A. Kalai, a third-year computer engineering student from Salem, who studies in a private engineering college here, maintains a diary in which she writes about a certain TCS dream. “My sister was the first engineering graduate in my village. She is now with TCS in the U.S. I also want to be like her,” she said.

There is engineering and there is the engineering in Tamil Nadu and Chennai is the fulcrum of that dream. “Engineering has always been a craze here, because students are perceived to be good and interested in technical professions. There are more ‘A’ certified colleges in Tamil Nadu, and you will not find single-building engineering colleges, a common sight in Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra,” said R. Maheswari, a professor with a private college here.

The genesis of this boom was in a decision by former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran in 1983 to allow private engineering and medical colleges, said G. Viswanathan, founder and Chancellor of VIT University. “The Chief Minister did not want students from the State to go elsewhere for education. So he devised the ‘MGR formula’ of letting private institutions fill 50 per cent of their seats in the management quota and surrender the rest to the government quota,” he said. The move to encourage private investment was a massive success. From 157 engineering and technology institutions in 1980, the country in 2012 had 5,194.

It also helped that there was great demand from companies coming up around that time. In the 90s and early 2000s, nearly 50 new colleges came up annually. Today, over 500 colleges offer over 2 lakh seats.

Experts wonder if the boom has gone out of hand. Academicians such as former Anna University V-C E. Balaguruswamy have repeatedly said only the top 50 colleges are worth their fees and reputation, and that most colleges in the State lack teachers and infrastructure. The demand too has evened out with more than 50,000 seats vacant every year.

“The calculation of the demand and requirements went awry,” said Dr. Viswanathan, who felt that the time has come to consolidate the colleges, at least those run by the same trust. “Then, the numbers will come down and managements can focus on improving efficiency rather than duplicating effort.”

Despite this, engineering continues to be the preferred option for upward mobility. “With no entrance test or limits on seats, admission is no longer confined to the graduates of sophisticated English medium urban schools,” said R. Jayashankar, professor, Anna University. “But the growth has not been guided by any discernible policy,” he added.

Next year, Kalai will be one among a million graduates, most of whom won’t have a job waiting for them. “We have already been told not to expect jobs. I am preparing for bank exams too,” she said.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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