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India's University Rankings: Why Are Doubts Being Raised Over NAAC Grades?

Within a matter of weeks, two big developments pertaining to the NAAC have put the council in the eye of a storm.

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Within a matter of weeks, two big developments pertaining to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) – an autonomous body under the University Grants Commission (UGC) – have put it in the eye of a storm.

The council – which assesses the quality of India’s higher educational institutions (HEIs) and awards grades to them – first faced allegations of irregularities by Bhushan Patwardhan, chairperson of NAAC’s executive committee. After repeatedly demanding an independent probe into the functioning of the NAAC, Patwardhan resigned on 5 March.

Close on the heels of Patwardhan's resignation, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) found irregularities in the grading process.

So, why does the grading process matter? What are the allegations against the NAAC? And what happens next?

India's University Rankings: Why Are Doubts Being Raised Over NAAC Grades?

  1. 1. What Does NAAC Grading Mean for Institutes?

    The NAAC, which was set up in 1994, follows a multi-layered assessment process following which it awards grades to colleges and universities. The grades issued by NAAC range from A++ to C. If an institution/centre is graded D, it means it is not accredited.

    According to Dr John Joseph Kennedy, the dean of Christ University's School of Arts and Humanities in Bengaluru, the grading has a lot to do with public perception.

    "If NAAC downgrades the ranking of an institute, say, from A++ to B, the public will automatically think that the quality of the institution has gone down. While these things may not matter much for established institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia or Jawaharlal Nehru University as they already have a big name, for smaller institutions, it matters a lot," he told The Quint.

    As per the NAAC's website, an important requirement for the assessment and accreditation (A&A) process is that the HEI has to have a record of at least two batches of students who have graduated from the institute, or must have been been in existence for six years, or whichever is earlier.

    Institutes that pass this bar are then expected to submit a quality assessment application, based on which the NAAC determines if a college or university is eligible for A&A.

    This process is a must for all HEIs, and the fees for these applications can be upwards of Rs 6.5 lakh, according to Business Standard. The NAAC then sets the process in motion. The applicant has to submit a self-study report containing information related to quantitative and qualitative metrics.

    The data is then validated by expert teams of the NAAC, followed by spot visits by peer teams comprising assessors from universities across India. Seven criteria – including research and innovation, infrastructure, student support, governance, and others – serve as the basis of the assessment.

    Expand
  2. 2. So, What Are the Lapses?

    Almost a year after he took charge as chairman, Bhushan Patwardhan, in February 2023, said in his letter of intent to resign, that he had previously raised concerns about the possibility of "vested interests, malpractices, and nexus among the individuals involved" in the grading process, thereby enabling manipulation of verification processes and peer team visit processes.

    That had led to the "awarding of questionable grades" by the NAAC, he alleged.

    Talking about the need for a proper mechanism to be put in place, where experts are chosen as part of a team that evaluates an institute, Dr Kennedy told The Quint, "From our own experience, we learnt that some members of the team who had come to evaluate our institute were first-timers."

    "I remember one person from the NAAC questioning us if we had taken permission from the Union Ministry of Culture for the course we provide on Cultural Studies. Going by that logic, they should then ask the commerce departments of all colleges/universities, if they have taken permission from the Ministry of Finance to run their course."
    Dr John Joseph Kennedy, dean of Christ University's School of Arts and Humanities

    Patwardhan claimed that he had raised the issue with UGC chairman M Jagadesh Kumar in September 2022, based on his own experiences as well as the findings of an enquiry that he had commissioned after taking charge.

    He had also proposed an independent probe by high-level agencies into the state of affairs at NAAC.

    "But all in vain. Moreover, my communications with you during the last couple of months seem to have been conveniently ignored, " he added in his letter of intent to resign.

    Kumar appointed former All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) chairperson Anil D Sahasrabudhe to replace Patwardhan.

    Patwardhan, however, protested the decision, saying his intent to resign was misconstrued as his final resignation letter. However, on 5 March, he resigned, citing self-respect and the need to “safeguard the sanctity” of the NAAC.

    Expand
  3. 3. What Were the Findings of the Enquiry Panel Set Up by Patwardhan?

