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Ongoing saga of higher learning

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From the archives: Jawaharlal Nehru speaking at the inauguration of the Southern Languages Book Trust at the University of Madras Senate House on October 5, 1955. At right, the university’s general reading room, photographed on January 22, 1957.
From the archives: Jawaharlal Nehru speaking at the inauguration of the Southern Languages Book Trust at the University of Madras Senate House on October 5, 1955. At right, the university’s general reading room, photographed on January 22, 1957.

The University of Madras may have been established by the British colonisers, but it truly belongs to the people of India — they were the ones who asked for it. On November 1, 1839, the seeds of the university were sown by 70,000 “native inhabitants” of what was then the Madras Presidency. They signed a petition that was presented to Governor Lord John Elphinstone, which highlighted the need for an English college to provide higher education in the city.

“We see in the intellectual advancement of the people the true foundation of the nation’s prosperity,” they said in the petition. “We descend from the oldest native subjects of the British Power in India, but we are the last who have been considered in the political endowments devoted to this liberal object…Where among us are the collegiate institutions which, founded for these generous objects, adorn the two sister presidencies?” they asked, referring to the institutions of higher education that had been set up in the Bombay and Calcutta Presidencies.

The people made it clear that they were willing to work toward, and treasure, the institution they sought. “We seek not education which depends on charity. We shall take pride in contributing according to our means to so noble a work,” read the petition.

The Governor responded the very next month by proposing the establishment of a collegiate institution or university, which would have twin departments — a college providing higher education in English literature, regional language, philosophy and science, and a high school which would tutor students in the basic elements of these subjects, preparing them for the college.

A university board was set up in January 1840 and in April 1841, it in turn set up the high school with 67 students. By 1853, this high school became a collegiate institution, and after further expansion, was named Presidency College in 1855. Colleges of medicine, education, engineering and art also sprung up.

Finally, in 1854, Sir Charles Wood’s Despatch, described as the ‘Magna Carta of English Education in India,’ laid out the rationale for “creating a properly articulated system of education from the primary school to the University” and formulated a systematic educational policy for India. The Dispatch recommended the establishment in the Universities of Professorships “for the purposes of the delivery of lectures in various branches of learning including vernacular as well as classical languages.”

In Madras, the Despatch resulted in the establishment of a Department of Education, with Alexander J. Arbuthnot appointed as Joint Director of Public Instruction. Two years later, on September 5, 1857, the University of Madras, organised on the model of London University, was incorporated by an Act of the Legislative Council of India.

When it was started, the university was not a teaching institution; it was merely meant to hold examinations and confer degrees. The first B.A. degree examination was held in February 1858, and the first graduates of the University were C.W. Thamotharam Pillai and Caroll V. Visuvanatha Pillai from what is now Jaffna College in Sri Lanka.

All teaching was initially done at the Presidency College. Other pioneering institutions such as the Madras Christian College and Pachaiyappa’s College followed. The Presidency College also housed the university in the early years. However, in 1861, Robert Fellowes Chisholm, an architect whose many buildings defined the Madras of his day, was commissioned to construct two buildings on the Marina — the Senate House to house the university’s offices and hold convocations and the new Presidency College building. Senate House’s Great Hall not only hosted convocations for the next century, but also sessions of the Madras Legislature, the Music Academy. It was also the venue for numerous orations, concerts, plays and exhibitions. The building has been renovated and restored to its former glory in time for the university’s 150th birthday.

First 25 years

The first 25 years of the university were marked by an expansion of higher education under its aegis into the smaller towns of the Madras Presidency. By the time of its silver jubilee, the university had 24 affiliated colleges. It expanded areas of learning, introducing courses in languages, the physical sciences and the M.A degree.

The next quarter century saw the first Indian Vice Chancellor, Sir S. Subramania Ayyar, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. The period also saw the growth of women’s education, albeit in a slow manner, with the affiliation of the Sarah Tucker College in Tirunelveli in 1895. The first honorary doctorate of the university was awarded during this period, to Madras Christian College Principal Rev. William Miller. He went on to take up the position of Vice Chancellor of the university itself.

In 1923, the Madras University Act made the university a teaching and residential institution, taking it beyond its degree-granting role. In his article on the university’s history published in the Association of Indian Universities Journal in 2006, historian S. Muthiah describes the Act as “the gift of the Justice Party to Higher Education.” He goes on to explain that with this Act, “the University could conduct postgraduate courses and establish and run research institutes.”

]The Governor of the Madras Presidency became the Chancellor, with the Minister for Education appointed the Pro-Chancellor.

The position of Vice Chancellor was being filled by a full-time, paid official for the first time. The Senate, the Syndicate, the Academic Council, the different Faculties and the Boards of Studies were established as the administrative authorities of the university.

The first half of the 20th century saw the University of Madras giving birth to a number of other universities in the Presidency as higher education grew — including the University of Mysore, Osmania University, Andhra University, Annamalai University and the University of Travancore.

In 1942, a medical doctor, A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, was appointed Vice Chancellor. He held the post for over a quarter century, and guided the university through Indian Independence and beyond.

He was instrumental in nurturing the Guindy campus, shifting the Science departments there and inspiring the start of the Madras Institute of Technology and the Alagappa Chettiar College of Technology.

Priscilla Jebaraj

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