Why Kerala is making drastic changes in higher education policies

TP Sreenivasan, Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council explains how they are bringing about a greater change in the state's Higher education in a planned manner

The Kerala State Higher Education Council is at the forefront of change in higher education. No longer do they focus blindly on day-to-day administration of colleges and universities but are steadfastly moving on to core issues to improve the quality of higher education in the state. From Autonomous colleges to improvements to the choice based credit and semester system, the KSHEC is bringing better higher education to the state.

 The 5WH in brief

Who: TP Sreenivasan, Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council (KSHEC)

What: Currently spearheading the operations of the Kerala State Higher Education Council

When: KSHEC established 2007

Why: To improve the quality of higher education and improve higher education access and equity

Where: Across the state of Kerala

How: By proposing to make faculty training mandatory and setting up an assessment and accreditation council at the state level, by introducing the concept of autonomous colleges and by creating college clusters.

Developing higher education takes vision and action. In recent years, the Central Government has become more proactive about achieving its vision of 30% gross enrolment ratio (GER) by 2020. But, improving higher education accessibility to that extent also mandates the continuous efforts of each state. There is a need to focus on equity and quality in higher education. Attaining these aims also calls for the planned development of higher education at the state level.

Think tank on higher education

State-level departments of education are preoccupied with the day-to-day administration of colleges and universities falling under their purview. They do not have the time to study education issues in depth. Being staffed by administrators, they also lack the bandwidth to research academic concerns and conceive changes in policy to widen access to higher education and improve its equity and quality.

“If higher education reform paves the way to achieving the targeted gross enrolment ratio of 30%, there is a pressing need for a think tank on the subject. But, this group must be comprised of academicians. Only academicians can anticipate issues that will help improve the existing higher education facilities and methods, and take up meaningful studies on issues such as higher education policy, infrastructure, teachers' training, use of technology, autonomy, research and internationalisation,” says TP Sreenivasan, Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council (KSHEC).

Reform for better outcomes

Kerala is one of 21 states to have set up an autonomous body to function independently of the state and central governments, with assistance from a State Project Directorate and Technical Support Group. Kerala State Higher Education Council (KSHEC) was constituted in 2007, well before the 2013 announcement of the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) scheme, which led 13 states to quickly set up State Higher Education Councils because without these they would not be able to access funds for higher education development disbursed under RUSA. RUSA aims at increasing India’s GER from 19% to the targeted 30% by 2020 by funding worthy proposals. Rs.98983 crore has been allocated to RUSA. Initially, states will be funded on the basis of the higher education plans prepared by their respective higher education councils. State Higher Education Councils will also manage funds routed to the state through RUSA and monitor the performance of state education institution beneficiaries of grants awarded. Future grants will be outcome-dependent.

Since being established, KSHEC has been actively working to improve the quality of higher education in the state. Here are some of its achievements and proposals which have received the state government nod.

GREEN SIGNAL FOR AUTONOMOUS COLLEGES: Autonomous colleges have become a reality in Kerala on the basis of KSHEC recommendations. The University Grants Commission’s set of Guidelines for Autonomous Colleges (Annexure II) 2007 encouraged states and universities to give autonomy to at least 10% of its colleges during the 11th Plan. On those lines, the KSHEC has recommended that Kerala should allow colleges fulfilling certain criteria (operational since 10 years, ‘A’ level NAAC accreditation, good academic reputation and performance, sound administration, etc.) to apply for autonomy. KSHEC evaluated the performance of autonomous colleges outside the state and found that they have successfully enhanced the quality of their academic programmes since their change in status.

KSHEC has spread awareness about the concept of academic autonomy. “Misapprehensions existed—some believed that autonomous colleges are private or commercial ventures. Others thought that autonomy precludes colleges from being responsible to government authorities and being eligible for government funding,” explains Sreenivasan. The Council has specified the number of colleges that should be made autonomous at the outset, the criteria for choosing colleges to be granted autonomy, etc.

