Sunday, August 7, 2016

Elephant-like or tigerish? -- some thoughts on quality assurance in Indian higher education

Having just declined an invitation to speak at a seminar on quality assurance (QA) in higher education, I thought I might record some of my "heretical" ideas on the subject here.

The post-NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) period has seen the emergence of a plethora of fashionable terms in higher education.  One of them which has become so well-known on account of its having been bandied about in seminars and reports is QA.  Over the past two decades, there has been a surfeit of national seminars on quality assurance, quality enhancement, and the role of the internal quality assurance cell (IQAC) in quality enhancement.  I have attended some of them either as a resource person or as a mere participant, and I have gone through the proceedings of a few other seminars which I did not have the opportunity to attend.  As I reflected on the seminars I participated in, I had three thoughts, two of which were disturbing and one amusing. I would like to share them here.

Thought 1: Are the seminars on QA themselves qualitative?

If the seminars I attended were representative, seminars on QA do little more than dishing out in, textbook language, theoretical information on QA norms which would make little sense in the context of education but which provide easy answers to questions about quality assurance and enhancement in higher education.  That even these borrowed ideas and easy answers are expressed in a sloppy, slipshod way is a measure of the presentation skills of professionals who are primarily communicators.  This sad spectacle in QA seminars is due not so much to the dearth of competent resource persons in our country as to our choice of resource persons.  It is also due to the fact that a national seminar has become a numbers game.  The upshot of all this is that, ironically enough, it is quality that becomes a casualty in many quality assurance seminars!   That this casualty is “achieved” by spending enormous amounts of the taxpayers’ money is indeed a disturbing thought.

Thought 2: Is the corporate QA model necessary?
QA and the other derivatives of ‘quality’, such as quality sustenance, quality control, and quality enhancement, which are often part of the discourse on higher education nowadays, come from the industry – from the corporate world.  In the industry, QA refers to the methods that a company uses to check that the standard of its services and goods is high enough.  And, in the industry, the Darwinian Law operates: only the fittest survives.  To ensure its continued survival, therefore, each company adopts rigorous and standardized QA measures.  Quality, conceived in this way, has a distinct corporate identity.

Over the past two decades, higher educational institutions have been making desperate attempts to acquire this corporate identity because, in the global market, their survival is at stake.  In the process, they have been using an idiom unknown to education systems in the past.  It is a corporate idiom, and it comes with their attempts to acquire a corporate identity.

How this idiom operates is at once interesting and frightening.  A college is not a college; it is a service sector.  It doesn’t impart education; it provides educational services.  Teachers are not teachers; they are service providers.  And we have products: at one level, the courses we offer are our products, and, at another, our own students are our products.  We have customers also: our interim customers are our students, and ultimate customers are employers.  And our job as service providers is to ensure the salability or marketability of our products.  This is where the quality mechanism comes in: quality assurance, quality control, quality sustenance, quality enhancement, and what not.  If a college ensures all this, it will have a brand image (not ‘reputation’ which is an old-fashioned expression)  – an image determined by NAAC accreditation, NBA accreditation, ISO certification, and so on.  In short, a college will not be imparting education; it will be trading in educational services.

Now, the question that needs to be raised is: Do we need a corporate image, a corporate identity, and the accompanying corporate idiom?  The corporate identity seems to be a dehumanizing identity according to which the learner, who is a human being, is a product, and the college, which produces this product, is like a factory.  Institutions such as Loyola where I have taught for about three decades have (or had) an ennobling image and identity as institutions which regard(ed) education as a creative art, as a humanistic discipline, and as a means of ethical transformation.  This does not at all mean that quality need not be our concern. We do need high standards, and, to achieve high standards and maintain them, we do need to adopt rigorous measures.  But, in the process, there is no need to adopt the corporate model, the corporate pattern, and the corporate mode of functioning.  It is certainly possible to evolve a humanizing non-corporate model which is in keeping with the genius of educational institutions.  This calls for some introspection. We must remember here that quality is not something unknown to higher education.  In the past, our institutions – some of them, if not all of them – have rather unselfconsciously maintained quality of a high kind without even using the term quality.  What we need to do, therefore, in evolving quality norms in higher educations is to take a hard look at our long-neglected traditions and healthy practices, instead of merely searching for a chimerical creature called quality in the corporate jungle. 

