Ups and downs

Print edition : September 05, 2014

Madras Medical College. Its history goes back to 1835 when Madras Medical School was established. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The Centenary Building of the University of Madras. Photo: K. Pichumani

Presidency College, which grew out of India's first high school and was the nucleus of the university. Photo: V. Ganesan

Madras once offered quality education to only a select few but today it has plenty on offer but of questionable quality.

THE LARGE NUMBER OF ENGINEERING colleges in Chennai, and also Tamil Nadu, today is a far cry from 1839 when 70,000 residents of Madras, calling themselves “native inhabitants” of Madras Presidency, petitioned Governor John Elphinstone for setting up an English college in the city to provide higher education. They even volunteered to contribute to the cause. “We shall take pride in contributing according to our means to so noble a work,” the group, led by Advocate-General George Norton, declared. The genesis of the University of Madras lay in that petition dated November 14, 1839. This was the time when the government was contemplating “some effective and liberal measures for the establishment of an improved system of national education”. The petition said “we have had occasion to learn the inestimable advantages of education. The natural effects of useful knowledge are fully open to our comprehension. We see in the intellectual advancement of the people the true foundation of the nations’ prosperity.…”

Dr P.J. Thomas, Professor, University of Madras, in an article, “History of Education in Madras”, calls the petition “a memorable document” that “must be treasured” ( The Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume, 1939).

In the wake of the petition, Elphinstone came up with a plan to establish a central collegiate institution or “a university” with two components: (1) a high school to teach English literature, regional language, philosophy and science and (2) a college providing education in the higher branches of literature, philosophy and science. A university board was set up in 1840 with George Norton as its president. However, a systematic educational policy for India was formulated only 14 years later. As a consequence, the University of Madras was founded on September 5, 1857. The high school, as contemplated, was established first, in 1841. It subsequently became Presidency College and shifted to its present premises on the Marina. During its initial years, the University of Madras functioned from Presidency College.

Presidency College, Chennai, is the mother of all colleges in Madras Presidency and indeed the progenitor of the University of Madras itself. S. Muthiah says in his thoroughly researched book Madras Rediscovered:

“Presidency College, growing out of the first High School, was the nucleus of Madras University. Its beginnings were a preparatory school that began in Edinburgh House, Egmore, possibly on Pantheon Road, in 1840, before it shifted to Popham’s Broadway. It became a High School on April 4, 1841, when it moved into D’Monte House, Egmore, which now houses the Chief Magistrate’s Court….

“In April 1853, the collegiate departments were added to the school, and in 1855, the institution was named Presidency College. The College moved into its new building in 1870-71…. Presidency College was also ‘the law college’ until Law College was started in 1891-92, and the University Office, until Senate House was built….”

Since 1940, Presidency College has gone from strength to strength. Its centenary celebrations were inaugurated on February 3, 1940, by the then Governor of Madras Lord Erskine. It was then that a centenary memorial dome, including the four faces of the Fyson clock, with a musical bell, was built.

Today, Presidency College is a premier institution of higher studies under the Tamil Nadu government. It has 26 departments offering degree and postgraduate courses in Tamil, English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telugu, Urdu, plant biology and plant biotechnology, chemistry, statistics, mathematics, geography, geology, microbiology, public administration, political science, commerce, and so on. It is perhaps the only college in Tamil Nadu that offers such a wide range of courses. Its course in corporate secretaryship is in big demand.

Whether it was in school or collegiate education, Madras led the way. In the 1680s/1690s, St. Mary’s Church in Fort St. George ran a school and an orphanage. It was formalised in 1715 as St. Mary’s Charity School. It was the earliest of the type of schools that have mushroomed everywhere today. It was later renamed St. George’s School.

When the first Government Survey School was founded in Madras in 1794, it was the first institution east of Europe for technical education. It metamorphosed into College of Engineering, Guindy, which is one of the top engineering colleges in the country now.

Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College, like Presidency College, has a great history. George Norton was the first to conceive the idea of legal education in Madras. He used to informally conduct law classes in his home. From the 1850s to 1890, it was in Presidency College that classes in law were held. In 1891 that a separate Law College came into existence. For several years from 1891, the law college functioned from Senate House of the University of Madras. Today, although government-run law colleges have come up in Madurai, Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Chengalpattu and Vellore, it is the Dr Ambedkar Government Law College that is the leader.

Among the medical colleges in the country, Madras Medical College always had pride of place. Its history goes back to 1835 when Madras Medical School was established.

Madras took the lead in women’s education too. Queen Mary’s College, the first women’s college to be set up in the city, is celebrating its centenary this year. Celebrations are already under way at Women’s Christian College, Nungambakkam, which too is entering its centenary year. Madras Christian College, Tambaram, a coeducational institution, celebrated its 175th anniversary on a grand scale in 2012. The University of Madras itself celebrated its 150th year of founding on September 5, 2008.

