Noone can deny the usefulness of a credible, independent opinion on the quality of education imparted by colleges across the country. “Mapping the education sector topography gives students and their parents a universal metric for all institutes, one that compares them across specialities,” says N Chandramouli, CEO of TRA, a brand intelligence company.
Other stakeholders benefit too. Faculty can better judge their prospects in different institutions. Recruiters can estimate the quality of an institution’s graduates and postgraduates. Donors and private investors can evaluate the institution’s need for assistance and the likelihood of their investment delivering desired returns. As for the institution itself, it gets to know where it stands, in comparison to the highest standard and vis-à-vis its peers. It gets to know its strengths and weaknesses. It was to meet these requirements, that the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in 1994.
St. Xavier’s College Mumbai has always enjoyed an impeccable reputation. Yet it opted to go for accreditation by NAAC in 1999. Last year it was re-accredited for the third time with an ‘A’ grade. Explaining why St. Xavier’s chose to go for an accreditation, its principal Dr Frazer Mascarenhas SJ says, “Getting an external opinion on the quality of education of a college is always a good thing. More than the accreditation itself, the process of getting accredited has proved enormously beneficial. This exercise in introspection has helped to usher in quality awareness and consciousness and the will to continuously improve. Whereas only a section of faculty was driving the accreditation in 1999, now a larger number of stakeholders are interested in the process. Teaching as well as non teaching staff are eager to introduce change for the better—be it to improve infrastructure, get involved in research or start new courses.”
Dr Mascarenhas’ experience is that accreditation helps bring into the spotlight, issues that NAAC emphasises, which otherwise might not have received the same emphasis. Good examples are the concept of inclusion and the need for interdisciplinary courses. Dr G R Damodaran College of Science, a self-financed college graded ‘A’ by NAAC has had a similar experience. It’s
principal, Dr T Santha, says that they have made impressive growth in every aspect since being accredited—in teaching, faculty development, research, paper publications, infrastructure, and even in the quality and number of placements. She says, ”After going through the process of NAAC accreditation, teaching and non teaching staff know what is expected of them and are keen to fulfil that criteria to improve the institute’s brand image.”
The question marks
However, the fact that only 5538 of 35538 colleges across India have been accredited so far shows that some segments of the higher education community still harbour doubts about the relevance of NAAC accreditation. In July 2014, it was decided that NAAC would snap ties with the UGC, thus ending the commission’s two-decade-long supremacy. At that time NAAC’s former executive council chairman Goverdhan Mehta had said: “The regulator and the assessor cannot be the same body; they must be independent. How can assessment be carried out by a body of your own creation?” It looks like NAAC is now poised for a makeover. It is perhaps the right time for it to sit back and review its systems.
What are the issues educationists think NAAC needs to address?
Here are the three major questions that NAAC may want to consider to reinvent itself:
Is there a way to measure subjective elements?
St. Stephen’s College is going in for NAAC accreditation only now after the UGC has issued the Mandatory Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Educational Institutions Regulations, making accreditation mandatory for all eligible higher educational institutions. So far, the college steered clear of the process because Delhi University had not prioritised it. Also, it has reservations about the scope of accreditation.
“Top grade accreditation does not necessarily equate with rigorous education or with ideal governance. An accreditation agency may evaluate objective criteria such as the physical facilities and infrastructure of an institution, the credentials of faculty more easily than an institutional culture,” opines Dr Karen Gabriel, St. Stephen’s College’s media coordinator & associate professor in the Department of English. Essentially, she wonders if and how subjective aspects such as the culture of excellence, work ethic and so on will be factored into the final score—“St. Stephen’s strives to orient its students toward excellence and social responsibility and social justice, its core values. How will such aspects of the educational process be captured or quantified? And how much will they be prized?”
Reputation for academic excellence is another subjective criterion that NAAC is currently not taking into account. The fact is—institutions like St Stephen’s College, which set their own standards and continuously raise the bar on excellence suo moto, would always have takers for their courses irrespective of whether they are NAAC accredited or not. Shouldn’t this aspect factor into their grades?
Can the current criteria be made more realistic?
