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Academic Excellence is the Biggest Lie of Higher Education

Academic Excellence Lie

Our governments may sometime accept that they have done poor job for education. They may accept that they successively haven’t been able to nurture quality education system for their country. Do our education systems ever accept that they have done poor job of education? Never!

You may guess that there won’t be even 5% of business leaders who 'strongly agree' that today's graduates have the skills and competencies that their businesses need. On the contrary of it, if you will ask, more than 95% of chief academic officers of colleges and universities would say that they were 'extremely confident or somewhat confident' in their institution's ability to prepare students for work-force success.

This is where the plateau of bigger lies of higher education emerges.


Plateau Of Lies of Higher Education

Most of business leaders would like to say that they are willing to collaborate more with higher education institutions, presumably to help improve the mismatch between knowledge learned and skills needed for corporate world.

There is great awakening among students, their parents or guardians. They seem to have a good common sense to what is required, as

  • More than 95% of them know that they wards/students would require at least a college degree;
  • More than 75% of them know that they would also require to possess the skills – actually skills, which employers are looking, from a degree holder, whether it is knowing how to actually weld the materials or writing computer codes or whatever. They know, they need higher skills.
  • More than 90% of them know that higher education institutions need to change themselves for meeting these skill-gaps

But would you want to guess that how many of higher education institutions would say that – they are already doing fine. More than 90% of them would answer – yes, they are already doing fine. Why are they so oblivious to what 90% of students, their parents or guardians, with their very common sense are feeling?


Why Are Higher Education Institutions Not Recognizing The Wake-Up Calls?

Okay let us discuss the business’ perspective first.

No doubt, businesses want these degrees to be more; to replace on the job training so that fresh graduates are ready to plug into their system with minimal training. If you hire an electrical engineer graduate, you at least expect them to understand basic skills. But irony is that, many of fresh grads do not have even basic skills!

If they do not understand basic skills, why would businesses hire that candidate, in first place?

We have been firm believer that it is not students who are to be blamed for this. We are of the opinion that they are already doing what they can do in their minimal capacities. They are enrolling in degree programs, they are also doing vocational trainings here & there, and much more. There's many bright and capable young grads out there. Just because you've run into some who don't meet your expectations doesn't mean that more capable others do not exist. They do. Putting all the onus on them, would be akin to free the governments and higher education institutions from their responsibilities.


What is The Objective Of Higher Education?

Also, if higher education doesn't provide job training what does it provide? Are these colleges some sort of temples or churches providing spiritual fulfillment and salvation to students? Are they some research campuses and the students are just an imperceptible accessory? If they are not, then what are they?

Higher Eds are places where one should learn how to learn, and 'may-be' pick up some background theoretical understanding for a career in a chosen industry. If a young person graduates with the ability to learn, they should be able to easily transition (with some lead time) into learning whatever job they're trained to do by an employer.

Higher EducationNo one would ever deny that we as a society, and our students as individuals, need institutions that could provide intellectual and moral education along with more practical and career-focused instruction. These goals can only be realized if we continue to nurture and support the fundamental inter-dependence of teaching and research, general and professional education, basic and applied research, the arts and the sciences, private interest and public good, our local obligations and our global ambitions, disciplinary specialization and multidisciplinary collaboration.

And… achieving this synthesis requires ‘Academic Excellence. What do you say?


What is Academic Excellence?

The word academic excellence may mean all activities of higher education institutions which are related to the degree programs, scholarship, learning, and teaching, etc. It is common to read how funding must be preserved or increased to maintain or improve “academic excellence.”

Claims of “academic excellence” vary according to the topic under discussion.

  • For degree programs, it is accreditation.
  • For scholarship, it is publication in peer-reviewed journals.
  • For learning, it is graduation rates and post-graduation employment.
  • For teaching, it is…. mostly nothing. Academic excellence in the context of teaching is often unsubstantiated. If it is substantiated, it is typically based on unscientific, misleading, or inaccurate survey data.

Here are some remarks from Bob Emiliani, about academic excellence. He says, the term “academic excellence” is a synonym for “bugger off” --

  1. Our degree programs are accredited, so bugger off.
  2. Faculty and student research is published in peer-reviewed journals, so bugger off.
  3. Our graduation rate and post-graduation employment numbers are in line with peer universities, so bugger off.
  4. Accreditation, research publications, graduation rates, and post-graduation employment prove that teaching is good, so bugger off.

Aha, the prime purpose of using the term ‘academic excellence’ is actually to fend off criticism from outsiders. They use it to keep the external stakeholders in the dark. They use it to avoid, doing the hard work of really improving academic and administrative processes across the university & the institutions.

It is challenging to associate degree programs with ‘academic excellence’ when, in most cases, courses are disconnected from one another and sometimes even repetitive in bad ways.

The same is true for accreditation, as this process allows even weak academic programs to be accredited.

The focus of peer-reviewed publications is quantity, not quality.

