The credit rating agencies of higher education

In dealing with the philosophical aspects of conflation of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ by humans, I had also dealt with the same malady in higher education, in my column in MINT last week. With individuals, the most obvious example is that of money. Money is initially seen as the means to happiness or comfortable lives but it becomes an end in itself.

In higher education, ranking, accreditation are all signals of quality education which is the ultimate goal and ought to be the eternal goal. But, ranking and accreditation become ends in themselves. This is what I wrote:

An institution accredited by a reputed accreditation body signals a certain quality and standard of education to students and their parents. Over time, accreditation becomes an end in itself. Institutions figure out how to “game” or do well in the game of accreditation while its main purpose—signalling quality—becomes more and more divorced from the process. Accreditation agencies too have become prescriptive in practice. More on that later.

The emphasis of research over teaching and PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty are also cases of means supplanting ends. The purpose of any educational institution is to educate. In primary and secondary schools, education is about teaching. In higher education institutions, it is not about imparting knowledge but about showing a path to knowledge. It is about giving students the tools—skills and attitudes—that will help them learn.

There is clearly a case for “research for its own sake” in institutions of science, medicine, etc. Pure research leads to discoveries and outcomes that eventually benefit humankind. Until the outcomes are achieved, they may appear esoteric but the society has to indulge them for the sake of serendipitous outcomes. But, in business or management schools, the aim is to prepare students to become effective managers and leaders of social or commercial institutions or even of nations. Research has to be seen as an instrument for aiding the process of preparing or producing such managers or leaders. But, in reality, research takes on a life of its own.

Some obscure question with only peripheral utility, if at all, for the society or for businesses, is pursued and if it is published in so-called prestigious journals (another instance of conflation of “means” and “ends”), then the prestige of the individual and that of the institution is enhanced. But, to what end? The question of for whom the institution exists is lost in the process. Is it just an arrangement of, by and for academics with students and social purposes of higher education peripheral to it?

In the words of a thoughtful academic, “(accreditation agencies) propagate a model of business school that unmistakably values research over teaching, theory over practice, esoteric journal papers over pedagogical innovations, lectures over cases, PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty, among other puritanical biases. This is essentially a caste-system, in which an elite community of research scholars, taking turns as accreditors, remake business schools in their own image.” [Link]

On the related topic of accrediation, I was happy to note that my friend and professor at IIM, Kozhikode, Rudra Sen Sarma had written about the bane of Indian Institutes of Management now seeking accreditation from foreign agencies. His piece can be found here. It is over a year old. He makes some valid arguments.

The accreditation agencies have made it difficult to talk about yourself positively unless you have been accredited. Rudra makes a very good point about ‘surrendering’ autonomy to foreign accreditation agencies when they fight for autonomy from the Government.

It is exactly how central banks curse the financial wrath on the governments for eroding their autonomy but willingly surrender theirs to financial markets!

He is right that IIMs should have evolved their own standards for accreditation and set a benchmark for emerging economies.
Pity, yet again and frustrating yet again. 

So many opportunities to show that we are self-confident, self-assured and that we can set the standards yet we capitulate!

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