Beyond Compliance – or Public Good, Public Accountability and Public University

Should the erosion of student skill sets, quality of research output or employability in the global space not call for accountability from our higher education institutions?

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State-funded universities or higher educational institutions (HEIs) are described as ‘public universities’. This phrase is by far one of the most singular, far-sighted and aspirational employed in the country, outside of the Constitution’s stirring opening lines. It is precisely for this reason, in the age of ‘restructuring’, offshore education centres (OECs), private-public partnerships and other moves, that we need to examine the first word in the term – ‘public’ – and what it entails.

Public universities, it should be noted, have considerable autonomy, although financial uncertainty increasingly erodes this today. There are, too, several monitoring mechanisms by the regulatory and ranking bodies, which have resulted in HEIs rushing to meet the requirements of these bodies. This produces a compliance culture – which becomes, then, the HEI’s way of construing the public itself, because the monitoring bodies are public bodies.

There are two possible ways of examining the continuing relevance of the term ‘public’ in ‘public university’.

HEIs and the public good

‘Public’ etymologically means ‘to do with the people at large’ and even ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’. In its very semantics, it eschews exclusion because it is for the larger public. Linked to the term in the wide field of economics is ‘good’, creating the concept of a ‘public good’. A public good is traditionally one to be provided by the state because the activity provided a service to the community as a whole, and this cannot be done by the private sector, or ought not to be. In the age of global accreditation, student and faculty internationalisation, the making of an international academic publishing-databasing industry and the more worrying neoliberal shift towards privatisation, what happens to the idea of the ‘public good’?

In their introduction to Higher Education in Asia/Pacific: Quality and the Public Good, Terance W. Bigalke and Deane E. Neubauer write:

“…neoliberalism reproblematizes the public good and public goods in general by resituating them within a redefined private sphere… As the value of higher education is increasingly linked to its vocational deployments, a university degree has come to be viewed as a personal acquisition, one with strong individual and instrumental entailments. The neoliberal framing of this global shift argues that individuals should be prepared to make their own investments in a commodity that is going to be so important to their income earning potential later in life.”

In short, in the guise of choice and rights, the hitherto domain of public education is being privatised.  But this is not all. As Bigalke and Deane E. Neubauer note,

“When higher education was a more unabashedly elitist activity, quality was assumed to reside self-evidently in the most elite institutions, those knowable by the nature of their research and scholarship, their ability to attract the best students, or the size of their endowments. Quality higher education institutions contributed to the vitally important social reproduction of elites.”

When larger enrolment – or ‘massification’ – occurs, they argue, the ‘issue of the quality of traditional institutions and their ability to compete globally is laid over this more fundamental quality question raised by massification’. They add:

“…as institutions are being expanded in size and number, reputed quality institutions are being brought up to competitive standards, and institutional standards for quality measurement and assurance are being hastily assembled by the public policy process.”

They discern four trends in quality assurance policies in HEIs in Asia:

“…highly capacity focused (intended to measure various capacity metrics), or organized around first-level output measures (number of articles in journals ranked by some standard, number of graduates per input, etc;

efforts … to make evaluation standards more quality sensitive;

a different model of accreditation was required…by linking capacity and preparedness with that of educational effectiveness, founded on outcomes;

cross-border or global accreditation.”

That HEIs should gear up towards global rankings and world-class standards not for the sake of competition but because, in the pursuit of such higher standards, the education offered to students will be of better quality, is indisputable. Also indisputable is that at the end of a programme the student ought to have better abilities than what s/he entered the HEI with. Ensuring the effectiveness of education through clear-cut outcomes (and not abstractions such as ‘we shall produce good citizens’) in our mission and vision statement – which will have to be demonstrated at the end of the academic year – should be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That skill development in our respective disciplines is our goal should be a truism (sample: does reading Antonio Gramsci enable a better/higher skill-set among our students? Or, for that matter, ‘close reading’ Shakespeare? If yes, what are these skill sets?).

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All these trends are, taken together, indicative of the emphasis on a public good for the students entering our portals: better skills, better global preparedness, all-round cognitive and intellectual abilities (not just vocational). These are not trends that can be ignored or denied simply on the basis of massification. In other words, even when our HEIs expand, the emphasis on skills, outcomes, higher standards and updating of our teaching-learning programmes cannot be diminished. If we agree that these constitute the students’ and therefore the nation’s public good, then the investment in the expansion of enrolment must be accompanied by a higher investment – faculty training, better syllabi, improved pedagogic practices, student financial and other support – in the public institutions. Leave facilities, research-infrastructural-administrative support are also domains for investment, needless to say.

There has been diminished investment in HEIs globally, particularly after the pandemic, as a recent (2022) report shows (for once, India did make a higher investment in higher education for the FY 2022-23, a 6.6% increase over the previous year). But this downward movement in terms of public investment is also marked by an increase in privatisation, often done surreptitiously and under the guise of ‘opening up’ education to private players. All this simply means closing the HEI to the public.

Public accountability and performance

Now, if the public HEI draws on public funds to enable education for the public good, it stands to reason that the HEI should also be accountable to this same public. Commentators note that more and more countries hold the institution accountable for facilitating favourable learning outcomes as an index of the quality of education imparted. Accreditation is more necessary today as the demands for public accountability grow louder.

Gero Federkeil in the same volume cited above links quality assurance to accountability in a map where comparative peer review, rankings, accreditation are modes of accountability and institutional audit is an integral part of the process. Benchmarking and peer review that lead to enhancement of standards of quality are also a part of the map.

Such a process of internal assessment is constitutive of the emphasis on greater accountability. Ralph Wolff, also in the same volume, puts it bluntly:

“…recognition processes have changed in response to increasing calls for accountability and transparency — focusing more on the effectiveness of institutions and the availability of public information about the institution.”

