  • Quality assurance and enhancement.

Results would provide a good guide: 

  • to observe whether a preferred course is being well delivered.

  • to ensure that education is of approved quality.
  • to encourage improvements in quality.
  • to provide information about subject quality in an institution.
  • to secure value for public expenditure.

  • to take decision to cancel funding for any subject provision that is judged to be of unacceptable quality on assessment and reassessment within a specified period.

However, if we are to be sincere in our efforts for quality education, it must be ensured that performers and non-performers are discriminated. This will instill confidence among performers and will eliminate non-performers. In other words, such measures will make the centers of higher learning more meaningful. As of today, they are merely considered as centers that admit students, conduct examination and publish results and award degrees. There is a clear laxity on the part of most of those associated with higher education.

The NAAC has provision for individual and institutional assessment. To make things simpler, the state government may consider of obtaining the feedback from colleges and universities in the performa of NAAC. Further, the findings of the assessment should be implemented in letter and spirit. At the same time we must think of bringing clarity in the job description of university employees both teaching and non-teaching.

At this juncture, the non-performing departments should be shut down or merged with other departments. Such a step would streamline the administration and also check the loss of public money. The system should be such that it will encourage innovations, a must for progress and sustainability.

Financial independence

It is easy to point at the faults in the system and then put some suggestions for solution. But without financial independence, it would not be possible to bring about any change. Therefore, we must think of alternative avenues that would pave the way for the university to be financially self-reliant. Increasing fee structure from time to time is necessary. But there should be a limit to the hike even as this alone will hardly produce quality education. The following suggestion maybe considered as an alternative possibility for generating revenue:

  • Strong bond should be established between the universities and industries for mutual understanding in research and human resource development. Else a university may be supported financially for starting an industry/production unit by itself. Even a small country like Turkey, which I have visited as a member of the Indian delegation, has industries run by the universities.

    As for the globalization of higher learning through participation of foreign universities in India and vice versa are concerned, it is high time that we formulate a clear policy that would ensure quality education. Of course, one should not forget the importance of primary and secondary education. The grand planning for higher education would be a futile exercise if the base is not stronger. In this context, following points are important: 
  • Though primary education is a fundamental right, from secondary level onwards we must become careful and judicious with respect to the questions asked in the early part of this write-up, viz.

o   How many students should be provided for higher education?

o   What and how should they learn?

Distance education

Distance education, either of native or foreign universities will assume a big role in future educational scenario and could be a viable avenue for financial independence. Technology and liberalization have globalized quality competitions and encouraged free interplay of products and services including higher education.

Universities have to provide quality education by creating abundant learning opportunities to be harnessed through new management leading to restructuring. They will have to opt for dual mode of operations: conventional and distance learning. Geographical barriers will no longer limit university education. However, there should be checks to ensure quality education. The action plan for this should include: 

  • aptitude test should be made compulsory for admission. The test must be followed by personal interview and counseling.
  • a special cell to be constituted by each university for granting affiliation. It should be on the basis of the test conduct by the cell. Admission test centers should be made available in all locations where study centers are located.
  • each study center may enroll only fixed number of students.
  • the center should provide structured classroom training with high-tech equipment/teaching aids including video conferencing.

  • It must be ensured that the center will provide library with quality books/journals to the students.
  • syllabus for the respective board of studies should approve a particular subject that has been granted by a university.
  • centers should provide comprehensive, revised and updated study material to the students as and when necessary.

  • regular feedback should be obtained from the students regarding the qualities of motivation, confidence generation and guidance provided.

  • there should be a restriction by the university on the maximum number of subjects/degrees/certificate courses that a center will provide. While doing so the university must identify areas of academic strength and excellence so that the courses offered through, within or outside the country area acceptable and marketable at the global level.
  • One center should be restricted to offer a particular degree/diploma/certificate of a particular subject. However, it may offer the same for other subject(s) of another university.
  • An agreement in form of MoU between the university granting permission and the affiliated center regarding each clause pertaining to the should contain the following points:

o   validity period of the MoU

o   terms and conditions of recognition

o   subjects and details of degrees/diplomas/certificate courses

o   fee structure

o   duration of the course

o   limit on the number of students for a particular course

o   basic qualifications for admission

o   eligibility cut off

o   quality management to be provided by administrative and supporting staff, teaching staff and board of directors/management council, and

o   infrastructure facilities

  • The concerned university must also specify the number of lecturers to be appointed as core faculty by the study center for each area.
  • For appointment of lecturers (core faculties), the university should specify norms. It may consider NET/SL-NET qualified candidates. Each university should name a coordinator from among the university faculty, for the purpose of study center for each subject.
  • It must be ensured that the examination is conducted by the special cell for study centers in conjunction with the university examination section.

In a nutshell, radical changes are required to ensure that India become a global partner in higher education in this era of liberalization and globalization. We have the advantage of having enormous resources, only judicious planning and execution is needed.

Somebody has to take the lead and set an example. Why should we not offer ourselves to be the pioneer in bringing required changes to foster growth and sustenance of higher education for future generation?

The author is a former member of the University Grants Commission,
New Delhi and former Vice-Chancellor of Jiwaji University, Gwalior. At present, he is Chairman of the Vikrant Group of Institutions.

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