Debating India

SPECIAL FEATURES: EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE IN SOUTH TAMIL NADU

Setting high standards

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

Friday 2 July 2004, by SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

The emphasis is on quality and innovation in the area of higher education in southern Tamil Nadu, where four universities, a large number of colleges affiliated to them, and a deemed university have to work hard to survive in a climate of intense competition.

A SILENT revolution is under way on the higher education scene in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. There are four universities - the Madurai Kamaraj University, the Mother Teresa Women’s University, the Alagappa University and the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University - and a deemed university (the Gandhigram Rural Institute), 49 engineering colleges (47 in the self-financing category), 174 arts and science colleges (which include government-run, aided and self-financing institutions) and several catering institutes that cater to the educational needs of the people of Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Ramanathapuram, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts.

As the competition is tough, innovation in curriculum has become the key to the survival of these institutions. Add-on courses, enrichment classes, compulsory diploma/certificate courses, project reports, extension work and laboratories for training students in spoken English and Hindi add value to the regular courses on offer. With biotechnology, bioinformatics and gene technology courses in demand, a race is on among the colleges and universities to establish medicinal farms, bio-energy plantations, herbal gardens, nurseries for aromatic plants and so on.

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K. Ganesan
On the Madurai Kamaraj University campus in Madurai.

It was Madurai Kamaraj University that pioneered the concept of distance education in the country, in 1971. Its Directorate of Distance Education (DDE), which offers 61 courses, is an institution by itself. About 1.10 lakh students from all over India are on its rolls. It has 44 information centres across the country and six admission centres in Tamil Nadu and offers new courses every year. Its Vice-Chancellor, Prof. P.K. Ponnusamy, said: "The thirst for higher education is always there. We are extremely happy that enrolment in our DDE has remained steady. An enrolment of over one lakh students from every nook and corner of the country is a matter of pride."

The MKU has 18 schools of speciality subjects covering all disciplines, 74 departments and well-networked affiliated colleges. Several departments have projects funded by national agencies. The university has a national flavour on its campus. There are now 76 research projects funded by 19 national and international agencies to the tune of Rs.11.7 crores. There are national facilities in the MKU supported by the Union government’s Department of Biotechnology. These are the Centre for Genetic Engineering, the Bioinformatics Centre, the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology, the Centre for Blue Green Algae Research and the Biomass Centre.

The Gandhigram Rural Institute started its Distance Education Centre in January 2003. Its Vice-Chancellor, Dr. G. Pankajam, is proud of the fact that the centre will tie-up with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to convert homes into virtual classrooms through EDUSAT (educational satellite) when it is deployed in orbit in August. "This is a new venture. With our expertise in rural development, rural economics, panchayati raj, teaching, research and extension, we shall provide the software. Uplinking will be done from Gandhigram through ISRO, which will provide the technical input," she said. The centre plans to offer socially relevant programmes to the unreached sections of society.

Gandhigram was founded in 1947 by a team of dedicated Gandhians led by Dr. T.S. Soundaram and Dr. G. Ramachandran. In 1956, the Gandhigram Rural Institute (GRI) was established on the Gandhigram campus as one of the premier rural institutes, administered by the National Council for Rural Higher Education, Union Ministry of Education. The GRI was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of basic education (nai talim). Its three objectives are: to provide instruction and learning and to promote a classless and casteless society; to provide for research and advancement, and for the dissemination of knowledge; and to function as a centre for extension work, leading to integrated rural development. The GRI became a deemed university in 1976.

The Mother Teresa Women’s University has authored the concept of "off-campus programmes" through its DDE. These are job-oriented degree courses in Clinical Biochemistry, Clinical Microbiology, Laboratory Technology and Hospital Administration. The university offers about 60 such programmes, some of which require students to undergo full-time internship in hospitals. Its Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Anandhavalli Mahadevan, said: "The UGC (University Grants Commission) appreciated these off-campus programmes. We ensure quality by inspection." The DDE has opened study centres in academic institutions to make higher education accessible to women. There are about 100 study centres in different parts of the country.

