Who Decides Quality

22 Feb

Academics to bureaucrats and more have defined quality education. But the students, whose life and learning are at stake, must have the final say

With near full enrollment reported in primary schools in India, the discourse has moved to the retention of students and the quality of education they receive. The two are connected. If students receive quality education that continues to provide them value, they will tend to continue in education.

Those who leave education at or after primary school are often stuck at lower income (and health) levels than those who are able to complete higher standards. The value of higher education, as reflected in salary levels, is clearly proven in India. But efforts to retain students in education may not be fruitful if the quality of education they receive is not good.

The Annual Status of Education Report and the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings among others have clearly shown Indian education as inadequate. At the same time, there are also reports that Indians do better than Americans, for instance, in standardised examinations such as the General Management Aptitude Test. Indians are still valued candidates at the best schools across the world.

So, what determines quality? Should the Government take on the responsibility of certifying quality? To an extent, it already does that via the recognition and appraisal processes. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council also publishes a ranking, and certifies equivalence with international degrees. A number of newspapers and magazines also rank schools and institutions based on standard criteria that are a composite of achievement, resources and other outcomes — a change from the traditional ratings based on academic achievement.

Even the Right to Education Act incorporates an awareness of quality education by imposing requirements of minimum acreage, playgrounds and libraries, for instance. This may be good in theory but offers no insight into how much learning is actually happening in a school. If schools are tested on inputs rather than on realisation of individual potential then we are certainly not clear on what quality education means. We are then measuring the wrong things.

How does a parent know that their child is getting a good education? How does a university student know that they are learning what they need to for their future? Often success in learning is measured by examination grades — and many score well. Despite this, colleges say applicants know little, employers say recent graduates are unemployable. The rankings have no impact on improving quality. India’s higher education institutions barely figure on international rankings.

How are student expected to know about their educational options? In the absence of good counseling and mentoring services, one often flocks to the most popular options that have guaranteed employment in the past. Thus, there is the emphasis on engineering, medical and now management degrees. Yet, we see many engineering and management institutes fall by the wayside while there are rumours that many medical colleges provide only paper degrees.

So, where does a candidate find quality education? It is not enough to be able to tap the grapevine as informal advisers can only offer limited support. Current students and alumni are a good source of information but they too are limited to their own experience. Formal advisers are often commercial entities who step in to fill the gaps that universities or colleges leave uncovered. The fact that the demand for good institutes often outstrips the supply of seats also places the onus of search and fit on the candidate. It is entirely possible that candidates apply merely to hoard scarce seats rather than pick the institute that is the best fit for their potential. If students are a misfit in a particular institute, then quality of education is bound to take a hit.

So, who should decide what quality really means? Should it be decided by academics in their ivory towers? Or by policy-making babus? Or by journalists and analysts who build the ranking mechanisms? Ultimately, all of these are outsiders in the education system. The true judges of quality ought to be the stakeholders who make decisions that affect their learning and their lives. They are the ones who are the final arbiters of quality and vote with their money and effort investments. Their investments must be supported with better information but must be led by those who must pay the price of quality education.

 This Op-Ed was published in the Daily Pioneer on Thursday, February 21, 2013 and is linked here  and http://dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/53464-the-real-meaning-of-good-education.html

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