Volume 19, Issue 1
FROM THE ARCHIVES
The Changing Face of International Credential Evaluation
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Quality Assurance in Indian Higher Education
By Jagannath Patil
The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), India’s premier higher education quality assurance agency, today stands at a crossroads after 11 years assessing quality standards in Indian higher education. As an autonomous body established by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1994, the Council has assessed and accredited more than 2500 institutions and has gone from being viewed somewhat skeptically and suspiciously to being acclaimed for facilitating a culture of academic quality. In its early years, the NAAC moved cautiously to popularize the concept of external quality assurance, and to encourage voluntary internal quality assurance and self-improvement mechanisms at the institutional level. As the pace of NAAC operations accelerate in its second decade of existence, new sets of challenges are emerging which are paving the way for internal policy shifts.
A Complex System
The NAAC quality assurance process has benefited from a thorough study of established accreditation mechanisms worldwide. It is, however, designed to meet the needs of one of the world’s largest, most diverse and most complex systems of higher education, which comprises 17,967 institutions catering to the needs of some 10.5 million students. The profile of institutions that have been accredited runs the gamut at the university level, a sector in which over 300 institutions are categorized according to the nature of their college affiliations and jurisdictions (affiliating vs. unitary), their funding (state vs. central) and their specializations (deemed universities and institutes of national importance). There is also great variety within the college system where schools can exist as affiliated, constituent and autonomous institutions. With such a diverse variety of institutional type, the NAAC has had to make a concerted effort to develop generic formats and standards of assessment that are applicable across the board. The instruments of assessment and accreditation adopted by the NAAC are based on internationally compatible models and have so far received general acceptance in the Indian higher education community. Assessment tools such as the institutional self-study report, on-site visits, and the strengths/weaknesses descriptive reports have been recognized to offer a fair degree of transparency in the accreditation process. In addition, the NAAC has been successful in triggering healthy competition for better accreditation results in a system that is sometimes characterized by not only its complexity, but also its complacency.
The NAAC Assessment & Accreditation Process
In conducting the assessment process, the NAAC follows a four-stage process:
The self-study report and peer-team validation form the backbone of the assessment process. The NAAC distributes manuals that prepares higher education institutions with detailed guidelines on the preparation of the self-study report and the specifications of the assessment and accreditation process.
Criteria for Assessment
The NAAC has identified the following seven criteria to serve as the basis for its assessment procedures:
In completing the self-study report, an institution is expected to detail its operational performance with reference to these criteria. These criteria are assigned different significance for different types of institutions (see table below). They are further subdivided with core indicators or criterion statements which provide assessors a complete breakdown of the assessment requirements.
Criteria Weighting by Institution Type
After the self-study report and external visits are completed, criterion scores are issued with a detailed assessment report. The criterion scores are used to arrive at the overall institutional score. If the overall score is more than 55 percent, the institution is awarded “Accredited Status” and assigned an institutional grade on a nine-point scale:
Institutions that do not attain the minimum 55 percent score are notified that they were “Assessed and Found Not Qualified for Accreditation.” Provisions within the NAAC assessment framework for institutions that do not meet the 55 percent threshold require that they be reassessed after three years or face the rare possibility of closure. The particular consequences of a negative assessment, however, are left to the key stakeholders management, government, funding agencies and the public at large. To date, just 13 institutions (0.5%) have been found not qualified for accreditation. This low figure is partly explained by the voluntary nature of the accreditation process, and that colleges applying for accreditation must have a university affiliation plus five years of operational experience. A successful accreditation outcome is valid for a period of five years after which the institution is expected to volunteer for re-accreditation.
Building on the field of experience of other quality assurance agencies, an Indian methodology for re-accreditation has been developed. The improvements (or degradations) that have occurred during the five-year accredited period and the action taken on the assessment report are the focus of re-accreditation. To make optimum use of information and communication technology for effective data management, part of the re-accreditation process is done electronically. The first round of re-accreditations began in 2005 and approximately 20 institutions have so far been reassessed and re-accredited by the NAAC.