Among the other women’s colleges in Madras, the contemporaries are Stella Maris College and Ethiraj College. While Stella Maris College was established on August 15, 1947, Ethiraj College was founded a year later. Both are autonomous. Ethiraj College was founded by V.L. Ethiraj, a reputed advocate. It offers a variety of courses at the degree and postgraduate levels, in both aided and self-financing streams.

Private participation

What has been remarkable in all these decades is the far-sighted initiative shown by private individuals in establishing schools, arts and science colleges, polytechnics and engineering colleges, not only in Madras but in Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Madurai, Tirunelveli and in many other places in the State. These individuals belonged to different religions and came from various parts of India. Scores of government-aided schools such as Hindu Higher Secondary School (HSS), M. Ct. M. HSS, P.S. HSS, DRBCCC HSS, Madras Christian College HSS and Don Bosco HSS came up in Chennai because of the vision of these individuals. Various Christian denominations such as the Society of Jesus and the Church of South India and Hindu organisations such as the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan played a stellar role in establishing schools and colleges all over Tamil Nadu. It was private munificence and vision that led to the founding of prestigious engineering colleges such as the Madras Institute of Technology in Chromepet, and the Alagappa Chettiar College of Technology at Guindy.

The contribution of Pachaiyappa Mudaliar to charity and education is outstanding. “If there was anybody who deserved a statue in the streets of Madras, it was Pachaiyappa Mudaliar,” asserts N.S. Ramaswami in his article titled “Pachaiyappa” in his column “Coral Strand” ( Indian Express, Madras, August 1, 1983). “Litigation over his vast wealth, which he willed for religion and charity, lasted nearly half a century before an Englishman rescued it,” the columnist says. Pachaiyappa was born in 1754 in Periapalayam, 30 kilometres from Madras, a posthumous child of Viswanatha Mudaliar of Kancheepuram.

Ramaswami adds, “Pachaiyappa was an exceptional man of his times in the 18th century in Madras. Sociologists and political economists must be interested in his career, apart from historians. He made enormous money through commerce and trade; he made it without the slightest advantage of birth, influence or circumstance; he also made it honestly and fairly, which was a feat at a time of unexampled corruption and malfeasance. He did not live long but the few years vouchsafed to him, he spent in devotion and charity….” He died on March 31, 1794, aged only 40. P.J. Thomas, in his article “History of Education in Madras”, says: “The Pachaiyappa’s School dates from 1842. It has an interesting history behind it…. Pachaiyappa Mudaliar… had bequeathed by a will a lakh of pagodas for certain and religious purposes. But, for 60 years, the executors had neglected their duty in this matter. This was discovered by Sir Herbert Compton, Advocate-General, and he brought the matter before the Supreme Court and obtained a decree permitting the utilisation of part of the funds for the establishment of schools. Accordingly, a school was founded in Black Town in 1842 and this later grew into the Pachaiyappa’s College.” Pachaiyappa’s schools and colleges are situated both in Chennai and Kancheepuram.

Loyola College, Chennai, established by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1925, is a premier educational institution in India. When the University of Madras pioneered the concept of setting up autonomous colleges, Loyola College, Madras Christian College and Stella Maris College were among the first colleges, in 1978, to become independent in framing the syllabi for various courses and conducting examinations. But the University of Madras awards the degrees. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has elevated Loyola College to the status of “College of Excellence” from April 1, 2014, to March 31, 2019. Other institutions in the Loyola stable in Chennai are the Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), established in 1979, and the Loyola-ICAM College of Engineering and Technology, established in 2010. (ICAM stands for Institut Catholique d’Arts et Metiers.)

A private institution in Chennai with a single-minded focus on giving quality education in journalism is Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), established by the Media Development Foundation, whose chairman is Sashi Kumar.

The ACJ offers a one-year postgraduate diploma course in journalism. The course’s syllabus is world-class and so it is not a surprise that students receiving the ACJ diploma readily find jobs in newspapers and television channels. The ACJ has a highly cosmopolitan character, with students from all over India and other South Asian countries.

If Madras took care to establish an array of educational institutions, it did not neglect to set up libraries either. Connemara Library, Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras Literary Society, Tamil Nadu Archives’ library with its vast collection of books, Adyar Library, Madras University Library, Roja Muthiah Research Library and Anna Centenary Library, established by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in 2011, are among the top libraries in India.

The University of Madras grew rapidly between 1857 and 1904. At the height of its glory in the 1900s, it had jurisdiction over colleges in the entire Madras Presidency. But it has been reduced to a rump today, with its writ running across only three districts: Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur. It has only 132 colleges and 60 research institutions affiliated to it. It has 73 departments. The University of Madras started losing territory at the turn of the 20th century, with Andhra, Annamalai, Osmania and Travancore universities being established.

