To build world-class higher education institutions in India, a lot of changes in higher education policies, governance practices and financial patterns need to be introduced. One of the key issues in this regard is the method of assessment and accreditation. In India, the University Grants Commission distributes government grants and regulates the standards of university education. In the case of professional education, this function (not grant distribution) is shared by professional councils set up under separate statutes including the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) Act.
Assessment and accreditation are highly complex and professional tasks which require special expertise of independent scholars and educational administrators. The process should be credible and transparent, based on criteria widely accepted by the academic and professional bodies as it can make or mar the future of institutions and its stakeholders. As such, it should be done by registered accountable professional bodies that should be recognised for its competence for the job. This is what the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill (2010) which is pending in Parliament, seeks to establish in India.
At present, ad hoc inspection committees of nominated teachers (who have no special expertise on assessment of courses and institutions), are picked up by NAAC or AICTE or other professional councils to prepare reports after they visit the institutions concerned. The process is voluntary. The product is not comparative and may vary depending on the composition of the committee and a variety of other factors. No wonder some of the leading institutions in the country refused to be assessed and accredited by such committees. Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, two leading universities in the capital have not gone for NAAC accreditation.
Lack of competency
Neither the Medical Council, AICTE, nor the Bar Council have the required competence under the ad hoc system they practise to decide with credibility on performance of institutions nationally or globally. The Accreditation Bill under consideration of Parliament will come as a boon in this regard as it will make the accreditation process accountable to what they do or omit to do.
The need to be world-class
Now coming to the question of ‘Indian institutes becoming world-class’, it must be said that it is a vague concept questionable on several counts, particularly in its application to India. Many institutions in India are world-class in teaching, if not in research and publication. Those who do world-class rankings depend on criteria which are questionable. This is not to condemn or discredit the process or to say that Indian institutions should not aspire to become world-class even according to those standards. It is necessary to understand the issue in context and give consideration to national priorities of access and equity and appreciate constraints of resources for higher education and research.
Universities across the world, which are termed as ‘world-class’, without exception have enjoyed complete freedom without interference from the government and other regulatory bodies on academic and administrative decision-making. In India, if the IITs, IIMs and National Law Universities could show relative academic excellence in their respective spheres, it is largely because of the autonomy they enjoyed in innovation, experimentation, and freedom from interference of governmental agencies in decision-making. As the Yashpal Committee report pointed out, “Universities are autonomous spaces free from political authority, religious dogma and economic compulsions where established ideas and practices could be freely challenged and uninhibited freedom to question would be recognised without fear of reprisal”.
What should be done
Yes, there are too many regulatory bodies supervising higher education in India with too little beneficial outcome. They tend to kill initiatives, corrupt organisations and delay decision-making. In the process of catching erring institutions with which they are pre-occupied, they put barriers on the development of meritorious ones. The Centre-State and private-public conflicts also impact their functioning.
I believe the policies contained in the two Bills pending in Parliament — the national Accreditation Regulatory Authority Bill and the Unfair Practices (Control and Prohibition) Bill (2010) — are welcome initiatives. While putting down unfair practices with a heavy hand in student interest, the legislative proposals enable higher education institutions to compete for academic excellence, recognising good practices and fresh initiatives in innovation and creativity. The Universities for Research and Innovation Bill (2012) is also another step in the right direction.