Failure to raise quality should ring alarm bells

At the beginning of this month, the first committee of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development set up by the new government submitted its report. The report clearly concluded that India’s University Grants Commission, or UGC, the statutory body regulating India’s nearly 700 universities and thousands of affiliated colleges under it, has been a failure.

The recommendation: scrap the UGC.

Along with the conclusion of the committee’s report, the media in India also reported around the same time the Ministry’s initial response: that no decision to scrap the UGC had yet been taken.

They cited legal complexities, since the UGC was created by an act of parliament back in 1956. There is nothing wrong in taking time to make a decision, but what has been wrong in the past has been the failure to take any firm decision or meaningful action on various earlier reports issued over the past few decades.

The question now facing the nation is how to interpret and act on this report – whether to replace or restructure the UGC.

Unfortunately, in this oversimplification, the core issue gets lost as people merely focus on the starting point of lengthy business – or academic – processes. At the end of these business processes, you reach the desired outcome. And it is the outcome that matters.

Long-term problem

In today’s information-overloaded fast-moving world, immediate quick-fix solutions are in vogue rather than effective solutions that address the challenges of the future.

Reform in higher education in India, which contains 20% of the world’s young people, is one critical area that has been sending out a proverbial ‘mayday’ signal for more than four decades.

Regulation of higher education in India has been in a mess for a long time. Credible literature suggests calls for university reform in India were made as early as 1972, but practically nothing happened over the years as things worsened, driven by widespread expansion in student enrolments and the number of institutions.

The end result has been that all the qualitative macro-, meso- and micro-measures of higher education have got messier. Much of the quantitative expansion in enrolment – India is second only to China in enrolment numbers – has been driven by private players that now account for almost 60% of overall enrolment.

Private players, unfortunately, have no say in the present framework and there is no level playing field between state-aided institutions and those in the private domain.

At first glance, the recommendations made now look no different from the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission set up by India’s Prime Minister’s Office under the last government. The recommendation made for an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education in 2008 sounds similar to the National Higher Education Authority that is being recommended in 2015.

India’s gross enrolment ratio, or GER, has seen a rapid rise in recent years, to around 20%. When the data is viewed as per the definition of the World Bank, as tertiary education enrolment, India’s tertiary education enrolment improved from 11% in 2005 to 25% in 2012.

That is a huge and unprecedented expansion in enrolment, considering India’s young population and the availability of soft and hard resources.

During the period 1995-2006, tertiary education enrolment in China increased from 5% to 18%, significantly less than that in India when yearly expansion is considered. According to the latest data of 2012, tertiary education enrolment in China was 27%, compared to 25% in India.

Does quality follow quantity?

Therefore, one way to view and interpret the performance of India’s higher education sector, including the role of regulators like the UGC, is to be extremely positive about it. The argument that quality follows quantity, seemingly true for China and many others, may mean India’s future performance rating will improve.

However, closer scrutiny of the data, on how India’s best institutes and universities have not been moving up on that quality scale, raises alarm bells.

One may argue that quality improves over time, but fundamental drawbacks remain. Recent revelations about how secondary examinations in India are held and the quality of India’s graduates as teachers in secondary schools give little cause for optimism.

The biggest worry is that teachers with similar values, knowledge and skills will dominate the education system in India for the foreseeable future, be it at the primary, secondary or tertiary education level.

Reform and restructure have been talked about a lot lately to highlight the need for drastic change in view of the significant changes happening in external and-or internal business environments, changing demand for skills, technological advances etc.

In the field of management studies in the early 1990s, a lot of practitioners and academicians talked about something similar and much more fundamental: Business Process Re-engineering, or BPR.

Most leading business organisations around the world resorted to BPR, despite the pain, time period and resources required for such an exercise – either for their own survival and-or to achieve a drastic improvement in business performance.

In Reengineering the Corporation, a book written in 1993 by Michael Hammer and James Champy, the first principle of any BPR is to focus on outcomes, not the process required to achieve them.

The UGC has to follow this principle and not judge the quantity or quality of paper on which degree certificates get printed rather than what the degree means in terms of value added.

Until and unless this happens, neither replacing nor restructuring the UGC will solve the acute challenges confronting the higher education sector in India. The question therefore is: does the present government have the will to bite the bullet this time?

Professor Ranjit Goswami is with the Institute of Management Technology, or IMT, Nagpur, India.