Facilitating degrees within a degree

India remained without a National Higher Education Qualifications Framework (NHEQF) until recently

Updated - September 20, 2023 09:49 am IST

Published - September 20, 2023 12:15 am IST

Even though the movement to specify frameworks for higher education qualifications had gained momentum across the world in the late 1990s, India remained without a National Higher Education Qualifications Framework (NHEQF) until recently. The idea was deliberated at the 60th meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education in 2012, which assigned the responsibility to the University Grants Commission (UGC). The issue has been hanging fire since. That it has now come up with a NHEQF is welcome, but the UGC must remove all the confusion about higher education qualifications, which arise because of the multiplicity of guidelines, frameworks and documents in the country.

The problem of plenty

Globally, higher education qualification frameworks include details of the definition and requirements of credits. The UGC has chosen to prescribe two separate frameworks — the NHEQF and the National Credit Framework. Higher educational institutions are separately required to implement the Academic Bank of Credits as a mandated modality for recognising, accepting, and transferring credits across courses and institutions. Additionally, there are many other regulations that impinge on higher education qualifications. All of these could have been integrated into the NHEQF. This defeats the purpose of prescribing a qualification framework. After all, a qualification framework must minimise ambiguities in comprehending qualifications in a cross-cultural context.

By definition, a national higher education qualification must encompass all disciplines and must clearly provide for the eligibility conditions for the entry into, and completion of, all programmes of studies. The NHEQF does provide exit requirements, but eligibility conditions and pathways through which a student can enter a programme at a particular level are alluded to vaguely. Besides, higher education qualifications awarded by disciplines such as agriculture, law, medicine, and pharmacy are conspicuous by their absence. These disciplines may be under the jurisdiction of separate regulators, but they could have been included in the NHEQF through consensus across various regulatory bodies.

Considering that India proactively seeks to obliterate all traces of its colonial past, it is strange that this document draws copiously from the Bologna process that led to the European Qualifications Framework and the Dublin descriptors. The higher education system in India is far more diverse and complex than the European Higher Education Area. It warrants much wider and more intense consultations with the States. Doing this could have substantially enriched the NHEQF. The process of formulating the NHEQF should have duly recognised the sheer size of the higher education system and the variations in it, as well as the federal structure, constitutional provisions that put education on the Concurrent List, and the fact that States spend a lot more on education than the Centre. The Dublin descriptors are the ‘learning outcomes’. They are designed principally by European educationists and are suited to the European context. The Indian higher education system could have benefited from those experiences and processes, but those outcomes may not be easy to replicate in this country. Most importantly, the European higher education reforms happened some two decades ago.

The document fails to recognise that learning and knowledge must go beyond earning a livelihood. If it does recognise this, it does not sufficiently highlight it. Education is not only about an individual’s learning capacities and capabilities; sociocultural and politico-economic factors also determine learning.

The overall framework appears to facilitate ‘degrees within a degree’. Those who hold four-year undergraduate degrees with a minimum CGPA of 7.5 are eligible for admission to PhD programmes. This will make the higher education system elitist. After all, merit is a social construct; the academic performance of students is invariably mediated by their socioeconomic conditions.

Difficulties in implementation

At a practical level, there might be some serious difficulties in implementing the NHEQF. The document places all higher education qualifications on a continuum of 4.5 to 10. The framework equates postgraduate diplomas with four-year undergraduate programmes. This poses a problem in determining the level of such undergraduate degrees that are pursued after another undergraduate degree, like B.Ed. Further, the idea that a B.Ed could be completed in one, two or four years is confusing.

The credit framework document of the UGC mandates that each semester must have a minimum of 20 credits. This document suggests that one credit must comprise 15 hours of direct and 30 hours of indirect teaching. This means that students are required to study for a minimum of 900 hours per semester or close to 10 hours a day. This is ambitious even for fully residential higher educational institutions. Higher educational institutions with minimal infrastructure and meagre faculty resources may find this daunting.

The mystery of the learning outcomes borrowed liberally from the Dublin descriptors remains unaddressed. Whether generic or specific to a discipline, learning outcomes may vary significantly across disciplines. Besides, they may not be measurable by the same yardstick across disciplines.

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