Aiming high

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

in coimbatore

A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.

Jawaharlal Nehru.

THE three universities in Coimbatore Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Bharathiar University and Anna University have performed in tune with the vision of Indias first Prime Minister.

By integrating new technologies with traditional methods of teaching and learning, they have emerged as role models for other educational institutions in a city that is a sought-after educational and industrial hub in the country.

The century-old Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) occupies pride of place among the 44 State agricultural universities in the country. It is a leading agro-technology provider in India, and is recognised as an institute of repute.

The universitys outstanding contribution to higher education has not been at the expense of fulfilling responsibilities to ordinary people. To reach out to those who do not have easy access to or time for formal education, it promotes distance education (D.E.), which, according to experts, is the best model of education for developing countries. TNAU has been acclaimed as the first agricultural university in the country to implement such a programme.

The university offers three postgraduate programmes Master of Business Administration (Agri Business), M.S. (Environment) and M.Sc. (Sugarcane Technology) in the D.E. mode. It also offers several area-specific and need-based certificate and diploma courses, says K. Vanangamudi, Dean (Agriculture).

According to him, school dropouts are among the primary target groups of D.E. programmes. The duration of skill-based certificate programmes is one semester, while that of diploma programmes ranges from two to four semesters. Sugar factories and food-processing units enrol a lot of candidates. There are certificate programmes in agriculture and allied subjects for farmers.

In collaboration with the National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management, Hyderabad, the TNAU offers D.E. programmes for input traders. These programmes are just as successful as the Diploma in Medicinal Plants conducted in association with the JSS College of Pharmacy, Udhagamandalam.

The TNAU has an excellent record in the implementation of e-teaching, e-learning and online examinations. Says Vanangamudi: Most of the classrooms have been converted into e-classrooms. We have provided wi-fi connectivity in the students hostels at all the 10 colleges and seven campuses. Web notes have been prepared by our teachers on 700 subjects in 12 graduate programmes. As owning a laptop is mandatory for students, the university arranges bank loans for those who need it.

The university offers 12 undergraduate programmes. Seven of them are technology-related and five science-related. The science courses are B.Sc. (Agriculture), B.Sc. (Horticulture), B.Sc. (Forestry), B.Sc. (Home Science) and B.Tech. (Agricultural Engineering). The technology-related courses are B.Tech. (Horticulture), B.Tech. (Food Processing and Engineering), B.Tech. (Energy and Environmental Engineering), B.Tech. (Biotechnology), B.Tech. (Bioinformatics), B.S. (Agribusiness Management) and B.Tech. (Agricultural Information Technology).

A well-stocked and computerised library, well-equipped modern laboratories, modern lecture halls with multimedia facilities, 24x7 Internet connectivity and a placement cell are among the facilities available on the campus, university sources say.

R. Venkatachalam, Professor of Horticulture and information technology coordinator, describes the B.Tech. (Agricultural Information Technology) course as the first of its kind in India. According to him, it is an application-oriented programme that covers the basics of agricultural science and IT during the first two years and advanced computer technology in the remaining two years. Students are taught weather forecasting and portal management. The TNAU should be able to provide agro advisory almost up to the block level by collecting minute-by-minute data online, says Venkatachalam. The agricultural universities in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh are planning to launch similar programmes this year, he adds.

The TNAU, through its Domestic and Export Market Intelligence Cell, forecasts the price of agricultural commodities such as cotton, banana, chillies, turmeric, maize, onion and gingelly, on the basis of data on past prices collected from the major markets of Tamil Nadu and the traders survey, he says.

Bharathiar University, named after the visionary poet Subramanya Bharathi, has adopted his revolutionary call Educate to Elevate as its motto. The 27-year-old university strives to provide world-class higher education to youth.

The university has embarked on a multi-pronged approach to attract talented students to its basic science programmes. The strategies for this include enhancing the communication skills of prospective students, introducing innovative courses, making higher education affordable and reaching memorandums of understanding with universities abroad.

As there was a drastic decline in the number of students opting for basic science programmes, particularly in the last academic year, a meeting of principals and heads of departments of affiliate colleges was called by Vice-Chancellor G. Thiruvasagam. It was found that many of the colleges were able to fill only around 30 per cent of the seats in these programmes.

The brainstorming session and study that followed helped the university authorities ascertain the factors that contributed to the situation. Attractive IT-related courses, apprehensions about employability, lack of infrastructure that prevented the introduction of innovative courses and inadequacies in the teaching methodology had kept the students away from the basic science programmes.

In this connection, Thiruvasagam refers to the report jointly prepared by the Indian National Science Academy (New Delhi), the Indian Academy of Sciences (Bangalore) and the National Academy of Sciences, India (Allahabad), which recommended the restructuring of post-school science teaching programmes.

Against this backdrop, the university has taken a series of steps to give new thrust to the basic science courses. We have formed a separate office headed by the Dean [Basic Sciences Development]. Each science course should have a minimum of three components basic subject, computer application knowledge and communication skills. For the first time in India, our university has made diploma in the relevant subjects compulsory for qualification to the respective undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, Dr. Thiruvasagam says. Following the Chinese model, 14 fulltime one-year P.G. diploma courses and 32 U.G. diploma courses have been launched, he adds.

Ours is the only university that makes it mandatory for teachers to get qualification approval, he points out. Basic science is popular in countries such as China and Kenya, thanks to huge investments in infrastructure, he says. According to him, state-of-the-art facilities, including modern laboratories, are required to run programmes such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. He also stresses the need to remodel and redesign the syllabi regularly.

The university has taken steps to provide education at affordable cost, says the Vice-Chancellor and points to setting up of constituent colleges in remote areas such as Valparai and Gudalur to benefit the wards of estate workers and other hitherto unreached sections. The university has also asked affiliated colleges to earmark 20 free seats for the economically weaker sections.

Thiruvasagam feels that the research activities of the university must be focussed in such a way that they are useful to the common man and the country, as the government earmarks funds for higher education mainly to promote research. According to him, the university has also taken steps so that its students can avail themselves of cost-effective SAP (Systems Applications and Products) training.

In the past three years, Bharathiar University has signed nine MoUs with universities abroad. Significant among them is the one with the National University of Singapore (NUS), says Thiruvasagam. The collaboration will mainly be in basic sciences, with focus on nanotechnology, biotechnology and bioinformatics. The NUS evinced interest in the tie-up after hearing about the universitys strength in basic science programmes. Initially 20 candidates will be selected on merit and economic criteria under the programme, the Vice-Chancellor says.

Anna University-Coimbatore (AU-C), the youngest of the three universities in the city, has many achievements and initiatives to its credit.

The most important among them is the move to set up colleges in public-private partnership (PPP) mode in the next academic year. It is a new concept in higher education, says Vice-Chancellor Dr. R. Radhakrishnan. Industries and other private players have not shown much interest in the PPP projects in higher education advertised recently by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development on the grounds that the colleges will be run by the government, he adds.

In the PPP mode proposed by AU-C, neither the government nor the university needs to bother about land or financial support. The trust or society involved in the partnership has to acquire 25 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare), create infrastructure and hand them over to the university, which will maintain the college.

According to him, 80 per cent of the students will be appointed on merit while the rest will be admitted on merit-cum-recommendation of the college donor. Apart from this, it has been proposed that 10 per cent of the seats be earmarked for the poorest of the poor as free seats. These students will also get free hostel accommodation. Of the merit seats, 10 per cent will be allotted to children of service personnel. The annual fee, of Rs.15,000, will be uniform for all categories.

As for the administration of such colleges, they will be maintained and monitored by the university. The trust or donor will have its own governing council with its representatives taking part in the admission process, selection of staff and maintenance of the institution. The proposal was discussed at all levels, including the syndicate, for the past one year, before representation was made to the government. We followed all the procedures in a transparent manner, Radhakrishnan says.

Though it was originally proposed to establish these colleges in all nine districts under the jurisdiction of the AU-C, the syndicate has advised that it be implemented at two places Coimbatore and Hosur initially. The two locations will also enable students to undergo training in the industrial units there.

Once these colleges come into existence [in the next academic year], it will be a wonderful model, as the government need not bother about giving grants and the university also need not bother about purchase of equipment, says Radhakrishnan. He believes the system will be ideal for diploma holders to make a lateral entry.

Besides, it will also ensure the continuance of the affiliation system in preference to the deemed university concept, he opines. The curriculum in the PPP model will be akin to that of the IIT model, with the faculty and students staying on campus. U.G. courses will be earmarked to these colleges, while the AU-C, which is also a residential university, will cater to the PG programmes and research activities, the Vice-Chancellor says.

On reports that the university plans to grant affiliation to 45 more colleges, taking the total number of affiliated institutions to 148 in 2008-09, Radhakrishnan says, As Vice-Chancellor, I will ensure all support to these colleges provided they meet the affiliation requirements.

Among the steps taken by the AU-C to enhance academic excellence are the outsourcing of English language subjects; the teaching of engineering graphics through computers; the implementation of 50 per cent internal and 50 per cent external marks in affiliated colleges; the introduction of three-year B.E. and B.Tech. programmes for polytechnic diploma holders, introduction of emerging courses such as nanotechnology, energy engineering and web and mobile technology; and granting of autonomy to eight colleges after 25 years.

Its remarkable administrative measures include broadband connectivity and the establishment of an exclusive virtual private network (VPN) connecting all its affiliated colleges, the implementation of an integrated examination management system, the introduction of a nine-point grading system, and an exclusive e-mail facility for students and staff of the university and affiliated colleges.

A total of 35 patents and trademarks have been filed by the students and departments of the university, and a target of 100 has been set to be achieved by the end of this year, he says. Another notable achievement is the registration of 1,500 Ph.D. research scholars within a period of two years.

Radhakrishnan also expressed hope that the university will have a new campus with world-class facilities shortly.

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