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Credibility of University Courses: Uniform Evaluation is the Answer
by Prof. Raja Mutthirulandi Bookmark and Share

It is reported (The Hindu, Oct 31,2005 Tiruchy Edition) that a recent meeting of the Vice Chancellors convened at Chennai by the Chancellor of TN Universities, had put forth a 'major' recommendation towards having uniform syllabus and course duration for all universities in the state. One Vice Chancellor has, through the media, emphasized that such uniformity is 'very essential since it facilitated horizontal transfer of students from one university to the other.' It is also unfortunate to note that a slender teacher group has recently requested enactment of Common University Act for the purpose of removing 'drawbacks in awarding PhD Degrees through universities.' (The Hindu, Oct 14,2005, Tiruchy Edition).

The proposal, mentioned above, cropping out of the meeting of the vice-chancellors is nothing but a grand self-negation of the inherent autonomy with which the universities are conceived. On the question of common Act for universities, all well- informed National level teacher associations have been vociferous expressing their reservations against the common, Model Act for universities proposed by the UGC some time earlier. The opponents of the common Act for universities, parade the justifiable reasoning that the unwelcome common Act would only emphasize compliance at the cost of the 'adventure of ideas', strangle the vital concept of university autonomy through state interference and eliminate institutional and programme variety via bland application of the mechanical principle of uniformity.

In essence, the 'major' proposal of the vice-chancellors and the feeble 'minority' teachers' request, aim at sacrificing the very concept of University/ Institutional autonomy for flimsy reasons. The proposals are akin to the burning of the house for fear of bed bugs. The remedies thought of by the conclave of vice-chancellors and the particular teacher group, are certainly worse than the ill itself!

The vice-chancellors' proposal of having uniform syllabus, appears to have stemmed out in the context of 'each university framing different syllabi and coming out with different time duration for the same degree in distance education streams.' The simple fact is that the very question of horizontal mobility doesn't arise at all in the cases of students of distance education. Irrespective of the region of their migration, the learners of distance mode can continue and complete the programme from where they are. The universities insist on nothing related to access, quality or standards of education from distance mode learners, except prompt receipts of fee to their ever- accumulating coffers.

In the regular academic streams also, the existence of a number of autonomous colleges and university departments has actively facilitated the availability of myriad choices for specializations, unique, application-oriented and innovative programs. At times, a wide variety of options/specializations are available for a single programme like M.B.A. In such a situation, learners, on their own, prefer to stick on and complete the programs chosen by them in a university/College. Any focused analysis of data on the expressed need for horizontal transfers from the regular academic stream in the state would reveal that the actual number of cases of 'horizontal transfers' has almost become negligible in recent years.

The universities, as Pundit Nehru emphasized, are expected to permanently 'stand for the adventure of ideas.' Variety and innovations are to be the hallmarks of the universities. The activities of the universities in preserving, pursuing, disseminating, and creating knowledge and understanding require societies to respect the autonomy of universities. This autonomy invariably includes the right of the university to determine for itself, on valid academic grounds, what may be taught, who may teach, how it shall be taught, for how long it may be taught and who may be admitted to various programs of studies etc.

After all, when any university decides the content and duration of its programs, there are ample opportunities for the free flow of the individual as well as collective wisdom and experience of many scholars- also from out side the particular university- to enrich the decision-making. When, through structured and democratic process, the Boards of studies and University Authorities elect to have specified content for any of their programs and also prescribe duration for such a programme, is there any further need, except a mundane demand for uniformity? Assuming that by a decree or fiat, uniform syllabus is prescribed for courses offered in different universities, is there any unanimity about what is sought to be achieved by such uniformity?

Every one knows that the syllabus for any academic programme is only a guide, not a guarantee of the range, focus, methodology, allied subject areas to be covered and final evaluation to be implemented by the faculty. There are no assurances that there would be uniformity in all stages involving implementation, delivery and learner achievements. Can the proposer of uniform syllabus provide any embedded guarantee for what actually will be taught, in what order, in what manner, and from what perspective in all universities? Does the proposal for uniform syllabus offer any assurance for uniform quality of teaching everywhere?

In the event of uniform syllabus for courses is decreed, will there be common course materials for use by teachers? Even when uniform syllabus is administered and use of common course materials is implemented, can identical systems and methodologies be put into operation in all universities? There would certainly be variations in exposure to the material, in providing interpretations, in stimulating learner involvement and in answering questions. All these make it necessary to have a common evaluation for students of all universities at the end of the programs. What roles and responsibilities will the faculty need to assume, if the questions here are answered affirmatively?