This leads to my third thought, an amusing one.

Thought 3: Why this deafening noise about quality in higher education now?

Why has there been so much noise about quality in higher education during the past few years?  The easiest answer is: globalization and the impending internationalization of trade in higher education.  But, as I reflected on this question, I remembered an old joke which perceptively answered the question.  Once a German asked a Swiss, ‘Why is it that we Germans often talk about honour, where as you Swiss often talk about money?’  The Swiss quietly replied, ‘I guess people often talk about what they most lack.’

I didn’t intend this post to be so lengthy – I hope it is not unreadably so. Just a brief concluding paragraph. In my opinion, adopting a corporate model for QA in higher education will be as futile an exercise as painting stripes on an elephant.  For one thing, the stripes will make no essential difference: the elephant will still be elephant-like, not tigerish.  For another, as Gurcharan Das so perceptively pointed out in a different context – I think the book is The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change – it is a meditative, elephant-like approach rather than a tigerish one that can ensure a safe passage for higher education in the treacherous terrain that lies ahead.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A first-of-its-kind conference experience

Right from the word go, everything spun off the track at the conference.  The organizers had booked me on a train which arrived at midnight. A huge family got into my cabin with a whole load of luggage and kids, dropped them – the luggage as well as the kids – all around me and debated for a good one hour in the thick of night how the cargo should be strategically arranged. When the job was done, the 2-tier cabin was a virtual luggage van with the bodies of the family, sprawled all over the luggage, adding a touch of animation to the luggage. I lay sleepless until I got off at 8 o’clock in the morning.

At the railway station, the pick-up arrangement failed. After a half-hour agonizing wait and several phone calls, a doleful-looking English professor from the university arrived at 8.30. Evidently, he liked neither chauffeuring nor English; and the conference seemed the last thing on his mind.

I was worried sick. I had been invited to play two crucial roles at the international conference the English Department was organizing – as a guest of honour at the inaugural ceremony, which was scheduled to start at 9.30 in the morning, and as a plenary speaker later in the day. And I had barely twenty-five minutes to shave, wash, change and have breakfast.

When the first three were accomplished, it was 9.25. Deciding to skip breakfast, I called the conference secretary and said I was ready. ‘Sir, please wait,’ he said. ‘Once I hear that the Chancellor has left for the conference venue, I’ll come and pick you up myself. Before that, I’ll call you.’ Or, something to that effect: the English language and the English teachers in the university seem to be poles apart.

It was 10. There was no call. I called the organizing secretary and asked him whether I could go to the conference venue. He said, ‘Oh, no, sir. I must come and pick you up myself. I’m waiting for a call from the Chancellor’s office. I’ll get back to you.’

The time was 11 now. The stomach growled a protest. ‘Shut up!’ I said. ‘I’m in no mood to think about creature comforts; I may have to leave anytime now.’ I called a fellow plenary speaker staying in a different room on the same floor in the guest house. She said she had made several calls and got the same reply as I did.

To cut a long story short, when, at last, I was led into the conference venue at 12 o’clock, the inaugural ceremony had been over – without the guest of honour! The head of the department of English was proposing a vote of thanks in unhearable English.

My immediate impulse was to walk out on the conference, registering a protest. Inviting a senior professor and a well-known conference/seminar leader as a guest of honour and keeping him away from the ceremony where he was to play the role he had been invited to play was a grievous insult, not just a faux pas. That it was done by a university which was cocking-a-hoop about its having been ranked No. 1 among institutions of its kind made it even more grievous. Resisting the impulse to walk out on the conference, I stayed on and listened to the keynote speech by a professor from a reputable university. It was a drivel – a scripted drivel which he was reading out with some difficulty.

In the afternoon, I decided not to be part of the conference anymore. The conference, I said to the organizers, could do without me. The university authorities were apologetic, and tried to persuade me to stay on, but I left.

I had a rough time on the ten-hour-long return journey by bus; it was tougher than the outward journey amid loads of luggage and kids. But it was not half so bad as the rough deal at the conference which sticks out like a sore thumb in my three-decade-long history of attending and leading professional development programmes.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, a young college teacher of English came to me with a set of General English textbooks prescribed by his university for undergraduate students. The course, the cover pages of the books said, was part of the common-core curriculum (CCC) under the choice-based credit system. The CCC factor and the fact that the authors of the books belonged to different universities indicated that the books were in use in all the universities in the State.

