Here's an interesting statistic from Anna University Vice Chancellor E Balagurusamy: with over 240 engineering colleges affiliated to the Anna University, Tamil Nadu accounts for some 75,000 engineering graduates every year. This forms a fourth of around 300,000 such engineering graduates turned out in the whole of India; and this is a third the entire world is estimated to produce (around 900,000) in a year.
With understandable pride, Balagurusamy claimed that the Anna University, with its contribution of 8 to 9 per cent of the global output of engineers annually, is the largest technical university in the world.
Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra also produce engineering graduates in large numbers every year. Kerala, which opened up engineering education for the private sector a couple of years ago, is rapidly making up for the time lost.
Despite the tall claims, Balagurusamy did express concern over the poor quality of education imparted in most of the colleges: poor infrastructure; under-paid staff, most with mediocre academic records, little or no practical training; poor percentage of passes, all cumulatively contributing to large-scale unemployment of those who obtain the engineering degree after spending a fortune.
In the boom years of information technology, that is, post-1997, there has been a rapid mushrooming of private engineering colleges. Even at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, over 85 per cent of the undergraduates from all disciplines ended up with a job in the IT sector.
Understandably, there was clamour for a degree in electronics and communication engineering. Tamil Nadu had several factors that were conducive to the demand for such an education increasing:
The system of reservation of 69 per cent of the total seats offered by government-run institutions, denied large numbers of aspirants admissions into state-run engineering colleges.
Over the years, entry levels have become extremely high, with the cut off marks of over 98 per cent, with corresponding high-entry point even for other backward classes.
The pent-up demand led to the opening up of higher education to the private sector.
Getting the permission to start such a college required new technologies. There was no dearth of innovation here. Politicians with expertise and contacts at the right places developed skills in no time. Some made effective use of the privileges extended to minorities.
A prominent politician adroitly converted one of his sons to Jainism and has built a flourishing number of engineering colleges. SPIC's A C Muthiah controls Sri Venkateswara Engineering College, run as a Telugu-minority institution.
Significantly, powerful politicians or those with powerful political connections have promoted most of the institutions: these have been effective in getting the necessary clearances from Delhi.
The All India Centre for Technical Education has been concerned with minimum standards: the University Grants Commission, with the authority to supervise and check the quality of these institutions, is overawed by the pressures from the HRD ministry and a benevolent minister at the helm.
This senior leader of the BJP, remember, has pleased some 24 different political groups from different parts of the country; the BJP is weak in most of the states and has ambitions on emerging strong nationwide some day.
"None of these colleges was promoted by an educationist of standing," points out noted educationist, M Anandakrishnan. We have a plethora of powerful ex-politicians like G Viswanathan, Jeppiar, Jagathrakshagan, A C Shanmugam and those with powerful political connections and money power running flourishing business enterprises in the form of engineering colleges.
The infrastructure is poor in several of these colleges, which are often run on the expectations of getting accreditation from the AICTE. These draw gullible students and parents and levy hefty capitation fees, mostly unaccounted. The quality of teachers is also poor and the students are fleeced at every stage.
To enforce a measure of standards, the government brought all the colleges imparting engineering education, earlier attached to the different universities, under the Anna University. When examinations were conducted by Anna University with common question papers, the results were disastrous.
In the second semester exams conducted in July 2003, 219 colleges out of the 244 had less than 15 per cent passes. In the fourth semester exams, 140 out of 161 colleges had less than 15 per cent passes. There has, thus, been much less demand for admission into several of these colleges. Roughly, a fourth of the total seats offered are reported to remain unfilled this year.
Several of these colleges have been collecting hefty capitation fees varying from Rs 200,000 up to Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) a seat. Of course, most of the moneys were unaccounted. The asset base of some of these colleges today runs into hundreds of crores of rupees. Remember, these have grown with little capital to boot!
When the Supreme Court delivered a not-so-clear verdict on the management quota and the fee structure, the very nebulousness of the wording helped these enterprises continue with their well-set practices.
When the vice chancellor of Anna University introduced a ban on donation by a parent of a student gaining admission to a private college, the latter quite effortlessly found an alternative route: a hint to the parent that such a donation can be given by a business leader-friend of the parent, not related to him, and the parent can settle the account with the business leader.
Evolution of such practices is, indeed, taking place at breathtaking speed. When the promoters of private colleges found the common entrance test and stipulation of quality standards imposed by Anna University inconvenient and the political leadership in the state not disposed to oblige them, they have made a beeline for Delhi. Eight of these have managed to get the deemed university status from the AICTE/UGC. Of course, noblesse oblige.
There is no transparency or minimum standard required in according the deemed university status. Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi has accorded deemed university status to 39 applicants. A simple application form and a fee of Rs 10 lakh is all that is needed to set up a deemed university.
At one stroke, the deemed university tag frees a college, earlier affiliated to Anna University, from the rigours of admission standards. The SRM Institute of Science and Technology on the outskirts of Chennai, that has been attracting students in good numbers, celebrated its winning the deemed university status with a bang.
The Tamil daily, Dinamalar (September 3) reported of the university expanding the intake into the engineering course this year by 1,000 students, raking in a cash inflow of around Rs 300 crore.
Balagurusamy pointed out to the poor strength of faculty in most of these colleges and deemed universities: "these have hardly a handful of teachers, with just M Tech qualification. Yet a deemed university advertised offering M Tech and even PhD programmes in 15 disciplines!" Anna University has promptly announced that it would not recognise the degrees offered by these deemed universities.
That means degree holders of these will not be admitted either to teach or pursue higher studies in the institutions of Anna University. How, then, are they going to get recognition outside the state or in the much sought-after American universities and business schools is a matter for conjecture.
With education in the concurrent list, the state has little power to set right this deep-rooted malaise. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa seems to have brought the sad state of affairs to the notice of the UGC chairman. But the hands of HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi are too full with issues concerning realpolitik.
He may not have much time for these mundane issues until the elections are over next year. He is only too familiar with how prosperous this business of engineering education is. And the noble Joshi is always willing to oblige.
The writer is editor, Industrial Economist