DEMOCRATIC ASSESSMENT MECHANISM NEEDED FOR IMPROVEMENT
The National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill 2010 was introduced in Lok Sabha on May 3. According to its statement of objects, assessment and accreditation in the higher education, through a transparent and informed external review process, are the effective means of quality assurance in higher education to provide a common frame of reference for students and others to obtain credible information on academic quality across institutions, thereby assisting student mobility across institutions, domestic as well as international. At present, accreditation is voluntary as a result of which less than one-fifth of the colleges and less than one-third of all universities have obtained accreditation. Mandatory accreditation in higher education would enable the higher education system in the country to become a part of the global quality assurance system.
BACKGROUND OF THE BILL
The UGC established the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in September 1994 at Bangalore. The theme paper on NAAC clearly stated, while analysing the systems prevailing in the USA, UK, Australia, France, etc, that “….. assessments for teaching are now taking place, initially on a 3-point scale: excellent, satisfactory, unsatisfactory. Assessors will visit and sit in during lectures and seminars.” It went on to say that after assessment and accreditation in the UK, “government funding per student has declined in real terms, so that universities have been forced to seek other sources of funding….” In France, the document said “They (the ministry) control the appointment and promotion of teaching and administrative staff….” Notably, the NAAC document was prepared “after taking into consideration the existing methods of quality assessment and quality control and accreditation of higher education in USA, UK, Canada, Australia …”
The theme paper said the assessment and accreditation of institutions would take place “without interfering with their autonomy and funding.” It was voluntary and the NAAC could assess only those institutions that apply for assessment and pay the prescribed fees.
In 1999, five years after its establishment, NAAC made it clear that it would “make the report available to UGC, government and other funding agencies,” promote a culture of “positive competition” among institutions, evaluate the institutions “for purpose of funding, developmental activities or introducing innovations” on the request of state governments, and that its reports would be useful to funding agencies in obtaining “dependable profiles of institutions, and possible patterns of assistance.” The UGC had already indicated that its plan-based developmental support to educational institutions would be related to the outcome of assessment and accreditation.
In December 1999, secretary of the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) had announced that universities and colleges have to get themselves mandatorily assessed and accredited by the NAAC. The deadline fixed for this purpose was December 31, 2000 for universities and December 31, 2003 for colleges. He stated that institutions getting rank 0 would be “disaffiliated and closed down” and those getting rank 2 or 1 would be under watch or special watch respectively. If they did not improve in due course of time, he added, they would face similar action. Institutions getting rank 5, 4 and 3 were to be rated outstanding, very good and good.
The whole concept was basically to reduce the state funding of institutions of higher education: first starve the institutions of funds and then star them with ranks! It could thus be easier for the government to close down some of the institutions on the basis of ranks. The institutions in towns, tehsils and villages catering to the needs of disadvantaged sections could be the worst victims. The teachers movement fought against the move and demanded self-assessment of higher education institutions for improvement, without linking it with funding.
Mandatory accreditation in higher education, according to the bill, would require a large number of competent and reliable accrediting agencies to be recognised, monitored and audited for academic competence through an independent but accountable institutional mechanism. Such a mechanism would find acceptability among peer group of international accreditation bodies, necessary for student and teacher mobility and institutional collaborations, within and across borders. Consequently, there is the need for an autonomous institutional structure with statutory backing to recognise and regulate competent professional agencies charged with the task of accreditation.
Registered agencies would accredit higher education institutions through transparent processes. The assessment would include physical infrastructure, human resources (including faculty), administration, course curricula, admission and assessment procedures, infrastructure and governance structures of the institutions.
Now the bill proposes to establish a regulatory authority to register, monitor and audit the functioning of accreditation agencies which would be invested with the responsibility of accrediting higher education institutions including universities, colleges, institutes, institutions of national importance and programmes conducted therein. Institutions imparting higher education beyond 12 years of schooling will be mandatorily accredited. Higher education institutions engaged mainly in agricultural education and research have been kept out of the proposed legislation’s purview.
Every higher education institution, existing before the commencement of this act, will have to apply for accreditation, within a period of three years from the date of its commencement. However, medical educational institutions will have a time of five years. Any person responsible for an institution who fails to do so, will be punishable with imprisonment up to two years or fine up to Rs 10 lakh or both.
The central government will establish “the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions”. The authority will consist of a chairperson and four other members, at least one of them a woman, to be appointed by the central government. The chairperson will be a vice chancellor (whether in office or retired) and other four members will be professors in the fields of medical education, science or technology, social sciences and legal matters. They should have at least 25 years of experience and should be of age not less than 55 years. They will hold office for a period of five years and cannot be reappointed, but cannot hold office after attaining the age of 70.
The authority will register and regulate accreditation agencies; lay down norms and policies for assessment of academic quality in higher education institutions; recommend improvement of quality; undertake audit on matters related to conflict of interest, disclosure of information, transparency, levy of fees; advise central and state governments, and collect and disseminate information on accreditation of higher education institutions.
The accreditation agencies have to be non-profit organisations registered as a company under Section 25 of the Companies Act, a society or trust formed or controlled by the central or state government or any authority or board or institution established under any central or state act. They should be professionally competent and financially sound. This means that a central or state university can also float an accreditation agency.
Only registered accreditation agencies can undertake accreditation of higher education institutions. The bill lays down detailed eligibility criteria and the procedure of application for registration. The certificate of registration will be valid for a period of 10 years unless it is revoked in accordance with law. There are provisions for suspension or revocation of certificate of registration. In case the certification of an accreditation agency has been revoked, the authority will conduct an audit of all the higher education institutions accredited by it, within a period of one year before the date of such revocation. Any person, aggrieved by the accreditation decided by an accreditation agency, may apply to the authority for withdrawal of such accreditation or its modification.
According to the bill, if an accreditation agency fails to comply with its prescribed duties, obligations and code of ethics, such as application of uniform standards, etc, it will be liable to pay to the higher education institution such compensation as will be determined by the state educational tribunal.
Any accreditation agency that contravenes a provision of the act will be liable to a penalty which may extend to Rs 5 lakh. If a person, without reasonable cause, resists or obstructs any officer of the authority, he will be punishable with imprisonment up to three months or fine up to Rs 5 lakh or both. Whoever is running an accreditation agency without registration will be punishable with imprisonment up to five years or fine up to Rs 5 lakh or both.
EXEMPTION TO INSTITUTIONS
In the name of “advancement of knowledge” or “in the interests of the general public,” the central government has power to exempt any class or classes of higher education institutions from the operation of all or any of the provisions of this act. This gives arbitrary powers to the central government which can be misused. In any case, this power makes the bill redundant if an institution is favoured by those who are part of the central government. The latter has also the power to supersede the authority for a period up to six months.
The example of how the accreditation system works in the US is worth quoting. In recent months, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation's major regional accrediting organisations, has adopted more rigorous policies. Therefore, Argosy University and Bridgepoint Education are applying to be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which oversees institutions in California and Hawaii. Now these institutions are moving their headquarters under the jurisdiction of the new accreditor. However, the Education Department has charged the commission itself that it has given approval to American Inter-Continental University, despite a review that found the institution was awarding inflated credit hours to students for some courses. Now a regime like one existing in the US is being created here for accreditation by multiple recognised agencies.
The central government can exempt institutions from the provisions of the bill including mandatory accreditation. This bill will help the foreign educational institutions interested in coming to India to set up their shops and get exemptions. Though the bill does not say the funding will be linked to accreditation, several regulations may be made under it at a later stage. As said, the NAAC said five years after its establishment that funding is linked to accreditation.
It is necessary, as stated by the Yash Pal committee, to allow the universities to be autonomous spaces, diverse in their design and organisation, self-assessing and self-governing, and responsible for their own curriculum framework, instructions and evaluation of students. Therefore, the necessity is of a self-regulatory, democratic and transparent mechanism for assessment on well defined parameters. It should be for improvement of institutions rather than linked to their funding.
Under the new agenda of the government in the name of expanding higher education, there have thus come up a series of bills whose aim is to throw our higher education system into the hands of private players --- both local and foreign --- for the trade in and all-round privatisation and commercialisation of higher education. In order to protect our education from these predators, therefore, we have to force the government of India to desist from its moves. For that purpose, let all the stakeholders, viz. students, teachers, non-teaching employees and officers of schools, colleges and universities, youth, parents, people’s science movement, etc converge in Delhi on December 2, 2010, and make the rally called by the national forum in defence of education a grand success.