In the meantime, the age of specialisation had set in, with universities being set up to focus on specific areas. Here, too, Madras proved to be a pioneer. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University had its origins in the Agricultural School set up at Saidapet, Madras, in 1868. It moved to Coimbatore in 1906. After a gap of several decades, the concept of “specialisation universities” returned with a bang. Thus came up Anna University in 1979 for technical education and the Tamil Nadu Dr MGR Medical University in 1986 with its focus on medical education. For the first time in Asia, a specialised university to deal with veterinary science—the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Medical Sciences University—was established in Madras in 1989. Recently, the State government set up the Tamil Nadu Teachers’ Education University. Nearly 675 colleges in Tamil Nadu that offer Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) courses to train school teachers are affiliated to this university. The Tamil Nadu Physical Education and Sports University, the first such university in India to exclusively deal with physical education and sports, was established in 2004. The Tamil Nadu Music and Fine Arts University was born in 2013. All these universities have their headquarters in Chennai.

Fall in standard

If Madras was the go-to place for students pursuing higher education in the days of the Madras Presidency, today it would not be an exaggeration to say that Chennai is virtually a no-go place for students in the areas that constituted the erstwhile presidency. The majority of them seem to prefer options outside Chennai, such as Coimbatore, Pune and Bangalore, especially for courses in engineering and law.

A look at the numbers will prove how steep the fall has been in the standard of engineering education in Tamil Nadu, not just Chennai. For the academic year 2014-15, there were no takers for 1,00,819 seats in the 538 engineering colleges in the State coming under Anna University. There has been no let-up in this trend which began in 2007. Supply far outstrips demand despite the fact that students belonging to the Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes require only the minimum pass mark of 40 per cent in the Plus Two examination for admission. The steep fall in the standards has been particularly evident in the case of the self-financing colleges. The State government is puzzled by the fact that so many seats lie vacant.

A professor who is knowledgeable about the engineering education system in the State analyses the situation thus: “There is always a demand for quality engineers. The question is how to provide quality engineering education. The government’s policies are good but you are not able to provide quality inputs. One of the quality inputs is good teachers.” He adds, “The situation is extremely bad in most of the self-financing colleges. Qualified teachers are available there. That is, they merely have the qualifications prescribed to become teachers. Whether they are quality teachers is the big question. Most of them do not know how to teach or interact with students. They handle classes in the question and answer format. They write the questions and answers on the blackboard. So the knowledge gained is zero.”

There is a glut in seats in medical education as well, especially for Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS). There are 19 government-run medical colleges and 45 private medical colleges in the State. Here, too, supply outstrips demand.

Tamil Nadu has the second highest number of engineering colleges in India after undivided Andhra Pradesh, which has more than 700. Tamil Nadu also has 36 colleges that offer degree programmes exclusively in Architecture and Planning. There are nine engineering colleges within Chennai municipal limits, including four reputed institutions funded by the government which are known as University Department colleges. While the College of Engineering, Guindy, the School of Architecture and Planning, and the Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering are funded by the Tamil Nadu government, the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology, Taramani, is a Union government-funded institute. The other five are self-financing private engineering colleges.

State’s ‘vision’

Dr V. Rhymend Uthariaraj, Professor and Director, Ramanujam Computing Centre, Anna University, Chennai, and Secretary, Tamil Nadu Engineering Admissions, asserted that the Tamil Nadu government had “a vision” to provide quality engineering education to students. “The State government has a policy about quality education and it is keen that quality education should reach the students through institutions,” he said. The government was interested in providing the necessary inputs and infrastructure to universities to impart quality education to students. The first input is a laptop, which is provided free of cost to every Plus Two student in government-run and aided schools in Tamil Nadu, Uthariaraj said.

Besides, Uthariaraj said, the State government “has a vision to set up a university constituent engineering college or a government engineering college in every district in Tamil Nadu”. This would help rural students to get admission in nearby engineering colleges, he said.

With the “specialisation universities” being hived off from the University of Madras, the latter has now colleges and research institutions affiliated to it that teach only arts, humanities, commerce and basic sciences. What is worrying educationists is the entrenched trend of the last two decades of giving short shrift to courses in humanities. The newly established colleges will not touch undergraduate courses in philosophy, history, politics or, for that matter, even botany and zoology, with a barge pole. The focus is on starting job-oriented courses, such as BSc in computer applications, biotechnology and visual communication, B.A. in journalism and new media or M.A. in mass communication.

The current demand is for Bachelor of Vocational (B.Voc.) courses. Some colleges have already started or are planning to start B.Voc. in theatre, retail management, food processing, hotel and hospital management, and even natural dyes and dying technology. “The University Grants Commission is encouraging this,” said a professor from the University of Madras. “The UGC wants more proposals from colleges to start these B.Voc. courses,” he added. If the B.Voc. trend catches on, one dreads to think what will happen to courses in humanities even in the colleges that offer them.

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