It is in this territory of public transparency and public accountability that the HEI’s plot sickens.

Accountability in any office has to do with an answer to the basic question: does the office or organisation fulfill the mandate given to it, and for which public funds are allotted? In short, the question addresses performance, efficiency and effect of an office or organisation.  And how far are we transparently assessing performance is in fact a question of accountability.

There is no performance anxiety in Indian HEIs because everything comes to everyone over time. In short, HEIs have a surfeit of performance apathy that, with practice, ensures that performance at the higher and highest levels are equated with (sometimes derided or plain ignored) mediocre and non-performance. The ‘fear of small numbers’, to adapt Arjun Appadurai for a different purpose, characterises the HEIs where the small numbers of performers are ignored simply because they show up the rest, thus demoralising the former and justifying the latter’s non-performance.

Admittedly, measuring effect in terms of numbers alone can have a deleterious effect since disciplinary differences need to be accounted for (can Philosophy, for example, have the same measurable outcomes as English or Biochemistry?). However, the response to this question cannot be that we refuse to assess performance by claiming exception for disciplines, or, for that matter, flattening all output as equally acceptable. Would/should an outdated syllabus, a publication in a predatory journal, a plagiarised work be treated on par with a topically relevant course or a publication in a top-flight journal? In all aspects of life, we operate by comparison and differential evaluation – whether this is buying an automobile or sending one’s progeny to school – so why do we shy away from such an evaluation of work and output? The answer to this question is in fact the accountability test: are we willing to make qualitative (and not just metric) assessments of all aspects of an HEI? (But to do so would take considerable courage from Vice Chancellors, NIRF and NAAC systems, and Internal Quality Assurance Cells!).

Some nations have taken performance assessment and therefore public accountability seriously.

In 2017, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) published collated reports from eight universities in China, Austria, Kenya, Germany, Bahrain, Bangladesh, South Africa and Chile about their Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) mechanisms. German universities, to take one such report, laid considerable emphasis on course evaluation by students, focusing on ‘course content and the study  environment’, and at the end of the term the feedback meeting discussed ‘whether the objectives of the course were fulfilled, how the lecturer dealt with any problems, and which changes should be implemented for the following course cycle’.

Also read: Reforming Higher Education, With a Helping Hand From Philanthropy

In terms of institutional mechanisms, ‘the  framework for institutional evaluation … takes account of every functional area (teaching and learning, research, service, and management)’. Employability of those passing out was to be factored in at all levels. What is notable about the German IQA system is that the IQA is embedded in all aspects of policy and planning: curriculum design, human resource development, organisational development, data management.

In the Chilean system, features such as ‘graduate tracer studies’ (tracing where the graduates were headed after their degree), employment satisfaction surveys, program monitoring, student workload assessment, job market analysis and assessment of student competencies were included when assessing performance. A ‘performance target agreement’ is executed between the academic unit and the HEI:

“The unit performance target agreement … is a management tool that aligns the operation of the units with the institutional strategic plan. Target agreements are applied to the following units: the offices of the pro-rector and vice-rectors, faculties, institutes, and general offices. The process begins when each unit formulates its annual target agreement on the university’s website…Every December, a self-evaluation is carried out by each unit and evidence as to the outcome of each agreement is provided.”

Then these agreements are monitored:

“These target agreements apply to both tenured and non-tenured academic staff regardless of the number of contract hours. Each academic makes a commitment toward the end of the year concerning  activities to be undertaken,  assigns  a  schedule,  and defines the expected results on the university’s website. Higher-level administration approves  the  agreement  or  generates  corresponding  observations  until  it  is  approved. Before the end of the academic year, each professor engages in a self-evaluation and the target  agreement  process  begins  again. Both the agreements and the self-evaluations are further used as resources in various decision-making processes at the level of the university management system.”

IQA, in these cases, was not an end-of-year activity timed to comply with the national monitoring mechanism, it was a feature of everyday planning, from faculty hiring/promotion to fund outlays.

Indian HEIs are defined less by such rigorous planning than by a compliance culture, working towards ticking the boxes in proformas from NIRF, NAAC or QS. The planning consists entirely of ‘how to ensure no box is unchecked’, rather than to create, internally, the boxes necessary to improve research, teaching quality or student support services. Performance apathy results from simply meeting the basic minimum required by the regulatory agencies (let us adhere strictly to UGC’s ‘minimum guidelines’ is the standard cry from faculty, forgetting that we are paid well above the national minimum wage, and get more holidays and paid vacation days than any other profession!). To improve  assessment processes therefore NAAC is now attempting to redefine assessment and accreditation processes, as can be seen in the ‘Re-Imagining Assessment and Accreditation in Higher Education in India’ draft document from 2022, focusing on the UN’s SDGs and student learning outcomes (accountability figures a few times in the draft).

Making the vision, implementation, target, outcomes (in terms of research publication, student performance, course/learning outcomes) public is essential if we are to think less of compliance than of meeting those standards that enable our students to achieve global competitive worth and employability. HEIs are tasked with this goal, how far has each of them gone towards implementing that goal?

The collapse of the bridge in Gujarat will no doubt raise the issue of accountability from those task with repairing it, monitoring the repairs and so on. Should the erosion of student skill sets, quality of research output or employability in the global space not call for a similar accountability from our faculty and HEIs?

Etymologically, ‘public’ also means ‘open to general observation’. A public university’s performance in every domain for which it is funded must be open to such a general observation. Those who demand, from within the sinecures of university employment with guaranteed promotion and privileges (despite non-performance in many cases), accountability in ministers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and (even) business houses must be subject to the same yardsticks of accountability.

Pramod K. Nayar is a professor at the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad.