Call for flexible minimum standards

Two parallel forces have been shaping higher education globally of late. One is the move towards standardisation of higher education which can be observed both within the academic programmes of individual higher education institutions, or HEIs, and across HEIs in both intra- and inter-benchmarking exercises.

The other is the idea of 'higher education for all’, which reverberates from the developed world to the developing world and has borne witness to a massive and unparalleled rise in enrolment over the past couple of decades as affordability and accessibility have improved drastically.

This has led to problems over the ability (read quality) of students as well as faculty members: do the students and faculty members facing each other in our HEIs have the ability to undergo the rigorous process that higher education entails?

This question is critically important because we do not say that the upper echelons of athletics or sporting performance are for all. Not everyone aspires to become a leading actor or orator and we do not consider it elitist if they do. Education should be and must be for all, as physical fitness is.

But the question is: should higher education for all be something we aim for? If so, one could say that the highest order of education, the coveted PhD degree [the Olympics of higher education], should also be something that is available to all.

I am not approaching the topic with any bias. With the appropriate opportunity and environment, I believe the vast majority of people can and should excel at higher education, as they can in any other field, although it is easier to do so in higher education than in fields such as acting and sport.

But the question still remains: Can we retain the minimum standards and the traditional processes of higher education of the past centuries, when strict merit-based criteria were used to make it available to a select few as we change it to a system which is open to all? Isn’t there an in-built conflict there, both with regard to standards and processes?

Minimum standards

The counterforce to commoditisation is the push to standardise higher education, be that through accreditation or the mushrooming of rankings, which have developed over the past decade.

The logic behind global standardisation, from the perspective of the business world, is: if a coke can be a coke all around the world, an (X) university graduate (or postgraduate) can also have certain characteristics that define them as a university graduate anywhere. If one dilutes the argument from a branded 'coke' to any cola drink, a cola drink is still a cola drink anywhere, just as a car is a car anywhere – so why not apply the same principle to a university graduate?

The argument is that all graduates of Harvard Business School must have a set of minimum basic common characteristics (the lowest common denominator) – be they in ethics or in attitudes to team work or in interpreting the global business environment and so forth. This is the intra-benchmarking within a university and a programme. By extension they argue for a redefined set of common minimum characteristics for all MBA programmes across the world.

Harvard can produce this kind of standardisation because not everyone can be a Harvard graduate. But can all university graduates aspire to adhere to the same standardisation?

In other industries which do not deal with people and knowledge workers, standardisation is said to help with commoditisation. The question is: can higher education be both commoditised and standardised and maintain its brand’s reputation?

Mercedes and BMW are automobile companies (producing various brands as HEIs do academic programmes), as is Tata Motors or Maruti Suzuki. Tata Motors produces the Jaguar as well as the Nano, the basic version of which may fail the safety standards in many advanced nations.

University degrees are becoming accepted around the world as the mobility of students and workers have increased. However, there are clear challenges beyond the obvious fake universities in setting minimum standards for university graduates and academic programmes.

The situation in India

India is a prime victim of the contradictions of commoditisation and standardisation. Most Indian universities or HEIs have essentially become nothing but admissions and examination centres.

With a huge rise in the capacity of HEIs, massive growth in job opportunities in the information technology sector and the aspirations of students driving many of these universities, there was no shortage of students to admit until a few years ago as enrolment increased from a lower base – but of late the scenario has changed drastically.

The massive rise in capacity has led to overcapacity, job growth has slowed down significantly and a shortage of student applicants in the admission pools have all combined to force self-financing HEIs to spend significant resources on the admission process, by ethical or unethical means.

Once admitted, under University Grants Commission guidelines with their 'traditional' interpretation by universities, the students begin a series of exams with a minimum of three to four per course per semester. A course on a professional programme, which has practical lab-components alongside theory, may have as many as six or more 'traditional' exams, most in the traditional format due to obvious deficits in the capacity and capability to move towards a Continuous Internal Evaluation.

Although the University Grants Commission rightfully wanted the evaluation system to be ‘continuous’ – meaning empowering faculty to shift away from ‘rote-learning’-based evaluations – the increase in testing has actually made the problem of rote learning worse.

Earlier rote-learning tests were probably held once a year or once a semester, at best twice. With academics’ workload being 12-18 hours per week, simple arithmetic shows that the ability of faculty members to mark students’ answer sheets (or projects), which can amount to thousands of pages, is extremely limited. Harvard Business School mostly has about two evaluation components per course, one classroom-based and the other exam-based.

Higher education, as it is run in most universities, is mostly an assembly line process as it moves from semester to semester, with the courses in each semester run as a batch production process.

Two batches of cola drinks produced by the same manufacturer or even by different ones can be more or less similar with strict or moderate quality control of inputs, but in an age of a massive increase in enrolment and of higher education for all, it is difficult to maintain that input control in higher education institutions.

In the case of the cola drinks, machines used in the production process can be easily standardised, but the same kind of standardisation is a daunting exercise when it comes to thousands of faculty members engaged in HEIs across the world.

The need for flexi standards and flexi processes

The dual objectives of standardisation and commodification can be achieved provided each HEI tries to set its own minimum standards of quality as per its own unique position. This is what the accreditation agencies suggest, but the message has not yet got through to most HEIs.

Not every institution needs to be a global or local leader or even produce responsible world citizens; they can produce responsible local citizens. However, we are yet to see mission/vision statements that reflect this reality.

Social expectations, regulations and government stipulations indicate that we all want to have ‘minimum common standards’ for the products of higher education, but that 'common' part has been declining in the pursuit of higher education for all. It can only be possible in such circumstances if the minimum standards are flexible for both students and faculty members and are realistically set.

Higher education can and should be for all, but it can only be so in any meaningful way when every HEI has, and responsibly uses, its own authority to decide the minimum standards of a graduate or a programme and adopts flexible processes to achieve those standards – according to the batch of the students coming onto a programme.

Minimum standards need adjustment periodically at a time of massive expansion to accommodate higher education for all. Eventually, with time, those minimum standards are likely to rise. But we are in the first phase now and no conscious attempt is being made to lower (or be flexible with) the standards. No one wants to be in the basement of the Ivory Tower.

The damage currently being done to the profession, society and students is huge as the profession steadfastly refuses to accept reality and act accordingly.

Professor Ranjit Goswami is the vice-chancellor of RK University, Gujarat, India.