And graduation rates and post-graduation employment metrics are easily gamed.

And, of course, reputation is not a reliable proxy for academic excellence. These, therefore, compromise overall claims of ‘academic excellence’.


Academic Excellence is the Biggest Lie

The term ‘academic excellence’ is used to maintain the status quo, and continues to successfully deflect criticism despite the need for change – especially when it comes to teaching. Teaching remains, by far, the weakest element of the higher education and it is the most in need of improvement.

  • How many heads or stalwarts of institutions consistently emphasize the importance of continuously improving teaching, ‘purely teaching’?
  • How many university presidents follow up their nice words with personal actions such as meeting faculty in their office to encourage ever-better teaching, thank individual faculty for their good teaching with handwritten notes, and motivate poor teachers to do better?

Educators 2Most university presidents or college principles would advocate for good teaching, but then why do they leave the onus of finding the method for improvement in teaching up to individual faculty. Reality is that they do and exactly this reason leads to variable results. 

There are no institutionally agreed-upon methods for continuous improvement. Teaching is CORE to a university’s or higher education institution’s mission, and to the satisfaction of students, payers, employers, and others.

How can the improvement methods, and the results, be left to chance?


Serious Contention to the Claims of Academic Excellence

Here are some more serious contentions:

  1. Most faculty are not trained how to teach. Therefore, they teach the way they were taught. As students, we found most faculty to be average or below average teachers. A young under-graduate would hardly find 3-5 professors up to the mark during their tenures of 4-years at the college.
  2. Most faculty do little or no experimentation in their teaching. They may do some experimentation early in their career, but few do experiments throughout their career. They settle on methods that to them appear to work best, but which their students likely view as poor.
  3. Most faculty do NOT share their teaching methods with other faculty in any great detail. So, they do not subject themselves to criticism that leads to improvement and remain unaware of what the professor in the office next to them does.
  4. In most universities, teaching counts for relatively little in faculty evaluation. There prevails an illogical line of thinking that says that -- because one has a terminal degree, they know how to teach. The reward for experimenting and improving one’s teaching is NIL, so most faculty don’t bother.
  5. Faculty will immerse themselves in the literature of their discipline, but will be largely uninformed about which pedagogies are more or less effective.
  6. Faculty talk of “continuous improvement” yet they do not actually use the methods and tools of continuous improvement (rooted in industrial engineering). Routine changes (but late changes usually) to the curriculum of courses and programs, while necessary, are ACCEPTED as evidence of comprehensive continuous improvement activity.
  7. From academics’ perspective, the answer to any of their problems is “more money.” They spend money instead of spending ideas. They should spend ideas, instead of spending money.
  8. For the last 10-15 years or so, university leaders have been more focused on enrollment numbers and admission of out-of-state students to improve the financial condition of the institution than teaching.
  9. As far as I can tell, no university president knows of or can name the top 5 teachers in each school (business, engineering, nursing, etc.). Nor do they know specifically the reasons why each person is a good teacher.

Rather than confront the poor quality of as basic a human activity as teaching, university leaders prefer to run from it and instead adopt expensive technological or other solutions. Top administrators are too quick to spend money and thus increase the cost of higher education.


Taking the First Step

KaizenInstead, top administrators should recognize teaching as a process and, like any process, it can be continuously improved. The way to do that is by using a proven, low cost/no-cost method. They may call in at least one learning from the world of business, i.e., Kaizen. They should institutionalize the Kaizen like activities in their quest for excellence in teaching, wherein a small team of professors is constituted among themselves, by themselves and attack any teaching or pedagogical issue they want and achieve the improvement within 6-7 days. College administrators has duty of facilitating all such endeavors on non-stop basis. They have to embed in their cultures.

I wish the narrative could end here. But it simply can’t be.


Taguchi’s Loss Function

Because if we take into account the Taguchi’s Loss function, then the problem is really, really staggering.

Taguchis Loss FunctionTaguchi loss function is a diagram of the loss for the company that actual results differ from a target value. Taguchi loss function is intended to capture not only the loss to the customer, but to society and society at large which can be measured by cost. It explains and can compute what would be the cost to society over the life-time of the usage of the product by a customer, if a single piece of any product deviates from its target value.

It make me ponder upon -- how much a society or country loses, when a single student is not up-to-mark. Because this loss does not occur on the day when a student leaves the institution, it incurs over a life-time of his. How much the students himself loses in terms of skills, opportunities, number of years? How much contributions which he/she could have made to society or country, if he was made up-to-the-mark by the day when he left the higher education institution?

How much the society or country is losing, when millions of students are not made up-to-the mark each year?

Equal to our GDP?

Less? Or More?

Come up with stronger ideas!

Share your views.




This article is written & published by Rajneesh Kumar, General Manager at Luminis Consulting Services Pvt Ltd, India. He can be reached at Email:  and/or Linkedin: 


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