    JP Singh Joorel, director of Information and Library Network, another UGC centre, served as the chairman of the enquiry committee that Patwardhan had set up.

    It concluded that there were several irregularities in the NAAC’s accreditation procedure. Initially, the council's IT system was discovered to be “compromised”. The panel stated that assessors were also assigned “arbitrarily”, and that these procedures might lead to conflicts of interest, according to The Indian Express.

    The panel found that around 70 percent of the 4,000 assessors who make up the pool of specialists "have barely got the chance to visit sites while the remaining visited the sites many times."

    One among the other flaws highlighted was individuals without authority having full access to the NAAC’s internal system.

    Despite a mandatory – and a highly complex and selective process – most HEIs in India don't even meet the required threshold to undergo the process.

    Last month, Union Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar told the Lok Sabha that at least 695 universities and over 34,000 colleges across the country are operating without NAAC accreditation.

    "As per information received from the UGC, out of the 1,113 universities and 43,796 colleges, NAAC has accredited 418 universities and 9,062 colleges," he said.

    Expand
  4. 4. And What Issues Has CAG Flagged?

    The CAG has found discrepancies in the inspections carried out by the NAAC which resulted in awarding inaccurate grades to several higher education institutions.

    According to the notice sent by the CAG to NAAC, there were irregularities in the reports prepared by the expert panels which visited the institutes and in the final scores awarded.

    It has also listed several instances of mismatch between the reports and marks awarded to the institutes.

    The CAG pointed that the expert panel which visited an institute at Bellampalli in Telangana had mentioned in its report that waste was burnt on the premises, causing air pollution.

    However, this institute received full marks for waste management, the national auditor added.

    Similarly, the expert panel’s report praised a college in Mumbai for becoming a plastic-free campus. However, this college was awarded one mark for waste management, the CAG noted.

    What Has NAAC Said?

    In response to the allegations, NAAC claimed that the accreditation procedures were transparent and proper.

    Among other things, it claimed that out of the total pool of 4,686 active assessors, "3,075 assessors have accepted the peer team visit invitations, which is roughly around 67 percent of the database." 

    "As per the mandate of NAAC, the entire process of accreditation and assessment is robust, transparent, technology-driven and automated. The system cannot be compromised because the whole process is decentralised, transparent and accessible to the stakeholders through a user friendly portal...," it stated.

    Reacting to the issues raised by CAG, NAAC said in a statement that the CAG report is still not considered final, as a compliance reply issued by the council director is still under consideration by the CAG.

    “The office of the CAG has also suggested some changes which are also being incorporated, and a revised draft is under preparation,” the statement read.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Does NAAC Grading Mean for Institutes?

The NAAC, which was set up in 1994, follows a multi-layered assessment process following which it awards grades to colleges and universities. The grades issued by NAAC range from A++ to C. If an institution/centre is graded D, it means it is not accredited.

According to Dr John Joseph Kennedy, the dean of Christ University's School of Arts and Humanities in Bengaluru, the grading has a lot to do with public perception.

"If NAAC downgrades the ranking of an institute, say, from A++ to B, the public will automatically think that the quality of the institution has gone down. While these things may not matter much for established institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia or Jawaharlal Nehru University as they already have a big name, for smaller institutions, it matters a lot," he told The Quint.

As per the NAAC's website, an important requirement for the assessment and accreditation (A&A) process is that the HEI has to have a record of at least two batches of students who have graduated from the institute, or must have been been in existence for six years, or whichever is earlier.

Institutes that pass this bar are then expected to submit a quality assessment application, based on which the NAAC determines if a college or university is eligible for A&A.

This process is a must for all HEIs, and the fees for these applications can be upwards of Rs 6.5 lakh, according to Business Standard. The NAAC then sets the process in motion. The applicant has to submit a self-study report containing information related to quantitative and qualitative metrics.

The data is then validated by expert teams of the NAAC, followed by spot visits by peer teams comprising assessors from universities across India. Seven criteria – including research and innovation, infrastructure, student support, governance, and others – serve as the basis of the assessment.

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So, What Are the Lapses?

