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Quality Assurance, Accreditation & Ranking of Engineering Institutions: Challenges & Opportunities

S. Satnam Singh Sandhu
Chancellor, Chandigarh University

Higher education in India is undergoing considerable change. With over 600 million people in India under 25 years old, the system isunder tremendous pressure to expand. India’s young population has a hugeappetite for education and, as the growth in the size of the middle classesescalates, millions are increasingly able to pay for it. By 2020, India willhave the largest tertiary-age population in the world and will have the secondlargest graduate talent pipeline globally, following China and ahead of the USA.

In the next decade, India will experience enormous growth in its middle classes: from 50 million now, to 500 million by 20257. By2020, India will be the world’s third largest economy. The relationship betweeneconomic growth and growth in the tertiary enrolment ratio is particularly strongfor economies with lower levels of GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita. AsIndia’s economy continues to grow, a huge number of first generation learnerswill demand access to higher education. In ten years’ time, 25 millionhouseholds across India will have an income equivalent to $15,000 and will beable to pay fees for higher education, an increase of 15 million on today’senrolment rates.

Government plans are in place to transform the sectorover the next five years. Every aspect of higher education is being reorganizedand remodeled: funding, leadership and management, quality assurance,accountability, relationships with industry, international collaboration, andthe way research and teaching are conducted. If these reforms succeed, thebreadth and depth of the change will be transformational.

Quality Assurance and Accreditation Mechanisms in India

There are two major national quality assurance instruments in Higher and Technical Education, whichincidentally were established in the year 1994:

  • National Board of Accreditations (NBA):– This was originallyconceived as one of the several Boards of the All India Council for TechnicalEducation (AICTE). NBA in its present form came into existence as an autonomousbody with effect from 7th January 2010. NBA accredits not only undergraduateprograms, but also postgraduate and diploma programs. The accreditationprocesses are designed broadly along the lines of ABET processes, but adaptedto suit local circumstances and context. This is becoming particularly usefulnow when India is seeking to become a member of the Washington Accord.
  • National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC):– This was set up as aSociety by the University Grants Commission (UGC). NAAC covers essentiallygeneral “non-professional” education provided by universities and autonomouscolleges. Some engineering colleges, however, have also sought and obtainedinstitutional accreditation from NAAC. Following the corporatesector, several engineering colleges have obtained ISO-9000 certification fromthe relevant agencies. Magazine Rankings Several magazines in India publishannual rankings of engineering institutions (T-schools) and managementinstitutions (B-schools), such as for example, India Today, Outlook, Dataquest,Business World, Business Today and Business India. National Accreditation Board for Testing andCalibration Laboratories (NABL) The Department of Science and Technologyassesses laboratories which undertake testing and calibration certificationthrough NABL.
  • Ranking of Universitiesby MHRD (The NationalInstitutional Ranking Framework):– With a vision to guidethe perspective students to select the best educational institution oruniversity, Ministry of Human Resource Development has come-up with NationalRaking Mechanism known as “The National Institutional Ranking Framework(NIRF)” which was conceived in the year 2015. Since then, MHRD has comewith 2 editions of the National Rankings of the Educational Intuitions andUniversities. This framework outlines a methodology to rank institutions acrossthe country. The methodology draws from the overall recommendations broadunderstanding arrived at by a Core Committee set up by MHRD, to identify thebroad parameters for ranking various universities and institutions. Theparameters broadly cover “Teaching, Learning and Resources,” “Research and ProfessionalPractices,” “Graduation Outcomes,” “Outreach and Inclusivity,” and “Perception”. There are separaterankings for different types of institutions depending on their areas ofoperation like universities and colleges, engineering institutions, managementinstitutions, pharmacy institutions and architecture institutions. TheFramework uses several parameters for ranking purposes like resources,research, and stakeholder perception. These parameters have been grouped intofive clusters and these clusters were assigned certain weightages. Theweightages depend on the type of institution. About 3500 institutionsvoluntarily participated in the first round of rankings.
  • Criticism of NIRF (Comparing apple trees to oranges):– The NIRF has collatedinformation under five broad heads: Teaching, Learning and Resources, Researchand Professional Practice, Graduation Outcomes, Outreach and Inclusivity, and,Perception. There are serious shortcomings in method and execution. Over 70% ofthe NIRF data is self-reported by the colleges and universities which canpotentially be circumspect and needs rigorous verification, but has not beendone. Even though summary data has been put in the public domain by the NIRFfor the top 100 universities, at least a quarter of their own homepages do notcorroborate their data for public viewing. There is thus little chance ofverification by transparency, leave alone any reprimand for any mismatch inreportage by delinquent university/colleges. Besides the problem of datareliability, there are methodological issues too that need further scrutiny.The ranking, for example, relies on ‘perception’ in a prominent way. Can such acriterion offer any objective numbers? Or is this just intended to favoruniversities who advertise and self-promote aggressively. It may encourageuniversities to game the system by getting higher ranks without necessarilypossessing academic quality. The NIRF has also beensilent on some important aspects involving academic integrity. The frameworkhas no rules to dis-incentivize wrongful academic practices, it has noprotocols for tackling ‘predatory journal’ publications or plagiarism, and, thedebate on management quotas and academic quality remain untouched.

Opportunities and Challenges for Engineering Education in India

  • The Need for a Change inthe Engineering Education Paradigm: Several fundamental changes have takenplace in the recent past, such as: globalization; the concept of sustainability;rapid advances in S&T, especially in fields such as I.T., biotechnology,materials technology, etc. New processes for the development, utilization andexpansion of knowledge have raised questions of whether and to what extent thequalification, education and training; and employment of engineers; need to beadapted in order to meet and master these new challenges and requirements.Challenges for engineering education and the engineering professions have alsoarisen from technological and organizational change and theinternationalization of business.
  • The Short comings of Current Curricula and Suggestions for Reform: The core difficulty is in takinginto account the heterogeneity of work settings of engineers. The US curriculaare criticized for tending to be geared to the waning model of the large-scaleindustrial research lab, and for failing to account for the changing needs ofmost companies. The requirements of reformed curricula are: Moreinterdisciplinary elements and interfaces, early industry exposure throughproject-based learning and internships, Management knowledge and businessprocess skills Opportunities for improving foreign language skills (includingforeign experience), Interpersonal skills training, and development of a senseof social responsibility. More flexible course and examination requirements to facilitate joint-programs with universities / polytechnics abroad