Transparency for a Change in Higher Education

Given below is my recent article published in the Economic Times Blog on the need of a transparent and accountable higher education system to enhance quality and foster competition.

Indian higher education system has expanded at a break-neck speed. Nearly 20,000 colleges were added between 2000-01 and 2010-11 and the number of students enrolled doubled from nearly 8.4 million to 17 million in this decade, according to the University Grants Commission (UGC).

However, this much needed expansion came at the expense of quality. The number of seats remaining vacant in some disciplines like engineering, underemployment and unemployment among educated youth and incessant desire to collect more degrees for advancing career are some of the indicators of the inadequate quality of education imparted. In addition, we continue to hear cases of malpractices and corruption among regulators and institutions in compromising standards.

Minister Kapil Sibal has attempted to bring a change by proposing a dozen legislative bills including The Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011 and The Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Educational Institutions, 2010.  Unfortunately, most are still far from seeing the light of the day. Even if they get enacted, I do not see major qualitative changes in Indian higher education. The reason is that they are still not addressing the fundamental weakness of the system—lack of transparency.

The policy reform directions are seriously limited by its political approach of using control as the way of assuring quality rather than using transparency for empowering students and fostering competition.

One specific recommendation to achieve goals of transparency is to mandate high standards of data disclosures by institutions on institutional performance and feed this data to an easy-to-use national database for students to make informed choice.

Let us consider the case of regulation in the financial system. How is transparency ensured in publicly traded companies? It is through mandatory and easily available audited financial reports coupled with the oversight by the regulator-Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI).

In contrast, there is no availability of parallel information of institutional performance for higher education institutions. This results in all sorts of academic, financial, regulatory and marketing malpractices.

Transparency through data reporting and information sharing is an important policy-tool enforced by the U.S. Department of Education where the National Center for Education Statistics collects, collates, analyzes, and reports on American education. It uses this mandatory data reported by institutions for a free website—CollegeNavigator—to assist students in searching and comparing colleges on various parameters.

Currently, AICTE has the mandatory disclosure requirement, however, it has serious limitations in terms of the kind of information collected and the way it is presented. It is very hard to compare information across several institutions and students cannot use it for informed decision-making.

Imagine a scenario where anyone can see information online about all the approved higher education institutions and the programs available to students with their detailed performance indicators. This information would be invaluable for students in deciding which programs to pursue and thus creating a state of enhanced competition among institutions. In addition, policy-makers and researchers will have access to rich-data for further improving system.

Indian higher education is in desperate need of reform. The political approach of using control as the way of assuring quality should give way to information-based approach to enable transparency and accountability in the system.

– Dr. Rahul Choudaha