The challenges ahead

Points to ponder: Institutions of higher learning need to address the lack of communication or soft skills in students passing out.

Points to ponder: Institutions of higher learning need to address the lack of communication or soft skills in students passing out.   | Photo Credit: Photo: R. Ragu


Higher education today is confronted with many issues — proliferation of colleges, uneven standards, lack of quality faculty, absence of infrastructure and so on. What is the way out?

Over the past decade, there has been a huge proliferation of institutions of higher learning. What began in the 1980s as an experiment in self-financing colleges has transformed into a movement towards complete commercialisation of higher education. Entrepreneurs in this sector have either gone in for autonomous institutions or even deemed universities, thanks to the University Grants Commission. This has acquired a much greater significance in the realm of professional education — engineering and medical. Tamil Nadu remains a pioneer in this process, facing major problems too.

Academics and students alike raise serious concerns at the continuing proliferation of professional colleges. The Indian Medical Council has been much more circumspect about clearing applications to set up new medical colleges, but the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) remains very generous in its sanctions. There are 1,346 engineering colleges in the country with a capacity to churn out 4.4 lakh engineers every year, according to figures released by the AICTE.

Some of the major challenges confronting higher education today include: proliferation of colleges, raising questions about their standards; total inadequacy of qualified teachers or professors; lack of communication or soft skills in students passing out of these institutions of higher learning; lack of transparency in curriculum making; absence of any system to evaluate the performance of teachers; the rising fee structure in most of these colleges; and a hackneyed university administration system that cannot cope with the modern and global trends.

Above all, the immediate concern of students and their parents seems to be the economic slowdown and its impact on recruitment and campus placement programmes.

At the beginning of the academic year 2008-09, the southern States accounted for 703 of the 1,346 engineering colleges in the country. Tamil Nadu topped the chart with 254 colleges, more than in any other zone.

A former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University argues that the problem is not so much with the numbers, as with the quality of education and the standard of physical infrastructure. “I know of a lot of colleges that have just one building and one laboratory, but manage to secure temporary accreditation every year on the promise of providing the basic facilities. It needs a thorough review and revamp of the clearance and accreditation process to put an end to the mushrooming of such colleges,” he reasons.

Equally disconcerting is the non-availability of qualified teachers. The dean of academics at a deemed university says: “We pay among the best salaries in the academic field today, but cannot get the right talent. We encourage our lecturers to pursue post-graduate education and register for a doctorate. But they get attracted to industry.”

Students complain that their immediate seniors often come to teach, and even they do not last long. Quite often, some highly qualified professors in each department lend their names to many colleges, just to enable them to get sanction for lucrative courses.

This year, campus placement becomes the immediate problem. During an economic slump, the fate of thousands of students passing out of college hangs in the balance. And industry keeps saying that fresh graduates lack basic communication skills.

The downturn in the IT sector may be a blessing in disguise for core engineering industries. The problem in the arts and science colleges may be worse. Enrolment has declined and mostly students who do not get into professional courses join these colleges. With the exception of perhaps B.Com., the other courses do not generate the kind of employment that students or their parents expect.

It is in this scenario that the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) - Tamil Nadu State Council hosts a day-long workshop on the future of higher education. Its chairman, Manickam Ramswamy, promotes the concept of a ‘Special Education Zone’ on the lines of an SEZ. That may ensure better infrastructure and surely entail very high fees, but it still needs qualified faculty. Instead of being a high-end commercial venture, it must seek to provide quality education that can wean Indian students away from foreign universities. But it must still conform to basic standards and be subject to some regulation. That must be the focus of this brainstorming session on February 13.

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