The country's higher education sector recently crossed an important milestone when the number of colleges which applied for the National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) grading tripling from an annual average of 800 to 3000 in 2013.
The country has around 36,000 colleges and less than 15% of them have applied for grading. The increasing number of colleges applying for grading will have far-reaching repercussions on the quality of education at higher education institutes. But, with one in every three proposals making the final cut for grading according to NAAC, government officials, experts and students say that accreditation linked to funding alone can't drive quality in higher education or choosing an institute for learning.
According to the ministry of human resource development data, more private higher-education institutions account for about 64% of the total HEIs, majority of which do not go for accreditation. Experts say that the recognition-based accreditation will help capture this section. "Although accreditation has been made mandatory for funding, a substantial number of private institutions don't receive grants under this system. Across the board, grading should be made compulsory to run a college by linking it to recognition," said R Govinda, vice-chancellor of National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) and Member of the Central Advisory Board of Education, MHRD.
Studies like the UNESCO's Global Monitoring Report on Education for All for 2013-14 identify that to achieve quality in education, governments must provide teaching faculty with the right mix of incentives to encourage them to remain in the profession. "We need to invest more in teaching and research output to get more teachers and address low availability. While the teachers are exploited at privately-financed institutions that pay low salaries, ad-hoc teachers are employed by eminent universities in the country despite a good strength of full-time faculty," said Govinda.
"There have to be more incentives to make higher education more attractive failing which the faculty don't update their skills or curricula. For example, regularly monitoring their tenure by making participation in peer review journals compulsory will aid progress in quality," said Amit Thorat, associate fellow, National Council of Applied Economic Research, which is conducting a country-wide Human Development survey with a special youth questionnaire.
Students pursuing higher-education in the country say that while accreditation helps them choose a good college, it does not guarantee that every course in an institution is of the best standards. "I chose a college going by the ratings besides asking seniors. While the other departments' faculty were good, those teaching me were not. So ratings tend to be misleading if you look at the departments," said Reshma Halder, a Physics graduate who is currently pursuing a Mass Communication course from Jadavpur University, Calcutta.
"It becomes important to look at the ratings to make an informed choice but you end up choosing a college over the course. Students mostly opt for the celebrated colleges paying scarce attention to the quality of teaching or content in a particular department," said Prashant Singh, who has an Msc in Chemistry from IIT-Bombay, is currently pursuing MA in Sociology from Mumbai University.
Asked about quality-based accreditation across institution and programme-levels, a senior HRD ministry official associated with the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) said that a large-scale capacity-building initiative is being undertaken to compel institutions to expand their human resource footprint. "There are talks about a programme-wise accreditation process to help students make an informed choice as well as improve quality," he said.
In another bid to address quality across the higher-education spectrum, the ministry has written to the NAAC to make participation of institutions in its annual All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) an evaluation criterion, said Sanjay, Director, Planning, Monitoring and Statistics, MHRD: "Nearly 24,000 institutions have responded to the ongoing AISHE, which looks at the status of higher education. The number has gone up from 23,000 in 2010-11. The ministry has written to NAAC to incorporate the participation in the survey as a criterion in the grading process."
Officials at NAAC say that a considerable number of the proposals are refused during every cycle as many don't fit criterion for quality earmarked by the grading body. "There has been a rise in the applications after the UGC made accreditation mandatory for grants. But around 40 percent get filtered out during the basic assessment level. The accreditation process for each institution takes a years' time if it goes on smoothly in all aspects and we send our peer teams for inspection only after the institution invites us so there could be some delays and gaps. In order to deal with the bulk of applications, we have written to the UGC for additional funds," said A N Rai, director, NAAC.
Meanwhile, some varsities say that while programme-based grading could attain better quality, the existing system has created awareness about the overall performance and encouraged participation by teachers. "Owing to NAAC's procedures, we have quality assurance cells within the varsity. These create awareness about the all-round academic progress and enhance research capabilities of teachers," said Naresh Chandra, pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Mumbai.
* No of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs): 35,539
* No of NAAC-accredited institutions: 5350
* No of applications for 2013-2978 (121 universities, 2857 colleges)
* Student to teacher ratio: 25:6
* Gross Enrolment Ratio: 19.4
* Share of sectors in terms of total HEIs(in percentage)
* Private: 63.9; State govt: 35.6; Central govt: 0.5
* Enrolment across sectors (percentage)
* Central govt: 2.6; state: 38.6; private: 58.9
* 0.25% enrolled at graduate level enroll for Phds; Completion rate of Phds: 50%
(Figures sourced from AISHE 2011-12, MHRD documents, NAAC, TRENDS IN HIGHER EDUCATION report by National Institute of Advanced Studies, INFLIBNET - TCS Project)