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.


  1. I have served 37 years in the quality assurance of aircraft parts , functionalities , flight test in an aeronautical company. How do we equate the QA Term to educational system. Students are individuals with different learning abilities and to get big terms zero defect and six sigma seems to be not rational . Our hypothetical question of acceptance level in terms examination and evaluation in terms of the QA seems to be out of context. In corporate QA we refer quality of design , design control, process control , process vetting , control of tools and allied machinery , environment control , document control , traceability and control, and I can add on. But how can many of these parameters can be equated and substantiated. Fancy talks and big names cannot solve the learning process. Academicians and intellectuals can sit and evolve the various methods , to elevate the levels in the delivery , dissemination , orientation , motivation , appreciation such that learning is made interesting rather than giving a new name to a seminar and reaching no where , which is a non productive exercise.

    1. Thank you, KRR, for a perspective from the industry.

  2. I have been teaching to different grade level students from past 5years and have seen corporate models slowly dominating the education sector.But what I noticed was the the quality of knowledge imparted to students has not improved. Infact I completely agree with you that quality of education were high when these corporate terms were unknown. The names used are techie and catchy and are absolutely helpful in obtaining a brand image but not in obtaining true quality in education.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Nirmala. The post is about the blind application of the corporate (QA) model to higher educational institutions. In a corporate environment, however, things which you just can't think of in a traditional educational set-up for want of money are certainly possible. In the corporate environment where I have been working for about three years now in my post-retirement career, I find it easier to experiment with creative ideas, thanks largely to the availability of financial support and a no-nonsense attitude to innovation and experimentation. Well, that could be the subject of a different blog post.

      I welcome you to read my blog posts regularly and take part in discussions. Why don't you type in your email id in the 'Follow by email' box on the right panel to ensure an email notification when a new post is published? Do tell me where you are teaching now.