In listing the criteria for evaluating colleges, NAAC has left no margin for taking cognizance of genuine practical challenges facing reputed institutions. In practice, sometimes, this leads to unexpected (and undesirable) results. Consider Kolkata’s Asutosh College. It has consistently made it to lists of best arts and science colleges of general interest publications. Earlier this year, it became one of only 92 colleges across the country (and four in Bengal) to introduce the UGC approved bachelors course in vocation studies along with the community college scheme. Still, in 2002 Asutosh College made headlines for being graded a dismal C++ by the NAAC. At the time, Asutosh College was only the second college in West Bengal to apply for NAAC accreditation, after Loreto College, a private institution that was awarded a high five-star rating in 2000.
In hindsight, current principal (then professor) Dr Dipak Kumar Kar believes Asutosh College applied for NAAC accreditation prematurely, without giving enough thought to the various criteria it would be judged on—“We never imagined that being centrally located in a dated building in the city centre, with no scope to expand the main structure horizontally or vertically, would go against us.” The bottom line is that the lack of space doesn’t mean that Asutosh College was no good to start with—“which is what the C++ grade made us look like,” says Dr Kar.
Lack of space is a genuine constraint, one which only significant time and substantial finance can remove, and which Asutosh College is working on. It has since created a second Annexe building where six post graduate programmes in the arts and sciences are being offered. “We have also established a post graduate study centre under our directorate of distance education offering post graduate education in four more subjects. And in 2003, we introduced undergraduate programmes in newer areas like business administration, communicative English, computer science, journalism, electronics, biochemistry, psychology, environmental science, fisheries and microbiology,” he adds.
More post graduate programmes in emerging areas, research facilities, a hostel for girl students (currently the college only has a boys’ hostel) and a guesthouse for visiting faculty are on the anvil, but on the college’s new 11 acre second campus coming up near Joka. In the years ensuing Asutosh College’s accreditation debacle, other colleges in Kolkata with a lesser academic and infrastructure standing applied for accreditation and got a higher grade. So in 2005, Asutosh College appealed against the grade to NAAC’s Redressal Cell. NAAC was gracious enough to respond positively, agreeing to re-evaluate the college at its own cost. But Asutosh College’s management decided otherwise. “We felt there is no way a C++ grade wouldever be revised to an A grade. So we decided to apply afresh, but only after implementing some of NAAC’s suggestions,” explains Dr Kar. Now that it has done so, Asutosh College plans to apply anew to NAAC next year, the college’s centenary. Is there a way to account for cases like Asutosh College and make the criteria more realistic?
Can the private sector be roped in?
Since accreditation was made mandatory, NAAC has received a rush of accreditation applications. Just this year (until August), 2515 colleges have applied. In recent months, NAAC has taken steps to simplify and speed up the process of assessment and accreditation—such as forming a Standing Committee for the speedy declaration of assessment results, introducing online internal evaluation of quality by applicants, etc. Can a private player help process applications still faster?
Chandramouli favours private-public partnerships in accreditations—“where the efficiency of the private partner overcomes the delays and bureaucracy typically associated with the public sector.” Essentially, he believes that the outcomes of accreditation must justify the additional cost to the institution.
Pragmatic NAAC director Dr Amar Nath Rai believes private players could be allowed provided a clear set of objectives and transparency in operations exist. “Most important is that the process should be transparent, objective and free from biases, and achieve the aims of ensuring accountability of institutions and value for money education,” he says.
A private player could also introduce fresh ideas, on how to introduce subjective elements into the process and how to judge reputed institutions facing constraints. Accreditation by private bodies is a trend in the USA and other western countries. It is mostly developing countries in Asia that have accreditation systems (and many higher education institutions) funded by their respective governments. That said, it would be challenging to find an existing grading private body that matches NAAC’s vision. Certifying body ISO and analytical rating agency CRISIL, for instance, do not share NAAC’s holistic institution-centric conceptual understanding of accreditation. And creating a new private body for the purpose will bring its own challenges. NAAC has come a long way in the last two decades. Now it needs to adapt faster to the aspirations of all the stakeholders. That alone will bridge the gap between institutions’ apprehensions over accreditation and their appreciation, across the higher education landscape.