The New Indian Express | By Valson Thampu | 05th April 2016 |
It is the duty of the State to ensure quality in education. This is easier said than done in the Indian context. The University Grants Commission (UGC), for instance, was envisaged to be the sentinel of quality in higher education. But, over the decades, it embraced a simpler and more alluring role of dispensing educational grants. The importance of education, especially of higher education, is increasing by leaps and bounds. This is because much of our achievements since the commencement of globalization has been in the service and IT sector. In the meanwhile, education has been recognized as a fundamental right, akin to the right to life. The poor academic profile of our institutions of higher education, viewed against global standards, is a cause for concern. This, notwithstanding, the aptitude of our young men and women has registered a quantum leap. The major reasons for our educational institutions continuing to languish in mediocrity are: dearth of accountability on the part of stake-holders in education, poor awareness regarding global norms, absence of popular pressure on the State and institutions to deliver quality and avoidable political interference in education.
The University of Delhi, ranked 6th in the first of its kind survey commissioned by the government, was the preferred destination, till a decade ago, for students who aspired to quality of education. This great institution lost its direction, academic integrity, sense of purpose and institutional morale in the wake of being turned into a laboratory for under-baked educational reforms pressed by the then Minister for Human Resource Development, who, on purpose, got his minion appointed as the Vice-Chancellor. The steamrolling of the academic community in respect of the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP), its hasty revocation within a year, the cavalier introduction of the Choice-Based-Credit System (CBCS): all in a state of unedifying hurry, without the necessary groundwork being done or implications provided for, has left this university reeling in bewilderment and adrift in an ocean of apathy.As one, who has spent a lifetime in higher education, I welcome the idea of assessing universities and other professional institutions. There is, however, a concern that needs to be flagged. That pertains to the appropriateness of the instrument of evaluation as well as the idea of education on the anvil of which such instruments are crafted. NAAC accreditation is a case in point. Accreditation, admittedly, is a valid way to standardize quality in higher education. Standardization has, at the same time, a negative impact on unique and outstanding institutions.
The NAAC instrument of assessment has little room for accommodating these most valuable aspects of excellence. The unfortunate consequence is that such institutions get ranked below the run-of-the-mill institutions that shrewdly conform to set patterns. A process meant to upgrade institutions could, thus, have the contrary effect of pulling down institutions of excellence, tempting them to emulate mediocre ones. One of the significant findings in the present government survey is that the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the University of Hyderabad (UoH) are placed 3rd and 4th respectively in the relevant category. What does this point to? Especially compared with the plight of Delhi University? Delhi University has been crippled by politically induced conformity. JNU and UoH, where a spirit of free inquiry, better national awareness and a robust intellectual culture prevail, have become greater national assets. This is of prime significance, especially for any government that is serious about making higher education globally comparable, if not competitive. The ranking of institutions could have the beneficial effect, further, of awakening a spirit of healthy competition among them. In theory, I prefer creative cooperation to cut-throat competition. But sanctified common sense tells me that it helps institutions to spur each other on to higher levels of efforts and achievements. One of the tactical mistakes I committed as the Principal of St. Stephen’s College was the dissipation of the competition between St. Stephen’s and its traditional rival — Hindu College. Over the decades, this had attained mythological intensity. I took the initiative in shifting this relationship from competition to cooperation. The immediate effect was the dimming of a sense of institutional pride in St. Stephen’s. Motivation waned. The self-absorption of a segment of the college community it bred — and the resultant lethargy — did not help. The findings of the national survey need to be followed up and acted upon, lest it remain an academic or statistic curiosity. Just as it is beneficial to link up the rivers of the country for greater agricultural productivity, greater academic cooperation among educational institutions — creating a national pool of excellence — is desirable. Besides publishing the results of the survey, detailed reports should be sent to each of the leading institutions, fixing, also, goals for academic upgradation within prescribed deadlines.
At least one area of weakness in each of the top 10 institutions should be identified for rectification in the current academic year and action taken in this regard scrutinized and further assessed. The major strengths of each of these leading institutions should be, likewise, identified both for further enhancement and for using them as catalytic agents for challenging and changing institutions that are deficient in those respects. The pursuit of excellence in higher education must, in other words, be made a national mission. A lamentable lacuna in the present practice of higher education is its disconnect from the goal of nation-building. We need to critique our idea of ‘excellence’. Aggressive pursuit of exclusively self-centered goals, even when they yield mesmerizing results, should not be romanticized as normative manifestations of excellence. Education is a social project. Flow back into the society needs to be deemed basic to administering and assessing higher education. – The author is former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi.- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org – Courtesy