With an excellent track record, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University gears up to be globally competitive.
THE Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore is celebrating its centenary year. One of the premier farm institutions in the country, it is also one of the oldest agricultural colleges after the ones in Pusa (New Delhi), Nagpur (Maharashtra) and Lyalpur (Punjab).
According to TNAU Vice-Chancellor Prof. C. Ramasamy, agricultural education in Tamil Nadu started in 1868 at Saidapet, a Chennai suburb. The British, in 1906, decided to shift this institution to Coimbatore considering its unique features - two soil types (black and red) and three land types (Noyyal-irrigated wet land, well-irrigated garden land and dry land).
In 1920, the institution started offering graduate courses affiliated to the Madras University; in 1930 it was upgraded to teach postgraduate students; and in 1971 it became a university under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
The university has 32 research centres, 16 Krishi Vigyan Kendras, five plant protection clinics, seven teaching campuses, 10 colleges, and several urban horticultural development centres. With research in almost all crops, agronomy practices and farm technology, the 1,000-acre university has grown into one of the best in the country.
The university offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in 23 disciplines and Ph.D programmes in almost all of them. It also has four self-supporting B.Tech courses in biotechnology, horticulture, food processing and energy and environmental engineering.
The university has so far released 600 crop varieties, apart from developing 125 farm equipment, and disseminating over 1,000 agronomy practices. Its many unique crop management techniques are followed by farmers throughout the country. It is the first agricultural college in the country to start open and distance learning. Even Class VI students can join its six-month certificate course.
Market-driven changes: Among the new features at the university are demand-, market- and employment-driven education, and decentralisation of management and decision-making. "This," says Ramasamy, "is primarily because in the 1980s and the 1990s, the unemployment rate of agricultural graduates was very high. Thus, since 2000 we reoriented our focus."
Centres of Excellence: The university has introduced a new concept - of evolving centres of excellence - for Agriculture and Rural Development, Plant Breeding and Genetics, Plant Protection, Crop and Soil Management, Plant Molecular Biology and Water Technology. Each of these centres has a director who coordinates research throughout the State.
Research: According to Ramasamy, 60 per cent of the university's manpower concentrates on research, 30 per cent on teaching and 10 per cent on extension work. Nearly 40 per cent of the resources are generated internally, primarily from research grants and consultancy from the Department of Biotechnology, ICAR, international institutions and, seed and fertilizer companies. The TNAU's research system is now open to private organisations as well. If a project has little relevance for stakeholders, it is closed down. But in all the work, technology is emphasised. So much so that even basic research must have a technology component. This focus enabled the university to bag three of the six projects (each worth $ 300,000) given by USAID to any Indian agricultural university that collaborates with an American university.
Education: Education, according to Ramasamy, is now being reoriented to make it demand-driven so that every student passing out of the university is employable. Without affecting science, the university is strengthening technology to meet industry demands. The thrust now is on bioinformatics, marketing, and so on. The TNAU is also strengthening its placement cell.
Placements, says Ramasamy, happen in the banking, insurance, and IT sectors as also the civil administration. Keeping this in mind the university provides rigorous training on the field, including industry visits and village studies. The focus is on such subjects as economics, sociology, and agronomy with a focus on application in agriculture. Placements occur also in agricultural extension and research and development. Banks are one of the key absorbers of talent in this field. According to Ramasamy, agricultural graduates head 40 banks in Chennai.
The four-year graduate programme has a market-driven curriculum. For instance, science is taught in the first year, application in the second, technology in the third, and management, including marketing and exports, in the fourth.
The university, focussing on entrepreneurship, has included management and IT courses in the curriculum. According to Ramasamy, nearly 30 per cent of the lectures for B-Tech students are now given by people from the farm industry. Students are also encouraged to visit business houses and commercial centres.
The university coaches students for GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) examinations for a nominal fee. With NIIT, it also conducts IT courses at 40 per cent of the actual fee.
The university's infrastructure is the best in the country. While it subscribes to most online foreign journals, all lecture notes are put online before the start of each semester. All lecture halls are connected to audio and video systems. To aid research, the university is setting up a technology park, which will house all project reports, models and pilot projects.
According to Ramasamy, even the evaluation system has changed; the emphasis is now on testing the ability of the student in solving problems. For example, the student has to identify the soil sample, find out the problem (if any) and provide a solution to enhance its quality, or identify the disease of a plant given and provide a treatment for it.
Extension: Considering that extension is an important mandate for the university, as it is only through this that technology can reach people, the TNAU has expanded its interface with non-governmental organisations and the private sector to market its technology. The university also has a technology information system for farmers' use. It has a toll-free number (1551) for farmers to call when in need. The university uses the media for extension work and also publishes journals in Tamil to disseminate research work. It also conducts, every year, an extension and research meet to discuss knowledge, technology and products.
The university also helps the government formulate specific policies for the farm sector, apart from sensitising policy makers.
Says Ramasamy: "All changes are geared to make the university borderless and globally competitive." The courses are demand-driven, need-based and flexible. So much so that the number of students in each course is constantly changed depending on their employability. "We also dovetail course content to market demand," says Ramasamy.
To enhance administrative efficiency and to aid the market-oriented approach of the university, its governance has been decentralised and decision-making has been delegated to affiliated colleges.
With these changes, the TNAU hopes to integrate with international farm research and markets.