Maryland last week became one of a few states to shift primary attention from problems in elementary and secondary schools to the weaknesses of higher education, with the appointment of a 12-member commission to recommend ways to improve the state's colleges and universities.

Gov. Harry Hughes announced Thursday the creation of the panel, which will look at educational quality and funding, including the possibility of merging institutions and adopting tests to measure how much students are learning.

The change in focus comes after the release of several national reports criticizing higher education and depicting graduates as ill-prepared and uncreative.

Like other education issues in recent years, reform of higher education carries the potential to become a hot political issue in Maryland's numerous electoral contests next year. "We have had a good deal of attention for elementary and secondary education. It's probably time to look at this," said Sheila Tolliver, the governor's assistant for education. "Maryland is among the first few states to initiate a concerted look at this."

"We're looking for excellence in education, and unfortunately the value of a college education has been deflated," said state Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), a member of the commission.

He said the 12-member panel will consider merging some institutions and combining the three boards that oversee the state's colleges and universities.

During its 1985 session, the General Assembly called for a study of the state's 26 public and 14 private colleges and universities. The concern follows several controversies including a 16-year-old desegregation conflict with the federal government and questions of whether duplicate programs on nearby campuses should be merged.

There have been suggestions, for instance, that the state merge teacher education programs at Towson State University, Morgan State University and Coppin State College, all of which are in the Baltimore area.

"We have some problems in higher education in Maryland, and we need to focus policy makers on improving the quality," said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), a member of the commission. He said the primary mandate should be setting goals for institutions, funding and accountability.

One controversial option widely discussed in Maryland for measuring quality is testing students as freshmen and again as seniors. Such testing is being done in only a few states, one of which is Tennessee, where funding is linked to test results.

The commission also is expected to look at funding levels and whether individual institutions should have more flexibility in how money is spent. This fiscal year, the state appropriated $539.6 million for higher education, with $13.8 million of that going to private institutions.

Colleges and universities nationwide have been grappling with declining enrollment and reduced federal aid. The financial implications of these developments have inspired state legislators and educators to call for measures of efficiency and quality.

The commission, headed by Alan P. Hoblitzell Jr., board chairman of Maryland National Bank in Baltimore, is scheduled to report to Hughes in November and July.

Other members include state Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County); Del. Nancy K. Kopp (D-Montgomery County); Lisle C. Carter Jr., former president of the University of the District of Columbia, and several business representatives.