I glanced through the books and felt sad. Underlying the instructional materials was a retrogressive literary-humanistic approach on the knowledge-transmission model of teaching with restricted opportunities for students to practise their English, let alone real-world English. Students have to process -- and answer content-based questions on -- turgid literary or semi-literary essays (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's 'The man in black,' written 270 years ago), lengthy philosophical lectures urging one to remain unattached (e.g. Swami Vivekananda's lecture on 'The secret of work,' given over 120 years ago), modern prose of the kind written by people like Dr Kalam, and poetry of the kind written in days of yore which has been lectured on and exhausted so much so that there is no life left in it. Another book gave plenty of theoretical information on communication and on how speech sounds are produced for good measure, and yet another book preached sermons on soft skills. The books were one big yawn from start to finish. They reminded me of the sad reality that the undergraduate English classroom is still primitive.

Around the same time I watched on TV Prime Minister Modi being given a rock-star reception in Silicon Valley: Apple, Tesla, Google and Microsoft were rolling out the red-carpet for him. It was because they were able to see India leapfrogging into the latest technologies and becoming the fastest-growing market in the world in technology.

These are conflicting images -- the image of the country becoming technologically so advanced and that of the undergraduate English classroom remaining so primitive, obstinately clinging to the past, impervious to the technological advancement all around it. It reminded me of a hilarious poem by Richard Hovey I had come across about three-and-a-half decades ago when I quit a lucrative career as a sarkari babu in order to become an English teacher:

Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a very pious man;
He went into the wilderness to teach the Indians,

With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,

And five hundred gallons of New England rum.

Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.

Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

The five-hundred gallons of New England rum that Eleazar brought is still flowing merrily in our English classrooms -- metaphorically speaking.

Isn't time this flow was stopped? Our students deserve a better deal. If they are to function successfully in a job market that sets a high premium on communication skills, then, English teachers must get their act together.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The death penalty: a difficult issue

For an intellectual, Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, has an unusual and unhypocritical take on the death penalty. In his TOI column today (September 13, 2015), he says: ‘The UN resolution says that it (the death penalty) undermines human dignity. But I am not convinced. I would argue that retaining the death penalty, in fact, enhances human dignity.’

The proponents of the death penalty argue that it acts as a deterrent.  In other words, it deters crime by discouraging would-be offenders.   Does it really?  But the abolition of capital punishment seems to act as a deterrent.  In Canada, for instance, there has been a sharp fall in the rate of homicide since the death penalty was abolished.  Execution, as the Italian political theorist, Cesare Beccaria, rightly pointed out, is after all transient and so cannot be as powerful as long-term imprisonment.

But there is a difficulty with this line of reasoning.  Isn't life imprisonment with assured food, clothing and shelter more a reward than a punishment?  Isn't it actually a punishment for the taxpayers?  In a Tolstoy story ('Too Dear'), a criminal who gets life for a murder turns out to be drain on the exchequer.  After some time, the government tells him to go away, but he wouldn't. To get rid of him, the government finally offers him a pension of 600 francs, which was much cheaper!

Though the Tolstoy story exaggerates the situation, the fact remains that execution is much cheaper than life imprisonment. Two things, however, justify life imprisonment.  One, it is a more powerful deterrent.  Two, we have come a long way since we burnt criminals at the stake as a form of capital punishment; we consider it barbaric now.  By parity of reasoning, we must consider the death penalty itself barbaric.

Barbaric it may be, but retributive certainly – this is the argument of a large number of people.  What they mean is that, as a fundamental principle, the punishment should be equal to the offence.  But this is only a refined form of the old fiat, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  Laws about punishment, as James Fieser pointed out, should be based not on extreme feelings but tempered ones.

Much as the case for doing away with capital punishment is strong, it is not likely to be abolished in the foreseeable future in our country.  ‘To everything there is a season and a time,’ as the Bible so perceptively points out.  The time hasn't come yet: the belief in retributive punishment is still so deeply entrenched in this land of Mahatma Gandhi who, we must remember, was "executed" for advocating moderation.