Move to improve post-matric scholarship scheme yet to create immediate impact

Over 40 per cent of seats earmarked for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes in engineering courses have gone unfilled at the end of counselling.

There is no surprise element this year as the current figure of vacancy conforms to the trend, going by the data of admission and vacancy since 2009, when a sub-quota of three per cent for Arunthathiyars was created within the overall quota of 18 per cent for Scheduled Castes.

In respect of SC-Arunthathiyars (SCA), nearly two-thirds of their seats remain vacant and the situation is much worse in the case of Tribals – a vacancy rate of around 75 per cent.

If one were to compare these details with those of other communities – say Most Backward Classes, the gap is quite apparent, as there is at least a 10 percentage point difference.

The engineering admission in 2010 saw a steep decline in vacancies across the communities and this was attributed to several factors, including lowering of eligibility marks.

Even though this year’s figures for SC/STs are in no way different from the trend, what is visible is that the present government’s move of improving the post-matric scholarship scheme has not created any immediate impact. Now, the government absorbs the burden of compulsory refundable fees, as determined by the official committee on fee fixation, unlike the previous arrangement of covering only the amount charged by government or government-aided institutions.

At present, on an average, an eligible undergraduate engineering SC/ST student gets Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 60,000 a year. It is not that SC/ST students have no aspiration to join engineering, but it is the absence of hassle-free process, from the stage of securing forms, a major reason for a high vacancy rate, says former Chief Secretary A. Padmanabhan. A majority of these students are poor and hail from rural areas. They feel that the system is not sensitive enough to their hardships and concerns.

A strong perception that the courses are tough drives several students to opt for humanities and law, feels E. Balagurusamy,Member (Education), State Planning Commission.

‘No magic solution’

Asserting that there is “no magic solution” to the “big question” of encouraging more and more SC/ST students to pursue engineering, M. Anandakrishnan, chairperson of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, says multi-pronged efforts have to be made to address this problem. One way is to identify academically weaker students, irrespective of social background, as such students are present in every community.

These students should be identified from the sixth standard and provided with those skills that would, eventually, enable them to realise their potential.

One major factor contributing to the high vacancy rate is affordability of engineering education. Of the vacant seats, most are in the self-financing colleges and the general complaint of students is that managements of the colleges insist that they pay the fees upfront at the time of admission despite the existence of the scholarship scheme.

K. Jayakumar, former Congress legislator from Namakkal and an alumnus of the Guindy Engineering College, recalls that when he joined the college in 1967, he paid just two rupees, that too for getting a form to claim scholarship. When such a system was possible 45 years ago, why not now, he wonders, disapproving of the practice of private colleges forcing the students to pay the fees upfront. The low level of awareness among the SC/ST students even for claiming their entitlements is yet another factor, says D. Nedunchezhian, education consultant.

Explaining the various steps taken for the benefit of SC/ST candidates, Tamil Nadu Engineering Admission secretary V. Rhymend Uthariaraj says exclusive counters were set up for the issue and receipt of forms. This year, the Commissionerate of Adi-Dravidar Welfare opened a stall to guide the students. After the end of general counselling, two separate sessions were held to admit 500 SC students for filling vacant seats of SCA. Pointing out that the general counselling was done as per merit list, Prof. Utharairaj says meritorious SC students have been admitted against the OC category, conceding that the final tally of vacancies does not give a full picture on representation of different communities. What many agree is that much more needs to be done.

A senior government official belonging to the SC suggests that SC/ST students, even at the level of 10th or 11th standard, be motivated to take to engineering. Another official recommends an exclusive counselling session for the SC/ST students. Dr. Anandakrishnan says private colleges will not become poor by not collecting the fees at one go from the poor students on admission.