The Perils of Chasing Indicators

Source: By Emmanuel Thomas: The Financial Express

The NIRF 2019, the annual ranking of higher educational institutions using the National Institutional Ranking Framework of the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), was released recently. While India has about 900 universities and 40,000 colleges, the number of participating institutions stood at just 3,127, and hardly any of them are of global standards. In fact, there are no Indian universities in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2019.

While the window of demographic dividend remains open for India, education remains a major bottleneck. It is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for nations. How much we will benefit will depend on the quality of human capital. But India ranks 130th out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index. And we were ranked 115th out of 157 countries in the first ever Human Capital Index released by the World Bank in April 2018. This index measures the human capital level and predicts the potential productivity of children. India had a score of 0.44, meaning that a child born today can expect to be only 44% productive compared to her potential with complete health and education. Subsequently, the government rejected the report!

Gross enrolment ratio (GER) for higher education in India is 26. It is 22 and 16, respectively, for scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). This compares poorly with 51 of Brazil, 48 of China and 81 of Russia. While the quality of education remains poor and access highly inequitable, what we are witnessing in the background is a retreat of the state from the sector, especially higher education. Public expenditure on education was around 3.1% of GDP in 2012-13. It declined to 2.4% by 2015-16. And public expenditure on higher education has been around 1%. This is against the long-standing demand of 6% by the sector.

An urgency to reduce budgetary support and increase efficiency, reflected in the philosophy behind the New Public Management, prompted governments across the world to move towards a result-oriented approach, from the 1980s onwards. The disenchantment with the public sector led to the separation of the roles of service provider and regulator/policymaking of governments.

Competition between units operating in quasi market environments was expected to improve the outcomes leading to the achievement of policy goals. India is treading this path in education. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), an autonomous body under the University Grants Commission (UGC), evaluates, assesses and accredits institutions of higher education for a period of five years. The NIRF ranking is a yearly affair, basically an annual progress card. While it is important to evaluate performance, we should be aware of the unintended consequences of this approach.

That the assessment and ranking approach has intensified the rat race is a foregone conclusion. Institutions cannot ignore the ratings as financial assistance and choice of institutions by students depend on them. But the pertinent question is whether we could make any breakthrough in higher education by following this accreditation and ranking approach? Will orienting to the parameters used in the NIRF and the NAAC lead to further improvement of the quality of the best institutions? And will chasing these indicators improve the quality of the low performers?

Excessive emphasis on performance evaluation can result in performance paradox, a weak correlation between performance indicators and actual performance. The reasons are many. Performance evaluation will shift focus to activities that can be measured. For example, the number of programmes organised will increase without any attention to their quality or even relevance. But these quantifiable aspects increase at the cost of aspects that are difficult to quantify. Quality of teaching eludes quantification. But a shift away from this core activity in colleges will not augur well for higher education.

As emphasis shifts to indicators, more resources will be devoted to documentation and quality assurance mechanisms. Moreover, the organisation will become myopic in its approach, ignoring the medium- and long-term goals. Chasing of indicators also leads to laggards simply mimicking the outward appearance of the best performers. The fact that India leads in the number of publications in predatory journals is ample proof of this. There will also be perverse learning, which is an instance where an indicator is achieved in letter but not in spirit.

The NAAC assigns 25% and 15% weightage to research, innovation and extension for universities and colleges, respectively. The NIRF attaches a higher weightage of 30% to research and professional practices. Research requires faculty with a research bent of mind along with infrastructure and time, set in an environment that encourages critical thinking. But, unfortunately, most of the universities and colleges lack these. That only a handful of universities in India produce any useful or world-class research output speaks volumes about this. Teachers in colleges have a comparative advantage in teaching. If they have to produce one unit of output in research, they will have to give up many units of output in teaching, compromising their core responsibility. In fact, the NAAC attaches a weightage of 35% and 45%, respectively, for universities and colleges for curricular and teaching aspects.

Colleges form the ‘catchment area’ of universities. Only if colleges succeed in producing graduates with knowledge and skills will universities and other research institutions thrive on their ‘catch’. In a welcome step, the UGC has already initiated drafting of Learning Outcome based Curriculum Framework. And this is a continuum, with schools as feeder institutions for colleges.

The Economic Survey 2017-18 rightly pointed out that “no country can create a vibrant superstructure of R&D with weak foundations of primary and secondary education for so many of its young.” Learning outcome in our schools is pathetic. India had opted out of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009 following disappointing performance of our children. They were ranked better only to Kyrgyzstan, the worst performer. Participating in such international ranking helps us to understand where we stand, which should inform policymaking. It’s reassuring that, in January 2019; the government has signed an agreement with the OECD for participating in the PISA 2021.

A holistic approach to education is the need of the hour. Education needs streamlining at all levels. We cannot build the superstructure of higher education on a weak schooling system. Higher education institutions that rank high are there only because of liberal funding, better infrastructure and a dynamic leadership that attracted the best faculty and students. If we have to create more such institutions, we will have to invest much more in education, especially in teacher training, recognising the paramount role of teachers in education. And their energies should be channelised into the right activities, undistorted by the spectre of indicators. Otherwise we will miss the bus.