Almost a year after he took charge as chairman, Bhushan Patwardhan, in February 2023, said in his letter of intent to resign, that he had previously raised concerns about the possibility of "vested interests, malpractices, and nexus among the individuals involved" in the grading process, thereby enabling manipulation of verification processes and peer team visit processes.

That had led to the "awarding of questionable grades" by the NAAC, he alleged.

Talking about the need for a proper mechanism to be put in place, where experts are chosen as part of a team that evaluates an institute, Dr Kennedy told The Quint, "From our own experience, we learnt that some members of the team who had come to evaluate our institute were first-timers."

"I remember one person from the NAAC questioning us if we had taken permission from the Union Ministry of Culture for the course we provide on Cultural Studies. Going by that logic, they should then ask the commerce departments of all colleges/universities, if they have taken permission from the Ministry of Finance to run their course."
Dr John Joseph Kennedy, dean of Christ University's School of Arts and Humanities

Patwardhan claimed that he had raised the issue with UGC chairman M Jagadesh Kumar in September 2022, based on his own experiences as well as the findings of an enquiry that he had commissioned after taking charge.

He had also proposed an independent probe by high-level agencies into the state of affairs at NAAC.

"But all in vain. Moreover, my communications with you during the last couple of months seem to have been conveniently ignored, " he added in his letter of intent to resign.

Kumar appointed former All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) chairperson Anil D Sahasrabudhe to replace Patwardhan.

Patwardhan, however, protested the decision, saying his intent to resign was misconstrued as his final resignation letter. However, on 5 March, he resigned, citing self-respect and the need to “safeguard the sanctity” of the NAAC.

0

What Were the Findings of the Enquiry Panel Set Up by Patwardhan?

JP Singh Joorel, director of Information and Library Network, another UGC centre, served as the chairman of the enquiry committee that Patwardhan had set up.

It concluded that there were several irregularities in the NAAC’s accreditation procedure. Initially, the council's IT system was discovered to be “compromised”. The panel stated that assessors were also assigned “arbitrarily”, and that these procedures might lead to conflicts of interest, according to The Indian Express.

The panel found that around 70 percent of the 4,000 assessors who make up the pool of specialists "have barely got the chance to visit sites while the remaining visited the sites many times."

One among the other flaws highlighted was individuals without authority having full access to the NAAC’s internal system.

Despite a mandatory – and a highly complex and selective process – most HEIs in India don't even meet the required threshold to undergo the process.

Last month, Union Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar told the Lok Sabha that at least 695 universities and over 34,000 colleges across the country are operating without NAAC accreditation.

"As per information received from the UGC, out of the 1,113 universities and 43,796 colleges, NAAC has accredited 418 universities and 9,062 colleges," he said.

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And What Issues Has CAG Flagged?

The CAG has found discrepancies in the inspections carried out by the NAAC which resulted in awarding inaccurate grades to several higher education institutions.

According to the notice sent by the CAG to NAAC, there were irregularities in the reports prepared by the expert panels which visited the institutes and in the final scores awarded.

It has also listed several instances of mismatch between the reports and marks awarded to the institutes.

The CAG pointed that the expert panel which visited an institute at Bellampalli in Telangana had mentioned in its report that waste was burnt on the premises, causing air pollution.

However, this institute received full marks for waste management, the national auditor added.

Similarly, the expert panel’s report praised a college in Mumbai for becoming a plastic-free campus. However, this college was awarded one mark for waste management, the CAG noted.

What Has NAAC Said?

In response to the allegations, NAAC claimed that the accreditation procedures were transparent and proper.

Among other things, it claimed that out of the total pool of 4,686 active assessors, "3,075 assessors have accepted the peer team visit invitations, which is roughly around 67 percent of the database." 

"As per the mandate of NAAC, the entire process of accreditation and assessment is robust, transparent, technology-driven and automated. The system cannot be compromised because the whole process is decentralised, transparent and accessible to the stakeholders through a user friendly portal...," it stated.

Reacting to the issues raised by CAG, NAAC said in a statement that the CAG report is still not considered final, as a compliance reply issued by the council director is still under consideration by the CAG.

“The office of the CAG has also suggested some changes which are also being incorporated, and a revised draft is under preparation,” the statement read.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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