IMPROVEMENTS TO THE CHOICE BASED CREDIT AND SEMESTER SYSTEM: KSHEC suggestions to streamline the choice based credit and semester system are being implemented in the 2014 academic year—such as cutting down on internal evaluations, centralising some external evaluations, increasing the staff strength to reduce the burden of clerical work falling on faculty, and maintaining the length of semesters. “We found that the existing semester system was over-examining students, with no benefit to students or faculty. Given the poor overall student-teacher ratio, faculty simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to conduct so many internal and external evaluations. Improving the student-teacher ratio depends on some factors which are beyond the control of colleges,” observes Sreenivasan.

So far the Choice Based Credit System has not been very well received in Kerala. To change matters, the Council has proposed adopting the UNESCO prescribed indirect grading system with a 7 point range. “It is more dynamic, transparent and universally accepted,” says Sreenivasan.

ESTABLISHMENT OF FACULTY ACADEMY: Identifying the dearth of quality teachers as one of the biggest challenges facing higher education in Kerala, the Council has proposed the creation of a faculty training academy. “Access and equity have no meaning without quality education. Qualified, trained, passionate teachers are vital in any education system but hard to find in Kerala,” opines Sreenivasan.

KSHEC has received the state government’s nod for the creation of a residential training facility with the capacity to train hundreds of faculty annually. The academy will offer three-months professional training modules for faculty being inducted and regular follow up programmes of varying durations for senior faculty. Courses will focus on communication skills, governance and leadership, ICT, pedagogic skills, personality development, professional ethics and values and research methodology.

ESTABLISHMENT OF ASSESSMENT COUNCIL: To tide over the limitations of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, KSHEC has proposed creating a state level assessment council. According to Sreenivasan, “The UGC and the National Assessment and Accreditation Council have welcomed this move, which will help assess more colleges. It will also help implement the provisions of Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan in the state,” says Sreenivasan.

COLLEGE CLUSTERING: In tune with the UGC’s proposal to establish college clusters, KSHEC envisages abolishing the university affiliation system in favour of College Cluster Multiple Campus Universities. The new concept entails a group of 10 to 30 autonomous colleges forming a College Cluster University. The university will be spread over multiple campuses and will only have its own centralised office to provide centralised examinations and academic monitoring. Constituent colleges will continue to be individually managed with their own respective fee structure. Clustering could be based on subject or location or financial status, etc.

“College clusters universities will improve the quality of higher education through sharing of resources, introduce healthy rivalries, and allow constituent colleges to receive the same UGC grants that are given to universities,” explains Sreenivasan.

As an experiment, KSHEC has organised clusters of 5 to 6 colleges operating in an area of 10sq km in Calicut, Kochi and Trivandrum. “It is challenging to get private colleges’ buy in for this concept. They see clusters as a burden, especially because of the presence of government colleges. We are working on changing perspectives, to see college clusters as an opportunity for sharing and learning. So far, we are getting government colleges in the clusters to create virtual classrooms so that students from other colleges can take benefit from certain lectures in the other colleges of that cluster. We have also given them small grants to improve their laboratory, sports, and other facilities,” shares Sreenivasan.

Catalysts for change

“We act as evangelists for change,” says Sreenivasan about KSHEC. What are the expected outcomes of the measures the Council has seen success for so far?

Sreenivasan expects autonomy to improve academic areas such as curriculum development, organisation of courses of study, examination system reform, innovations in the pedagogy, induction of modern tools of technology to make learning student‐centric, extending the academic calendar to maximise learning opportunities for students and designing of community outreach programmes to enrich the curriculum.

The new choice based credit and semester system is predicted to facilitate intra- and inter-university credit transfers and ease post-graduate admissions besides making teachers more free to introduce academic innovations.

Faculty training aims at helping teachers apply and evolve new teaching technologies and aids, familiarising them with trends in higher education, and helping them recognise students’ differential capabilities and modify the method of teaching accordingly. “We expect formal training to increase research and create a better learning environment resulting in more employable graduates and post graduates,” says Sreenivasan.

As for the college clusters, Sreenivasan sees the Council’s initiative as a small beginning for a better integrated higher education landscape.

Thanks to extensive groundwork, KSHEC is one of the Councils most prepared to implement RUSA. “But we are yet to prepare a perspective plan for submission to the Centre because of the reluctance of the bureaucracy to accept the paradigm shift involved in RUSA, which entrusts planning, funding and monitoring to the Council,” says Sreenivasan. A change in mindset is badly needed for this Council to improve on these positive outcomes.

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