Towards new frontiers

Print edition : July 15, 2005

On the campus of the Bharathiar University in Coimbatore. - PICTURES: K. ANANTHAN

Building on the strong academic foundation laid by its predecessors, the entrepreneur generation of Coimbatore turns the industrial city into an advanced centre of education in the country.

PHILANTHROPY is an integral part of Coimbatore's corporate culture. This is evident from the fact that the city is home to more than 65 trusts set up by industrial groups. Set up as tax shelters, these trusts are now self-sustaining and have themselves started a number of educational institutions. Most of the have grown considerably from their humble beginnings and offer courses in almost all subjects.

The city has four universities - Bharathiar, Avinashalingam, Karunya and Amritha - apart from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, and 25 engineering and 86 arts and science colleges. It also has hundreds of institutions offering vocational courses. The mantra of "industry-employable education and training" guides these institutions, and almost all of them boast of 100 per cent job placement for their students.

According to Dr. R. Prabhakar, Principal, Coimbatore Institute of Technology, in the early days the educational institutions and industrial houses in the city had a symbiotic relationship. Leading business houses set up educational institutions through their trusts, and the students were given free training at the companies. Most students were absorbed by the industrial units in and around Coimbatore and quite a few were encouraged to set up their own units.

This trend continued for nearly three decades. Government policies initiated in the 1980s encouraged private educational institutions to set up self-financing colleges. Seeing an opportunity, several business houses entered the fray and, by the mid-1990s, there was a proliferation of self-financing colleges all over the region.

The hard-working, professional and resilient culture of the people of Coimbatore was visible in the area of education too. Whether it was courses, curriculum, infrastructure or facilities, Coimbatore's institutions have always looked ahead, offering value for money. Their general objective is to provide quality education.

According to Dr. R. Nandagopal, director, PSG Institute of Management, colleges in Coimbatore are very professional. "The trust generation is gone. Now it is the entrepreneur generation that is running educational institutions," he says.

Coimbatore has several firsts to its credit. For instance, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University here is one of the oldest agricultural universities in the country. The university, which is celebrating its centenary this year, has made immense contributions to the farm sector in the country.

The Bharathiar University is a pioneer in many areas. It was the first university in the country to have a dynamic web site (700 pages); the first to implement e-governance for the examination process; the first to set up touch-screens at different places to offer information on the university; the first to have an interactive compact disc (CD); and the first to have placement facility for under-graduates (it placed 2,000 students last year). The university has set up a Technology Park, in collaboration with ELCOT, and a Defence Research and Development Organisation centre for life sciences on its 1,000-acre campus.

The only textile management institute in the country is in Coimbatore. The Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Institute of Textile Management, set up by the Union Ministry of Textiles in 2004, offers a two-year post-graduate diploma in Textile Management and one-year post-graduate diplomas in Home Textile Management, Apparel Industry Management, and Textile Marketing and Merchandising. It also offers a number of short-term certificate courses on various aspects of the industry.

The Kumaraguru College of Technology (KCT) has earmarked a built-up area of 1.5 lakh sq ft for an STP (Software Technology Park), of which one lakh sq. ft. has been leased to Information Technology major Cognizant Technology, which began operations on July 1. According to KCT joint correspondent Dr. A. Selvakumar, this project is the first in the country where a company will operate from an engineering college campus.

But there is also a flip side to the strides made by educational institutions in Coimbatore.

According to Nandagopal, there is a clear shift from education to skill development. The emphasis is more on placements than on a basic understanding of subjects and concepts. While heads of most institutions boast of excellent placements for their students, Prabhakar thinks this trend cannot last long as it is primarily based on the boom in the industry, and especially in the IT sector. Technological knowledge needs to be improved to sustain the placement levels. The future, says Prabhakar, is in biotechnology. And to take advantage of that it is important to enhance technological knowledge. Unfortunately, he says, there is no demand for core technology or conventional courses. There is a "mad rush" for courses such as IT, IT-enabled services, and computers. This trend has to be reversed, he says.

As Nandagopal says, with most students getting jobs even before completing their course, they lose interest in studies.

But at another level, there is considerable demand for management courses, evident from the booming of management schools and management courses even in arts and science colleges. This, says Nandagopal, is because of the rising demand for management graduates in all industries.

Job aspirants at "BU-ELCOT Career Fair 2005" on Bharathiar University campus in March.-M. PERIASAMY

But will the demand for management expertise be sustained?

According to Nandagopal, there is now a transition. Earlier, companies used to hire untrained people. But now, they ask for management graduates. For example, in banks, the concept of clerical staff is fast vanishing. They now prefer people with various skills. With the changes in the business environment and work profiles, the demands are also changing. The service sector, which is growing the fastest, also needs trained people. Not surprisingly, even engineering graduates now turn to management courses.

The management schools are also catering to the needs of the industry. For instance, new courses such as MBA in travel and tourism are being introduced at the PSG Institute of Management this year with the expected boom in that industry.

THE education boom is not without problems. The rising cost of education is a major issue. For instance, earlier there were free and payment seats in the engineering colleges. Now, the State government has scrapped the free seats. This, according to Prabhakar, has led to a substantial rise in the drop-out rates, despite the availability of bank loans for education.

S. Chandran, chief executive of the S.N.R. Sons Charitable Trust, which runs the Ramakrishna group of institutions, says educational institutions in Coimbatore are bogged down in various controls primarily because of a lack of any clear policy on education. For instance, at the Centre there are the All India Council of Technical Education, the Medical Council of India, the nursing and pharmacy councils, and medical, collegiate and technical directorates; at the State (Tamil Nadu) level, there are the Anna, Dr. MGR, and Bharathiar universities. Government policies also keep changing. For instance, the Tamil Nadu government has scrapped the engineering entrance examination. This, says Chandran, could have been done well ahead of the academic year, saving a lot of problems and anxious moments for the colleges, students and parents. There is also, according to Chandran, no clear policy on foreign universities starting courses in India. Several institutions tie up with foreign universities or colleges and offer courses that attract students, even if their bona fides are not clearly established. There are no clear norms for the deemed universities to increase seats or introduce new courses, says Chandran.

There is also a dearth of teachers of high calibre in some colleges. Says Chandran: "The AICTE asks us to start research. But where do we get teachers who have PhDs for this?" He feels that the faculty should be given time to do research.

According to Chandran, there is thus a need for a regulatory body at the Centre and in the States. There is also an urgent need for a clear and consistent policy on education that takes into account the immediate and long-term needs of the country.

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