An important component of the Alagappa University, Karaikudi, is its DDE, which was established in 1992. It offers undergraduate, postgraduate and M.Phil. courses in the disciplines of Management, Computer Applications, Science, Education and Language. It has 52 courses of study. The DDE’s M.Phil. programme in Library and Information Science is in big demand. The university offers week-end programmes to employed persons. "This is a special feature," says its Registrar Dr. R. Dhandapani. Two "distinctly popular" programmes are M.C.A. and M.Sc. in Computer Science. About 100 students enrol in these two courses every year. When admissions close this year, the DDE would have a student strength of about 75,000. It has 150 study centres across the country. There are also centres in Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai. The university will soon open study centres in Sri Lanka and African countries.

The Alagappa University was formed in 1985 from institutions founded by educationist and philanthropist Dr. Rm. Alagappa Chettiar. Between 1946 and 1956, Alagappa Chettiar established at Karaikudi the Alagappa Arts and Science College, the Alagappa College of Physical Education, the Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering and Technology and the Alagappa College of Education. When the Alagappa University was formed in 1985, all the four institutions were affiliated to it. Today, the university has 21 colleges affiliated to it. These are situated in Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. It has a student strength of 7,200. It has 14 departments offering postgraduate, M.Phil. and Ph.D. programmes. About 1,200 students are pursuing their postgraduate and M.Phil. courses in the university.

According to the Registrar, the university has important departments such as Women’s Studies, Bank Management and Corporate Secretaryship. He said the Alagappa College of Education received about 3,000 applications for the 115 seats in its B.Ed programme. The university’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Area Studies is located at Thondi, an ancient port. It conducts an M.Sc. programme in Oceanography and Coastal Studies there.

THE credit for nursing the DDE in the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, back to its health should go to its proactive Vice-Chancellor, Dr. K. Chockalingam. "A full-time Director has been appointed. A lot of backlog has been cleared," he said. The new programmes offered through the DDE include M.A. in Criminology and Police Science, which is the first of its kind in the country; M.Sc. in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Life Sciences; and M.Phil. in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.

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A.Shaikmohideen
The main building of the Manomaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli.

The university, established in September 1990, is named after a renowned Tamil scholar, P. Sundaram Pillai. There are 59 colleges affiliated to it and these are situated in Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts. There are about 50,000 students in these colleges and the university departments. Some of the important courses offered include M.Sc. in Biotechnology, Environmental Biotechnology, Microbiology, and Electronic Media; M.Phil. in Geo Marine Technology, and postgraduate diplomas in Private Detective and Security Management, and Criminology and Criminologistics.

The university has a novel scheme under which students who cannot pursue their higher studies in the formal university system can obtain job-oriented diplomas from community colleges. There are 30 such community colleges offering diplomas in four-wheeler mechanism, refrigeration, medical laboratory techniques, dairy management and technology, office management and accounts, and so on. The university sends teams to check the quality of the education imparted by the community colleges.

WHILE it is true that distance education has brought higher education to the door-step of those who cannot afford to study in day colleges, can it be said that self-financing engineering and arts and science colleges set up in rural areas attract students from villages? Until about 25 years ago, students from small towns would go to Chennai, Tiruchi, Madurai, Coimbatore or Palayamcottah, a twin-town of Tirunelveli, to pursue their collegiate education.

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By special arrangement
Students in a laboratory for medicinal and aromatic plants at the Mother Teresa Women’s University, Kodaikanal.

Have the 250 engineering colleges and hundreds of arts and science colleges that have amorphously sprung up all over the State arrested the flight of students to the cities?

For instance, the MEPCO Schlenk Engineering College is situated in rural environs, about 15 km from Virudhunagar, the P.S.R. Engineering College at Sevalpatti village, about 25 km from Sivakasi, the National Engineering College at Kovilpatti, the Arulmigu Kalasalingam College of Engineering at Krishnankovil near Srivilliputhur, and the Rajaas Engineering College at Vadakkangulam in Tirunelveli district. The MEPCO Schlenk Engineering College, the National Engineering College and the Arulmigu Kalasalingam College of Engineering are first-generation self-financing engineering colleges, which have established themselves well. An analysis of the about 225 self-financing engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu would reveal that they have not made engineering education available to students from the villages in their vicinity.

The reason is simple: rural students cannot afford the high cost of engineering education offered by these self-financing colleges. Almost exclusively, these colleges have attracted students from big cities and towns. The latest fad among some of these colleges is to advertise that they have "mineral water plants" on their campuses, or that they have built massive indoor stadiums.

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