Continuous Quality Improvement
To achieve the goal of making quality assurance an ongoing focus and priority integral to the functioning of Indian institutions of higher education, a number of post-accreditation activities have been developed. The NAAC has for the last two years been promoting the establishment of Internal Quality Assurance Cells (IQAC) at all higher education institutions as a post-accreditation quality sustenance measure. IQACs are composed of administrators, academics and community stakeholders, and they are responsible for a range of activities designed to promote and develop internal cultures of quality control. With its belief that qualitative changes should come from within, the existence of an IQAC is now required by the NAAC as pre-requisite for re-accreditation.
Two additional priorities topping the NAAC policy agenda are initiatives designed to ‘promote best practices’ and ‘student participation in quality assurance’. The NAAC is developing a database of best practices at accredited institutions and disseminating it through a promotional campaign that includes a series of seminars and publications. The NAAC has developed a Student Charter to be adopted by institutions. It outlines the importance of student feedback and participation in the promotion and internalization of an institutional culture of quality. Currently, the NAAC is leading an international project group on Student Participation in Quality Assurance with the support of the Asia Pacific Quality Network.
Wider Participation and Acceptance
From the initial phase of apprehension surrounding the philosophy of external review, the NAAC has gradually been able to build a greater appreciation from the higher education community for the intrinsic benefits of accreditation. For example, the wider participation of academia in NAAC policymaking has been of great benefit in building a greater acceptance of the assessment process. This has been achieved in part by organizing hundreds of seminars throughout the country. As mentioned above, it is now the intention of the NAAC to expand student participation in the process to further widen representation. In addition to organizing seminars, the NAAC’s publication program has ensured effective dissemination of information about assessment and accreditation, while the development of manuals and guidelines through national consultations and workshops, involving a wide cross-section of academia, has lead to a greater acceptance and appreciation of the NAAC methodology of assessment and accreditation. NAAC manuals and publications are made available at: http://naacindia.org/publications.asp.
Apprehensions and Future Direction
While the list of NAAC achievements in its short ten-year history is encouraging, the list of apprehensions and concerns is also quite long. There are a few concerns that have haunted the NAAC from its inception and now, even with increased acceptance from academia, new challenges are emerging. A brief summary of some of these challenges follows:
The Numbers Game: It is often asked whether it is possible for all Indian higher education institutions (HEI) to be accredited by the NAAC in a reasonable time frame? If yes, then what is that time frame? In response, the NAAC maintains that because accreditation is voluntary it is unrealistic to expect all 17,000 of the country’s HEI’s to undergo the accreditation process. Therefore the Council has restricted its focus to institutions that receive development grants from the UGC. This number comes to approximately 6,000, which is well within the reach of the NAAC in a five-year cycle with its proven capacity of assessing 1,500 institutions per year. The NAAC is of late advocating the formation of regional and/or specialized accreditation agencies that will operate under NAAC guidelines and be responsible for accrediting different HEI categories. In this respect, the NAAC would operate as an umbrella organization for accreditation organizations not unlike the U.S. Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
To Grade or not to Grade? The debate over the desirability of grades as an assessment outcome is ongoing, however, the NAAC has justified grading, almost from the outset, as a necessary element of a system chocked with regulatory mechanisms where a mere Yes/No status provides insufficient feedback. Grading has been proven as a motivating factor in large higher education systems where the quality of providers varies to extreme degrees: from below average operators to world-class institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. Knowing where you are on the quality scale can help institutions and students plan for the future.
In practical terms, less than 1 percent of NAAC grades have been challenged before the grievance redressing committee set up by the Council, and no lawsuits have been filed to dispute an NAAC grade. These facts help to demonstrate that the relevant debate should not be about whether or not to grade, but about how to use the accreditation status and the grade awarded by the NAAC. For instance, NAAC efforts to promote the use of the assessment outcome for decision-making purposes can be witnessed in the UGC’s decision to link the outcome of assessment and accreditation to the award of a portion of its institutional development grants. Furthermore, NAAC accreditation with a suitable grade (B++ and above) is now linked to the granting and continuation of ‘autonomous’ status and ‘deemed-to-be’ university status.
Different organizations are now using the NAAC grading system for a variety of regulatory purposes. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), for example, has made it mandatory for all teacher-training institutes to secure a minimum of a B+ grade before they are allowed to expand or implement new courses. In the state of Karnataka the government requires all its aided colleges to secure a minimum of a B grade in order to receive state subsidies, while in the state of Maharashtra, institutions must have undergone accreditation (with a positive assessment of 55%+) in order to continue operations. Thus the perspectives vary according to the stakeholder, and more decisive efforts are expected in this direction. In addition to the use of NAAC assessment outcomes domestically, it would be interesting to see how overseas agencies differentiate or relate accreditation grades given to particular higher education institutions.
