Standardised curriculums in Indian universities are not helping to improve academic quality

Low attainment levels are presenting universities with big challenges. from www.shutterstock.com

Standardised curriculums adopted by many universities in India are not helping to raise students’ academic outcomes.

Over-regulation in the Indian higher education sector has led regulators like the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education and the Pharmacy Council of India to insist on a standardised curriculum being followed by all colleges and universities.

UGC proposed the model curriculum for almost all programs and courses as it assumed standardising the curriculum would help to establish a minimum standard of quality. And for the courses that this didn’t apply to, such as the professional ones, other regulators like AICTE stepped in.

Students are enrolled into various colleges, for the same programs and courses, but with a variety of abilities. Due to this, having a set curriculum for courses is leading to poor learning outcomes, as students’ needs aren’t being catered to.

The standard entry requirement for university admission in India is a minimum mark of 45-50% at the senior secondary level.

However, a lack of quality, due to a focus on quantity and not on quality, is clear when one sees that back in 2005, the overall pass rate of students across different boards in 12th standard had been at 68%, in 2010 it was 72.7% and now in 2016 and for CBSE, the most popular board, it is 83%.

On top of the above, a huge supply side has created colleges and universities, offering various academic programs, with millions of approved seats but no takers. For private players, resources are more related to approved seats and not student strength, due to regulatory norms. Therefore most private colleges, even if they think student quality is not good at the admission stage itself, may not reject any applicant, in order not to lower any further the already low capacity utilisation rates.

The problem is that universities often interpret curriculum guidelines very literally. But this is only a suggested model, and not binding.

Experience shows that government and/or government bodies cannot tell a university what to teach or how to evaluate, but in India it is too common for bodies like UGC or AICTE to state what to teach and how to evaluate.

Low academic quality

Slipping standards and low academic outcomes have been a big concern in the country since a huge expansion took place in the primary, secondary and tertiary education systems.

By 2020, India aims to have 42 million students enrolled in higher education, a 30% increase from 2014-15.

But the government’s attempt to provide “quality higher education for all” has seen education standards slide in general, excluding a few elite institutes.

In 2009, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test – the last PISA test that India participated in – found that students in Grade 8 (around 15 years old) in India are at the same level in reading or maths as students in Grade 2 or 3 (around 9-10 years old) in other countries such as South Korea and Hong Kong.

It means that students have been entering colleges and universities with lower-than-average levels in maths and reading. This presents universities with a real challenge.

Western Kentucky University in the US recently took the decision to ask more than one-third of its Indian students to leave its computer engineering course after the first semester, as the university felt these students would not be able to meet the minimum outcome standards set by the university.

Yet hundreds of engineering colleges in India would offer the same students admission in computer engineering programs. The oversupply of seats across institutes has led to a huge capacity underutilisation in engineering institutes in India.

Assessing quality

Quality means different things to different people.

The contrast is visible in the pursuit of the UGC and that of the Western Kentucky University. The latter realised that quality gets compromised when higher education is opened up for all.

Benchmarks of quality should not be static over time, meaning what quality meant in reasoning skills in a college graduate back in the 1980s may not necessarily mean the same today.

Students entering colleges and universities are not a homogeneous mass with uniform reading, maths or thinking/reasoning skills; nor are these different colleges and universities a homogeneous mass when it comes to faculty quality across institutes.

It should not surprise any when study after study finds that graduates in India are barely employable. In some cases employment rates are as low as in single digits. This suggests that out of every 100 graduates coming out of the Indian tertiary education systems, sometimes not even ten are employable.

Universities need to be more flexible

Universities need to be more flexible to deal with these challenges.

They need to have a curriculum that suits the best input quality of students – but still can meet a certain section of industry demand.

For example, the model curriculum suggested by the UGC may fall short for a student in a top-ranking Indian university; but may be beyond academic comprehension for another student in different university that does not feature in any ranking and where admission criteria are nothing to speak about.

Many Indian graduates find it difficult to be part of an English-speaking class; and universities cannot address many such deficits in many graduate students within a couple of semesters.

Quality improvement in education is not possible without the quality improvement of faculty members.

In this, India scores poorly as most Indian primary and secondary teachers did not score well themselves in an evaluation test on languages, conducted by one of the major states of India. Reportedly, 95% failed in a sample of nearly half-a-million teachers.

It would be wrong to assume Indian colleges and universities do not face similar problems.

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