Accreditation agencies granted full autonomy
"We have made the National Board of Accreditation totally autonomous, and we are in the process of making the National Assessment and Accreditation Council independent," Higher Education Secretary Ashok Thakur announced while addressing a world summit on accreditation in New Delhi last week.
The National Board of Accreditation, or NBA, was previously with the All India Council for Technical Education or AICTE - the regulator overseeing technical education in India. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council, or NAAC, functions under the University Grants Commission. The NBA accredits programmes and the NAAC accredits institutions.
"The government should learn to restrain itself on doing professional work of accreditation," Thakur said. "The government should create only broad, enabling conditions."
The move has been welcomed by academics.
"To build world-class higher education institutions in India, we need to change the method of assessment and accreditation. Making accreditation bodies autonomous is the first step in this direction," said Professor SP Thyagarajan, former vice-chancellor of Madras University and dean of research at Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai.
"In India there is a lot of political interference right from the time a college or university is established. Affiliation is dictated by state and central government entities. Having full autonomy, structural stability and accountability will give teeth to existing accreditation bodies," Thyagarajan said.
Professor AN Rai, director of the NAAC, said functional autonomy meant it would not have to consult with the University Grants Commission, or UGC, when setting norms on assessment parameters and policies.
"We will be directly communicating with the ministry, which will help us to have more freedom to formulate our own rules. The total time for processing applications will also come down significantly," he said.
Large numbers, low quality
Notably, India has 723 universities including institutions of national importance, 37,204 colleges and 11,356 professional schools offering diploma-level courses.
Overall, some 28.6 million students are pursuing higher education, according to data from the Ministry of Human Research Development, or HRD.
Despite such large numbers, only a handful of Indian institutions are rated highly on quality parameters. Universities and the education ministry have faced flak for not making it to global ranking lists compiled by organisations such as Times Higher Education and QS.
Professor NR Madhava Menon, honorary professor at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, sees this as an opportunity for accreditation agencies to improve competency.
"Assessment and accreditation are highly complex and professional tasks which require special expertise of independent scholars and educational administrators. The process should be credible and transparent, based on criteria widely accepted by academic and professional bodies, as it can make or mar the future of institutions and their stakeholders," said Menon.
According to him, accreditation agencies such as NAAC or AICTE followed an ad hoc system of appointing inspection committees of nominated teachers with no special expertise in assessment of courses and institutions.
"The process is voluntary. The product is not comparative and may vary depending on the composition of the committee and a variety of other factors," Menon said.
Differences in the quality of assessment meant that some leading institutions, such as the universities of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, have shied away from NAAC accreditation.
Accreditation now mandatory
However, accreditation was made mandatory for all educational institutes last year through an executive order, after the ministry could not get a law to that effect approved in parliament. Private institutions and lobby groups were against the proposal.
This led to a rush of applications for accreditation. Between January and December 2013 NAAC received 2,978 letters of intention for accreditation - the highest number received by NAAC, which used to receive around 800 requests annually.
With such a large number of institutions applying for accreditation and the higher education sector in India expanding rapidly, the government now wants private entities to share the job of accreditation.
Ashok Thakur said the government was setting up a new authority, which would be "an arm's length body", away from direct government interference, to facilitate and coordinate the work of accreditation with little influence from the UGC or other agencies.
He said the new body would short-list competent entities - including private ones - to do the job of assessment and accreditation.
"When the country is talking about the demographic dividend, maintaining a certain standard in higher education is important. And to manage the huge network, multiple agencies should shoulder the responsibility," Thakur said.
The agencies should not be manned by either "politicians or people from pure bureaucracy", the secretary said, adding that the government had not only made accreditation mandatory but had linked funding of higher education institutions with it.
Colleges and institutions without accreditation may not get funding from the UGC or the new scheme called the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, or RUSA, under which India will spend some Rs990 billion (US$16 billion) over the next eight years to fund education institutions under state governments.