NEP is a matter of perception and understanding, says NAAC director

Accreditation agency was implementing AI-based solutions, he says

110-Sharma-new S.C. Sharma | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Professor S.C. Sharma has vast teaching and administrative experience. He has published 366 research papers and 18 books, holds six patents, and is honorary distinguished professor at IIT Guwahati’s Centre for Energy. Sharma spoke to THE WEEK about the steps taken by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) to improve the quality of assessment and the role of higher education institutions in today’s India. Edited excerpts:

Q/ Universities are gearing up for a post-Covid world, India is implementing the National Education Policy 2020. In this changing scenario, what are NAAC’s criteria for grading universities?

A/ NAAC is reckoned the world over as a quality assurance leader. [India has] one of the world’s largest higher education systems and it is also diverse and complex. There are different types of universities—central, state, deemed, private. It is a herculean task for anybody to manage the assessment and accreditation of such a system.

Over the years, NAAC has instilled the much-needed panacea—infusion of quality consciousness among institutions of higher learning—and has thereby transformed the mindset of the academic fraternity. We introduced many new-age measures such as the Internal Quality Assurance Cell, Data Validation and Verification, and Student Satisfaction Survey. These have become popular with HEIs (higher education institutions) and is resonating in their efforts to achieve, sustain and enhance quality.

Q/ What impact did Covid-19 have on NAAC’s functioning?

A/ In spite of the pandemic, we took transformative steps to usher in more rigour in the assessment framework and thereby ensured holistic development of quality culture. NAAC has seamlessly metamorphosed itself to suit the changing requirements of HEIs and has kept stakeholders in the loop.

Various academic activities were enacted and an effective mechanism was evolved to keep up the momentum of assessment and accreditation during the pandemic. NAAC has also taken proactive measures to implement the directions issued by the University Grants Commission, in letter and spirit. NAAC is utilising digital platforms to address quality concerns of HEIs, day-to-day functioning and also in addressing academic and administrative matters. Various academic committees have been constituted to look into routine matters. A series of online meetings, webinars, and other programmes concerning assessment and accreditation activities have already been held and many are in the pipeline. Many HEIs reached out to NAAC during the pandemic period and the quality momentum was not unduly affected. Total number of accreditations done by NAAC across all cycles is 723 for universities and 13,791 colleges, which is an amazing feat.

Q/ What kind of innovations are India’s universities likely to adopt in the post-Covid world?

A/ In the last two years, many factors, including the pandemic, shaped the way HEIs function. There has been a perceptible shift in the mindset of students and academic fraternity and new-age courses based on industry requirements gained prominence. Some new-age courses such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics and robotics gained prominence due to the inherent demand as well as the pandemic.

Q/ What changes have you observed in the teaching methodologies of universities?

A/ I feel that the post-pandemic world is the right opportunity for faculty and students to explore and utilise digital resources. Recently, many new home-grown educational IT startups have emerged. They are doing well and are even competing with large IT companies. Increasingly, Indian universities and HEIs are opting for home-grown software for online classes and video conferencing. The ambitious hope of “Digital India” has to be rigorously pursued.

Retaining tempo for academic activities through online methods by cancelling vacation periods during summer, winter and festival seasons, conducting special online courses during weekends, spearheading new projects for the development of digital infrastructure, encouraging both staff and students to take up online courses, and integration of academia and industry for enhanced multi-skills are the need of the hour for HEIs.

Q/ How has the road to the adoption of NEP 2020 been?

A/ NEP is a matter of perception and understanding. The norms are flexible and can be adopted easily by educational institutions. We have also been changing our manual in accordance with NEP. We have taken steps to sensitise the HEIs about NEP. The policy insists on several parameters like multidisciplinary graduate programmes, multiple-entry and exit, graded autonomy, and development of institutional quality through institutional development plans. These need to be acknowledged and accommodated by the accreditation framework. Institutional quality is the key to attaining excellence.

Q/ What steps has NAAC taken in this regard?

A/ Extensive interactions with the stakeholders were arranged to gather their responses and perceptions. In the process, there were regional level stakeholder consultations, consultations with NAAC academic staff, former directors of NAAC, academicians of great repute and with policy makers in the education ministry, the UGC, the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Board of Accreditation. Apart from this, an online survey was also conducted. About 4,000 stakeholders of higher education were involved in this process.

Q/ What are the innovations and changes NAAC is bringing to its process?

A/ Quality is a continuous process of doing things excellently, every time. We are committed to this conviction. We organised a slew of innovative activities such as a project by our research and analysis wing to publish annual quality assurance reports and state-wise analysis of accreditation reports. So far, there are 34 state-wise analysis of accreditation reports.

Besides this, there were zone-wise meetings that were held at Gangtok, Sikkim and Lucknow, and a 12-lecture series on educational management and quality concerns in higher. Thousands of participants from higher education institutions across the country participated in these initiatives through our web platform.

We are also in the process of implementing an artificial intelligence-based solution to automate peer team selection and assignment. The system will function on two key parameters—HEIs and assessors (vice chancellors, principals, professors) to arrive at the most effective mapping between them. Since it is data driven and self-learning (based on cases), it produces more stable plans, than the manual process.

When this system is in place and a peer team visit arises, it will automatically select the team members. Efficient and fair screening of assessors is the biggest challenge in talent acquisition. Achieving this will help reduce the delays in assessment and assignment of resources, and streamline the peer-review process.