Edunews

Learning it the hard way

Engineering students in some of Tamil Nadu’s deemed universities are worried as the AICTE raises questions about their courses.

S. VISWANATHAN in Chennai

A student of the Sathyabhama Deemed University outside the hostel with his belongings after the institution declared a one-week closure.-N. SRIDHARAN

TAMIL NADU has about 250 institutions of engineering education, including a university of technology and 10 deemed universities. Thanks primarily to the explosive growth of Information Technology in the past 10 years, the State has made phenomenal advances in engineering education, if one goes by sheer numbers. Thousands of graduates from these institutions have been employed by IT firms across the country and aboard on salaries unthinkable a decade ago.

This, however, is only one part of the story. There is also a darker side to it.

In the wake of the IT boom, engineering institutions mushroomed. The sole purpose of their management was to make a fast buck by collecting huge sums as fees. Significantly, 170 of the over 240 self-financing engineering colleges came into being during the past eight years. Successive governments extended all help to them to increase the intake of students disproportionately under the pretext of “meeting the needs of the expanding IT sector”. As is inevitable in the case of such unplanned growth, quality has suffered.

The chief executive officers of some IT majors, who encouraged the proliferation of engineering colleges until a few years ago, have now started complaining about the products from these institutions. They claim that hardly 10 per cent of the engineers graduating from these colleges are employable.

Educationists have often expressed their apprehensions about such unhealthy growth. They blame statutory bodies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), particularly the latter, which is entrusted with the task of maintaining the standards of education through inspection and grant of accreditation.

In 2005, the AICTE intervened by warning scores of self-financing colleges, all affiliated to the Anna University until a few years ago, of derecognising the courses they offered unless corrective steps were taken to improve quality. The colleges that were warned agreed to comply with AICTE stipulations. This year the council focussed on some of the 10 deemed universities, besides engineering colleges.

In mid-February, the AICTE published a `public notice’ as an advertisement in newspapers notifying certain regulations for the engineering institutions. It cautioned the institutions against starting new courses or programmes without its approval and ignoring the norms regarding the intake of students.

It stated: “No university, including deemed university, shall conduct technical courses/programmes without ensuring maintenance of the norms and standards prescribed by the Council.” The council wanted the institutions that conducted courses without its approval to apply for approval before March 7. It also warned of legal action against defaulters.

The notice and the response of some of the deemed universities, which challenged it in the Madras High Court, dismayed the students of these institutions. They were not sure whether the courses they were taking had been “approved” or not. They felt that the management’s response to the AICTE’s directive meant trouble for them. At least three deemed universities witnessed protests by students when they did not get convincing clarifications from the managements.

Over a thousand students of the SRM Institute of Science and Technology, a deemed university situated in Kattankulathur near Chennai, came out of their hostels around midnight on March 1 to stage a demonstration, after they failed to elicit a convincing response from the authorities on the status of the courses.

According to some students, they were provoked when a university official told students who have already completed three or four years of study: “Why do you worry? If you don’t get a B.Tech, you can go with a B.Sc. Degree.” The demonstration turned violent and some computers and laboratory equipment were reportedly damaged. Some students blamed it on “goondas”. Nine students were arrested for entering the campus without permission. The police allegedly manhandled the crew of a television team. All institutions on the campus were ordered closed for a week and the hostellers were asked to vacate. Earlier, students boycotted classes for more than a week.

The trouble spread to the Sathyabhama Institute of Science and Technology (Deemed University) the next day. The confusion over the status of the courses of study led students to stage angry protests. Following violence in which property was damaged, the university was closed “indefinitely” and students were asked to vacate the hostels.

In Kancheepuram, students of the Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya, also a deemed university, boycotted classes on March 2 and staged a demonstration demanding that the institution seek the necessary approval from the AICTE.

“In both the places where the students staged massive demonstrations, a heavy police presence was reported. There were also complaints of brutal attacks on students both by the police and by the hirelings of the managements,” said G. Selva, secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Student Federation of India (SFI).

Fearing withdrawal of recognition to the course he was undergoing, a third-year student of one of the deemed universities, Robin Vaas, 20, committed suicide, according to Selva. The police, however, blamed the suicide on the student’s `concern’ about adverse reaction from his parents to his involvement in the agitation.

The main contention of the managements is that deemed universities do not come under the purview of AICTE regulations. They claim that they enjoy status equivalent to other universities. The AICTE has countered this by stating that as a statutory body entrusted with the task of ensuring standards and norms as also quality of education, the Council is well within its powers to ask for compliance from all institutions conducting engineering and related technical courses.

Although the deemed universities try to make it appear as an issue between themselves and the AICTE, they had received a similar notice also from the University Grants Commission (UGC) as early as April 2005. The UGC has, in a communication to the Vice-Chancellors of the universities, brought to their notice that the deemed universities have not been following the guidelines in respect of “admissions, fees, introduction of new courses, [including courses offered through private franchising under distance learning] and intake capacity of students”. The UGC has asked them to furnish information on their compliance with the norms (see box).

Selva described the universities’ refusal to submit themselves to quality checks by statutory accreditation bodies as atrocious. He appealed to the UGC to make it mandatory for deemed universities to get AICTE recognition for all their technical courses.

In a related development, on February 27, the Madras High Court quashed a State Act that provided for the abolition of the Common Entrance Test in the case of students from the State (secondary education) board stream who aspire to join professional colleges.

The court held that dispensing with the CET only for State board students and making it mandatory for candidates from other streams as the Act envisaged infringed on the fundamental right to equality. The State government has gone on an appeal to the Supreme Court.

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