Program vs. Institution: Because the NAAC is engaged in institutional accreditation, it is often difficult to address international queries regarding the status of programs offered by accredited institutions. One justification given is that institutional accreditation takes into consideration the standards of all constituent departments and programs offered at a particular institution. In reality, the problem with individual program accreditation is one of capacity in terms of manpower and infrastructure which the NAAC does not currently have, even though it has the expertise. Independent program accreditation is an NAAC consideration for the future.
Top Institutions are not Undergoing Accreditation: Another issue that concerns the NAAC is the reluctance of a few publicly funded institutions, including a handful of elite universities, to come forward for assessment and accreditation. Even though the total number is relatively small, and primarily in and around Delhi, it is worth noting that despite directions from the UGC, these universities have not complied thus far. This is partly because the UGC and NAAC lack the necessary teeth to require institutions to undergo the accreditation process. However, given the fact that approximately 60 percent of Central Universities and most State Universities including bastions such as the University of Calcutta, Mumbai and Madras stand accredited by the NAAC, there is no general concern within the Council surrounding the acceptance of NAAC assessments. The NAAC maintains that it is the concern of top policymakers to decide whether to insist on accountability from institutions receiving a large portion of public funds.
State or Center, Who Has the Influence? Any central monitoring or uniformity initiative in Indian higher education involves painstaking efforts owing to complex legal provisions. In the federal structure of Indian governance, higher education is under the regulatory and financial control of both state governments and the Central government. Of the 17,000 higher education institutions in India, more than 90 percent receive funding from their respective state governments, while approximately 6,000 are recognized and receive development grants from the UGC. These development grants constitute only a minor portion of institutional operating budgets in relation to grants from state governments. As the NAAC accreditation process is a central initiative, it is widely considered that unless state governments intervene to make accreditation compulsory, higher education institutions will be less likely to volunteer to undergo the accreditation process.
Foreign Operators the Looming Business Opportunity: With just 12 percent of the tertiary student-age population enrolled in higher education, India is seen from abroad as a tertiary education market with great untapped potential. The Indian government is yet to declare a policy position on the entry of foreign operators into the country, however, draft legislation based on the recommendations of the CNR RAO Committee established by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is currently in the consultation process. According to the findings of a recent study by the NAAC and the National Institute of Educational Planning, there are currently just a few dozen foreign institutions of education operating in India through various arrangements such as twining, mutual recognition and study center modes. Considering the stand taken by the Association of Indian Universities to oppose the entry of foreign providers, many stakeholders including potential foreign operators and their Indian counterparts, and students wishing to earn a foreign degree without having to leave India are waiting for the union policy declaration with crossed fingers.
Preempting the possible entry of greater numbers of foreign education providers into India, the NAAC established a committee two years ago with representatives from the UGC and the MHRD to advise on a proposed quality assurance framework for international accreditation.
Towards a Quality Assurance Framework: The multiplicity of accreditation agencies in India is another concern. At present, the NAAC, established by statutory authority, is the country’s premier external quality assurance agency. Other accreditation bodies tend to be in-house mechanisms of different statutory authorities, e.g. the National Board of Accreditation of the All Indian Council of Technical Education, and the accreditation boards of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Distance Education Council. While these agencies conduct assessment and accreditation of programs or institutes within their respective domains, many specialized institutes that they accredit also volunteer for institutional accreditation by the NAAC. Quite a few engineering, medical, fine arts, law and management institutes, for example, have been accredited by the NAAC. This trend points out the need for a national quality assurance framework which will coordinate and integrate the functions of the various players engaged in assuring the quality of the diverse range of educational opportunities offered by the Indian higher education system. Establishing this single point of reference for the status of any Indian higher education institution or program, serving the needs of the Indian public as well as the international community in terms of informing/authenticating higher education offerings, represents one of the greatest challenges for the future.
Indian higher education policymakers have an uphill task ahead of them in coming up with convincing answers to such concerns and adopting enduring strategies as the liberalized Indian economy moves to new global frontiers.
Dr. Jagannath Patil is Deputy Adviser at the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org