One would also expect to know whether any instrument has been developed to compare student performance at the beginning and end of the programme undergone in each university. If a pre-set, common exit achievement level is not observed from students of the uniform syllabus stream flooding out from different universities, is there any plan to neutralize the discrepancy? It is doubtful whether those who propose uniform syllabus have formulated any fool-proof measures and indicators to uniformly assess the final learning outcomes of students who would be put under a 'uniform syllabus' therapy, administered in different locations of various universities by different and differently endowed teacher-practitioners.

The argument of the academic heads of the universities stressing uniform syllabus certainly runs counter to the very philosophy and autonomy- granting schemes of the UGC also. It is common knowledge that the UGC has conferred autonomous status even on colleges. As per the UGC scheme, the autonomous status would enable the institutions to prescribe the courses, determine the content and decide the teaching-learning processes. While the colleges are likely to continue enjoying such an academic freedom as per the UGC scheme, the vice-chancellors of universities in Tamil Nadu, in their abundant wisdom, have indicated their readiness to abdicate such a core freedom of their universities!

Any exercise in higher education-whether following a uniform syllabus or syllabus designed by any enterprising university should ultimately turn out as a 'value addition' to the learner who has submitted himself to the enterprise of education. By value addition to the learner, we mean, what is improved about his or her capabilities or knowledge as a consequence of their education at a particular college or university. In other words, it is the 'visible' difference between their 'entry level' (what they had) and 'exit level' attainments (what they acquired).

The higher education landscape is a wide, heterogeneous spectrum of institutions, constituents and services. All institutions/ universities cannot be alike and their potentials are varied. The NAAC assessment grades indicate that the Universities themselves are at varying levels of attainments. Further, all the institutions do not seek to add the same kind of value to learner's development. Even all Arts and Science colleges do not have the same mission. Therefore, mere introduction of uniform syllabus and prescription of uniform duration for programs certainly cannot bring uniform attainment of skills and capabilities or in the recognition the learners may gain in further competition.

As at present, the universities prescribe the courses, set the so-called standards and conduct their own examinations. Naturally, the question of credibility of evaluation of learner attainments carried out by universities comes to the fore. Even among universities there is no instant recognition or agreement of standards of other universities. Worst is the case with the employers. They repose least trust in marks/ grades of students at University examinations.

There could be different syllabi or curriculum content implemented in universities for even the same kind of programme (like M.B.A). There could even be different durations prescribed by different universities for completion of such a contentious programme. No harm would be done, if by academic wisdom and unanimity a 'common minimum standard' (CMS) for each programme is formulated and made public. Following CMS, the 'levels of outcome' (LOC) -'the value addition'- to be evaluated at the end of the programme should also be standardized and made known to all stakeholders in advance. It would simply be sufficient for the universities to adequately equip the learners using any syllabus, in whatever duration to reach the standard LOC.

The learners can take the Programme Completion Certificate (PCC) issued under the seal of the respective universities. Possession of PCCs would make the learners eligible to take appropriate level tests administered by a state level Higher Education Testing Service- Tamil Nadu Higher Education Testing Service (TANHETS)- that could be established as a statutory, autonomous body.

TANHETS could evolve foolproof systems, yardsticks and measures to test the attainment of LOC for each programme and make them transparent. The establishment of TANHETS could serve the twin goals of providing a much-needed system of credible, systematic, independent and uniform assessment of learner outcomes and also provide the universities in the state, the greatly required relief from the burden of conducting examinations. The TANHETS assessment would be seamless in the sense that there would be no failures or passes. The TANHETS scores achieved in the assessment would indicate 'the value addition' that has occurred for the learner on undergoing the programme.

The TANHETS score could serve as the academic passport to those who desire vertical mobility for higher (PG and other research programs, as the case may be) levels of education. For vertical mobility, the universities could fix a minimum score based on average performances of learners. The employers would be at liberty to fix still higher levels of HETS scores.

When an independent, trustworthy and impenetrably honest TANNEST comes into being and commences systematic assessments and issue HATS score cards, there would be no need for the conclave of vice-chancellors to worry about syllabus content and course durations followed by any university. They could direct their energies to enhance the performance levels of their own learners. The employers and the society at large will come to know the competence levels of learners coming from different universities. Universities that become incapable of making a very high percentage of its learners continuously come out successful through the LOC assessment by TANNEST would justifiably fade out and face extinction.   

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