A greenfield initiative, the Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur, with a contemporary approach and discipline-specific academic centres, has come a long way.

When 12 new central universities were established by a single Act of Parliament in March 2009, reactions were mixed. The policy of enhancing access, coupled with locating central universities in States that did not have one, guided the selection of Tamil Nadu.

Thiruvarur, where the university has come up, is one of the smaller towns in conjunction with the hoary cultural, literary and political aspects of the greater integrated Thanjavur district.

The beginning

The university, a greenfield initiative, had to engage in simultaneous planning and development of human resources, temporary campus, academic programmes and main campus. With the terrain of the main campus, seasoned by decades of active agriculture and a river/canal separating the two parcels of land, a master plan had to factor in the ground realities including inhabited villages in the immediate vicinity.

The gesture of the State government in making available a compact building of 55,000 square feet helped establish the university. We then had to adapt keeping in mind administrative and academic needs including dormitory accommodation for boys and girls.

New institutions have a choice of taking off-the-shelf programmes and starting them or designing programmes in consultation with domain experts who could provide suitable advice of overcoming limitations of their current approaches and suggest contemporary approaches to such programmes. For example, although the Academies of Sciences in their approach paper towards restructuring post-secondary science education had advocated a five-year integrated programme at CUTN, we went to the drawing board and discussed in a multi-disciplinary context how this could be approached, and today I can say with confidence that the basic sciences programme is consolidated with programmes in mathematics, physical sciences, chemical sciences and life sciences.

Schools and programmes

The first level of academic planning for CUTN was therefore nucleated around the School as the unit of academic programmes with academic centres for discipline-specific activity. This, while allowing for decentralisation recognises the multi-disciplinary perspective that is needed to address contemporary issues and concerns. Accordingly, CUTN established the following schools through which programmes would be launched and they would develop into centres and schools as they consolidate: School of Social Sciences and Humanities, School of Mathematics and Computer Science and School of Basic and Applied Sciences.

In social sciences and humanities the halting approach has been to see that we do not open all departments but build a centre and department that work together and bring a collective dimension to the programme and research output. In languages too, rather than focusing on Tamil per se, we reworked our approach towards classical Tamil studies. Our faculty recruitment is in pace with the launch of our programmes.

For the neighbourhood

In consonance with the policy of universities reaching out to communities, we are developing a framework for a community college that would provide opportunities for education and skills to neighbourhood communities. Thus we have worked on programmes in basic computing skills, paralegal courses and soil and water management.

These programmes are being developed and offered through mentoring relationships with the Ministry of Electronics, TN Agricultural University and National Law School University of India, Bangalore. Both age and educational prerequisites are flexible to provide opportunities. These programmes in due course may also be amplified to provide more value-added skill courses to our regular students who may benefit.

The way forward

Our expansion and planning for the 12 Plan is premised on a trajectory that will amplify our basic science courses and programmes into certain applied areas that complement the foundational support that we can draw from the basic sciences. A school of performing arts with focus on music and dance and local folk arts is being worked out. Integrated programmes in law, integrated programmes leading to BSc Ed and BA Ed and standalone teacher education programmes of shorter duration have been worked out and regulatory agencies’ approval is awaited.

In the long run and stemming from the rich traditions of the State and the region, a university centre for the arts is at the conception level. This centre is intended to validate the professional inputs of artists with or without formal academic credentials and nurture a liberal space for the arts as a well defined institution with professional management and inputs. However, this requires planning and some efforts have been made.

With a fairly good track of the State in the higher education sector, CUTN is a new addition that may in the long run become a residential institution, with students from all over the country and abroad forming the nucleus of our activity.

A master plan that accommodates 30 different schools is in place. Ecologically and environmentally sensitive, we have opted for compliance to GRIHA norms. Our proximity to rural communities requires humanitarian approaches to deal with their expectations and aspirations.

Complete plan

An educational institution naturally requires quality human resources, and to cater to the educational needs of children of our employees, CUTN has a KV school and this has considerably enhanced the response rate of faculty and non-teaching applicants.

Over the past five years our development towards establishing the main campus is complete with residential accommodation for 140 persons; central lecture hall complex, lab-based schools, multipurpose hall and hostels with mess facilities.

We started our academic programmes in 2009 with eight students and today we have nearly 700 students including the MSc students of various branches of economics at the Madras School of Economics with whom we have an MoU.

A novel attempt was made under the aegis of CUTN for a common entrance test for a few central universities. This provides an opportunity for applicants to apply to all participating universities and their programmes.

Educational institutions require a gestation period and they need to grow and develop over a period of time. We can say that CUTN has arrived as a major central educational institution with overall development on all parameters. We have miles to go but we can feel satisfied that we have come to stay.

The writer is Vice-Chancellor, Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur.