The government's focus on affordability of higher education is laudable, but steps need to be taken to ensure quality as well, say academicians.

The Tamil Nadu government's 2009-10 policy note for higher education states: “Expanding the access to higher education to all at affordable cost and ensuring the quality of education are the aims of this government.” The government has been implementing various schemes for expanding access. Shift system was introduced in government arts and science colleges from 2006-07, leading to a considerable increase in student intake.

No tuition fee

All self-supporting courses in government colleges were converted into regular courses, enabling students from poorer sections to pursue higher education in large numbers. All students studying in undergraduate courses in government and government-aided colleges were exempted from payment of tuition fee from 2007-08. More than three lakh students benefit from the scheme every year. And from 2010-11, the government's decision to exempt tuition fee for postgraduate courses in government arts and science colleges will benefit thousands of students in the 60 government arts and science colleges.

Teachers' organisations including the Tamil Nadu Government Collegiate Teachers' Association (TNGCTA) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) have welcomed the decision wholeheartedly. Now that the momentum for improving access to higher education has been generated, principals of arts and science colleges expect that steps should be taken to ensure quality.

Inadequate progress

Acknowledging that the government has filled teaching vacancies in conventional courses to a considerable extent and has made allocations for construction of additional classrooms and strengthening laboratories, a former principal of a government college said the pace of progress was not adequate. For instance, at Periyar E.V.R. College in Tiruchi, the classrooms are grossly insufficient due to which the shift system is adopted for running certain courses in the first shift and the rest in the second shift. The second shift was primarily envisaged for repeating the first-shift courses, pointed out Raja Mutthirulandi, a former professor at the college.

Library

In most government arts and science colleges, the conditions of libraries are pathetic, he observed. An institution without a good library does not mean much for students, more so for postgraduate students. Most libraries in government arts and science colleges subscribe only to a few newspapers, Prof. Mutthirulandi said, emphasising that the government must look into this aspect and make a beginning by filling the post of librarians. There is a shortage of teachers for applied courses that were started in the government colleges a few years ago when they functioned for certain duration as constituent units of their respective universities.

Faculty development

Principals who are finding it difficult to manage the situation with guest lecturers are keen to know if regular postings would be made for such courses. A principal said some of the job-oriented applied courses had to be discontinued for want of teachers. The situation in government-aided arts and science colleges is only slightly better. “Mere enrolment of students without sanctioning teaching posts for regular vacancies may not lead the higher education system anywhere,” said a principal of a reputed aided college where 48 regular vacancies remained unfilled.

Vacancies

The college management utilises the services of guest lecturers for conducting even the regular programmes and pay their salaries from revenue generated from self-financing courses.

At another aided college where 22 regular vacancies have been left unfilled, some periods in a week are marked free, despite the appointment of nine guest lecturers to address the situation.

“It is not possible for aided colleges to over-burden the limited number of teachers in certain departments with additional class hours,” the college Head reasoned out.

“While the government's steps to fill vacancies in government arts and science colleges and waiving tuition fees for improving access and quality is commendable, a quick decision is necessary for filling the 2,600 regular vacancies in government-aided colleges,” P. Jaya Gandhi, AUT State president, said, calling for a mechanism to fill arising vacancies in future without delay.