When the room in your college that has a board proclaiming that it's the 'Internal Quality Assessment Cell' is abuzz with unusually high activity, it probably means that winter is coming. Or in non-Game of Thrones style, an all important accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is nigh. An autonomous body set up by the National Policy on Education and the Programme of Action, NAAC began its journey of giving Indian colleges a rating in 1994 — a practice that was hitherto unknown and somewhat alien at the time.
Cut to 2019 and NAAC is a behemoth in the grading line. Appreciated across the board for the transparency and thought that has gone into their system of measuring how good a college is, NAAC has applied scientific principles so accurately that they have reduced human error to nearly nought. And in India, that is an achievement to talk about.
Since 2018, NAAC's current director Dr S C Sharma has been piloting this ship and he has set his sights on some pretty tough destinations — to try and handhold colleges in the North East and Kashmir to look inward, get their thoughts and infrastructure organised and get a NAAC rating. A career academician who has worked as the VC of Chhattisgarh Swami Vivekanand Technical University, Bhilai and the Tumkur University the specialist in Nano Technology talked us through his roadmap for Indian higher education and why he hopes their high bar of transparency will start rubbing off on India's private colleges.
Excerpts from a conversation:
This is a landmark year for NAAC, having turned 25. With the new National Education Policy coming into effect soon, will the functioning of NAAC be changed in any way?
NAAC has been functioning well ever since it was started 25 years ago and it has slowly picked up. From my reading of the NEP, it will continue to function as an independent body. The regulatory bodies (like UGC) and the accreditation bodies will be two independent bodies. This has to be independent because we will (be able to) assess institutions impartially.
Will not enforcement be easier if the accreditation bodies work with the regulatory ones to take action when institutions are found lacking?
NAAC functions a lot like the Lokayuktas. Lokayuktas function independently and autonomously and there is no interference from the government. They have freedom to operate. Similarly, NAAC is only an assessment and accreditation body. It will only give the benchmark for quality in higher education. We are a diagnostic agency. We will tell you what the quality of a particular institute is based on the qualitative score and the quantitative score. The regulatory body has nothing to do with it.
From time to time institutions resort to falsifying documents to get a better grade. How is this dealt with?
I can boldly say that in 99.9% of the cases — random error and error of judgement are eliminated, but only experimental error remains and this happens when someone has submitted a fudged document or if there is an oversight — justice is upheld. When a university fudges documents we blacklist the institution for five years. We are very stringent with our actions.
How have urban colleges been faring in comparison to town and village colleges as far as NAAC's grading is concerned?
With a lot of honesty, I can say that the divide between rural and urban colleges is only a thin line. Except in remote places where there are no bus facilities or internet. MHRD, NITI Aayog and the PMO have been doing a great job. If you look at history, inclusive growth is the buzzword. Even in the smallest of villages there are computers with internet connectivity. Of course, there may be power shortages but they can make do with a generator or UPS.
There have been times when deserving colleges may not have the know-how to make their case before NAAC. What then happens?
In such cases, NAAC makes the effort and goes to them, raises awareness and makes them work hard and ask them to earn their grade and see to it that they are brought into the ambit of NAAC. Some of my senior colleagues have gone 24 times to the North East to bring colleges into the fold. Kashmir is another place that we are reaching out to colleges to held them get a good grade. Now we are focusing on UP and Odisha where we are doing lots of programmes through special cells and specialised manuals and so many other programmes.
As education evolves towards a more holistic learning outcome based system, how much of a role do you foresee for quality assessors in the future?
To be honest, the next 20 years should see the doing away of this kind of gradation. Institutions should either be accredited or not. How will the country prosper? If a person voluntarily comes forward and discloses details and gets the NAAC grading — like they do for Income Tax — without it being a mandate. That is when we can say that our country has progressed in the quality of higher education.
Dr S C Sharma, Director, NAAC
In a country that has as many private institutions as Indian currently does, do you even see that as a possibility?
Each private institution would have invested on their infrastructure. We mandate that you need a certain number of faculty and buildings. So they may not want to come to NAAC at all. It may only be government colleges and universities who may want to get the accreditation. It is hypothetical, of course.
In a country like India where a great number of institutions are run by people who are politically powerful, is there pressure applied on bodies like NAAC when a grading doesn't match the owner's expectations?
Whatever our system is and whatever the rules say in our manual, we follow it unflinchingly. There is no manual or human intervention at all. It is scientific and objective. It is not up for debate. When you submit the document, you get the result. It is a purely mechanical process, but before entering the data we make them aware of how to go about it in a befitting manner. Once it is submitted, there is no relationship. Only the portal will speak and it speaks in Artificial machine Learning. Many people from all over the world ask us how we manage with such a pluralistic, heterogeneous set up. This is how we do it.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, along with renowned educationist Shri Atul Kothari, UGC Vice Chairman B Patwardhan and NAAC Director Prof S C Sharma
And if they are not happy with their grade?
Once the result is declared, after one year they can apply for a re-evaluation. However, I would like to add that this has not happened to any prestigious university so far.
Internationally, is there a value for a researcher or student to say that they graduated from a university that has a high NAAC grade?
It greatly impacts it if you come from a A grade institution and apply to an international college. This is particularly true for when people apply for academic teaching positions because they will know the kind of infrastructure and facilities a college has just by looking at the NAAC grade.
We have seen that since the National Institution Rating Framework (NIRF) came into being, several institutions are submitting their NAAC data to the NIRF. Is there a lot of similarity there?
There is no incongruence between the NIRF and NAAC's guidelines. NAAC has a stock-barrel approach while NIRF is dynamic and the parameters are adjusted every year. Whatever is positive this year, if there is no change the next year, their ranking will slide down. With NIRF, colleges only submit data and they are evaluated on it. Whereas in NAAC, we have a set procedure. We have data validation and verification.
NAAC Director Dr S C Sharma addressing a gathering during the Gyan Sammelan event at the NAAC office in Bengaluru
How has the process of grading a college evolved over time at NAAC? Is there a point in time where all the colleges will move into the A, A+ and A++ grades?
Every higher education institute aspires to get a high grade from NAAC. But it not so easy now because there is a set pattern and procedure. The metrics have been time-tested with lots of pilot studies. Out of all major universities and almost 1600 colleges only five or six have got A++ so you can see how thorough the process is. Whatever data is submitted must be supported by your evidential document and this contributes to 70 per cent of your score, whereas physical verification will only be qualitative and contribute to 30 per cent. When both things are congruent, you get a final score. In certain anomalous cases, if there is a difference, then we ask a fresh team to go there, check the documents and verify if everything is in order. Therefore, a theory of convergence takes place in the standing committee.