For a large part of its 88-year history, the world outside has seen St. Teresa’s College in Ernakulam as a hep place where all the actresses of Malayalam cinema go to study. Leading ladies of Malayalam film, from Divya Unni to Asin and Meera Nandan, models, television anchors, dancers, and singers have all passed through the halls of this college in the heart of the city. To those watching from outside the college’s women-only campus, the ‘St. Teresa's girl’ is the well-dressed, English-speaking young woman walking around Convent Junction.

“St. Teresa’s is the first aided women’s college in the State. When it was started in 1925, ours was the only college for women that offered high standard education. We still try to maintain that quality,” says college principal Sr. Teresa.

The college has consistently bagged top ranks in university examinations. Of the 17 students who bagged A grade in the University last year, four were from St. Teresa’s.

Behind the glamorous exterior, however, it is an institution that’s only capable of outsmarting other colleges in the Mahatma Gandhi University.

Despite its popularity in the State, the college fares badly in comparison with other top women’s colleges in the country. Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi and Stella Maris College in Chennai are both women’s colleges started at least 20 years after St. Teresa’s. A spot in these institutions is coveted by students from different states, including Kerala. But the fame of St. Teresa’s does not cross the boundaries of its home State. The situation is equally dismal in most of Kerala’s arts and science colleges.

The difference, according to Sr. Teresa, is that Stella Maris is an autonomous college. “Many of the institutes of excellence among arts and science colleges in the country are in fact autonomous colleges,” she says. St. Teresa’s College, run by the Congregation of Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa, is a government aided college affiliated to the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. As an autonomous institution, St. Teresa’s would be able to formulate new courses, its own syllabi and question papers.

Education experts in the State have repeatedly called for overhauling the arts and science syllabi of universities in the State.

“Changes in the syllabus need to be made immediately,” says Kesavan Veluthat, professor in the Department of History of University of Delhi. Professor Veluthat, who has taught in various colleges in Kerala, says that any proposal to improve the syllabus is immediately shot down in the State.

“It is a very bad mindset among teachers and administrators in Kerala. There were some efforts to change the syllabus when I was teaching in the State. But they were all torpedoed by inefficient educators. Our colleges are nowhere close to the national standards. The result is that our students are unable to compete at the national level,” he says.

Mahatma Gandhi University recently brought in the Credit and Semester system as part of modernizing its curriculum. Professor Veluthat says the new system alone would not improve the standard of education. “The content, teaching, assessment, and examinations will all have to be changed to bring any improvement.”

The University Grants Commission had recognized St. Teresa’s college as a ‘Centre with potential for excellence.’ Sr. Teresa believes that autonomy will help convert the potential into reality. “But even if the college is made autonomous, it will take a few years for us to develop a better system and syllabus,” she says.

Meanwhile, the college tries to bridge the gap by organizing seminars and starting add-on courses for its students. “We now have a system by which each department is given the freedom to start some innovative programmes. This helps add to the knowledge imparted through the syllabus,” says Sr. Teresa.

However, like all arts and science colleges in the State, St. Teresa’s has also been affected by the decline in preference for arts courses. “The cream of students passing out from schools prefers professional courses over arts and science courses. They take up arts and science only when they can’t get in for engineering or medicine. But the best of those who prefer arts and science come to our college,” she says.

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