A gateway to opportunities

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

Chennai, the educational hub of South India, offers students a wide variety of courses and career options, despite a growing trend of commercialisation of education.

CHENNAI, historically regarded as the hub of education in South India, is moving with the times. In the mid-19th century, particularly after the establishment of the University of Madras, Chennai started attracting students from all over India, particularly the states that formed part of the erstwhile Madras presidency. Premier educational institutions such as the Madras Christian College were established even before this, in 1837.

However, the real impetus for education came in a second wave, after Independence, when a number of educational institutions were established, reflecting the urgency among the people to get on with the task of addressing the scourge of illiteracy. Initiatives towards achieving striking advances in the field of education and addressing the tremendous backlog of underdevelopment that colonialism had imposed on the nation were undertaken. In Tamil Nadu, the social justice movement, particularly the system of reservation, made education accessible to the vast section of underprivileged people.

The third wave of growth in the field of education, which began in the mid-1980s, has been characterised by commercialisation. Riding on the back of a liberal regime, which regards education as a service industry of sorts, there has been a proliferation of a variety of educational institutions. Kindergartens offering pre-school "English" education have mushroomed all over the city. The desperate search by parents to find a medical or engineering "seat" for their wards has resulted in the emergence of a rash of private institutions offering technical and medical education. Chennai's status as a leading software hub, which is based, in large measure, on the network of technical education institutions in the city, has also fuelled the boom. The mushrooming of "coaching" institutions to help students to "get it right" somehow in the entrance examinations, is an essential part of the story of commercialisation of education. Naturally, a seat in such institutions comes with a steep price tag. Prices vary according to the kind of degree that is sought. Called "capitation fees", or simply a "donation", the prices range from about a lakh for a seat in an engineering college to nearly Rs.30 lakhs for a "medical seat". The self-financing colleges, rather anachronistically termed because money is generally known to come from the students, have been the prime movers of this wave of commercialisation. Not surprisingly, education is seen as an industry and Chennai has emerged as a leading player in the education business.

THE three pillars of higher education in Chennai are the University of Madras, the Anna University, which specialises in technical education, particularly engineering, and the Tamil Nadu Dr. M.G.R. Medical University. Based on the model of London University, the University of Madras was incorporated in 1857. The university has four campuses, which house 68 departments of study and research. It imparts education at three levels, through the departments of study and research, the Institute of Correspondence Education, and the affiliated colleges. It has over 208 professors, 46 readers, nine lecturers and an administrative staff of more than 1,000. The main campus of the university is on Marina Beach Road, with the Senate House as headquarters. The university guesthouse and post-graduate hostel are also on the main campus. The science departments are housed on the Guindy campus, while the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences is at Taramani.

Anna University, which was established in 1978 as a unitary type of university, offers higher education in engineering, technology and allied sciences. The University offers 33 undergraduate degree programmes, 47 post-graduate degree programmes, four post-graduate diploma programmes and M.Phil programmes in four disciplines. Facilities for doing Ph.D Programmes are available in all the faculties. The intake for the undergraduate programme is about 1,040 students and that for the post-graduate programme, including the P.G. Diploma Programme, is about 670 students. The university has nearly 5,130 students enrolled for the full-time and part-time programmes, nearly 18 per cent of whom are women. With more than 540 teachers, the university's student to faculty ratio is approximately 10:1.

Apart from the academic programmes, Anna University offers continuing education, through short-term courses, evening courses, and summer and winter schools. In keeping with the current thrust, the University has been increasingly active in promoting University-Institute collaboration through consultancy services, sponsored research, training programmes and testing activities. In keeping with this spirit, Anna University has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sun Microsystems. While Sun offers High Performance Computing (HPC) technology, the university supplies its expertise and human capital. Students and researchers apply the power of resources supplied by Sun to large-computation projects. Sun provides the technical resources and training to support Anna University's requirements to promote the usage of HPC by industries and other collaborative partners. The deployment of Sun's hardware on campus includes Sun Fire Ultra SPARC III Enterprise server and a cluster of workgroup servers and Ultra SPARC workstations.

The Tamil Nadu Dr. M.G.R. Medical University was established in 1987 and it started functioning the following year. It is the second largest health sciences university in India and the only medical university in Tamil Nadu that grants affiliation to medical and paramedical colleges, whether run by the government or "self-financed". Degrees in medical sciences, earlier awarded by the University of Madras, have since 1988 been awarded by the Tamil Nadu Dr. M.G.R. Medical University. The university regulates dental education and education in the Indian systems of medicine under a single umbrella.

THE established university system and its network of colleges in the city were unable to cope with the Information Technology boom of the 1990s. Hundreds of teaching establishments emerged in the city, many with single-room structures, working in shifts round the clock in order to meet the demand of the IT industry. But when the IT bubble burst about three years ago, many of these "institutes" and "coaching centres", which were merely acting as fronts for unscrupulous fly-by-night operators, folded up. In fact, established IT companies welcomed the development because they found that the system was unable to deliver well-trained personnel who could man their operations on a reliable basis.

Students now realise that they need to develop more broad-based, but focussed, skills. Training institutions have realised that credible training programmes need to be developed to attract students. Many institutions have forged alliances with overseas institutions to provide such services. For instance, in Chennai the SSN School of Advanced Software Engineering, in association with Carnegie Mellon University, offers a post-graduate programme for students. The company claims that it offers "a mix of technology, management and strategy courses", enabling students to develop an "understanding of IT from both operational and strategic perspectives". The course also has two specialisation streams, one in software engineering and the other in robotics technology.

At the height of the IT boom, many companies established their own teaching and training centres. The move was dictated by the need to generate a captive and cost-effective pool of talent that would serve the software development business of the companies. NIIT, for instance, was among the pioneers in developing and pursuing this strategy. Today its business strategy has two components - one aimed at addressing the teaching and training segment and the other aimed at the software development business.

The NIIT Learning Solutions wing seeks to address the teaching and training wing. By stratifying the business of its IT education segment into Career Programmes, Skill Upgradation Programme, IT Awareness Programme and School Curriculum Support Programme, NIIT seeks to adopt a more focussed approach to the business of IT education.

NIIT's Futurz Classic programme aims to "create a complete software professional" suitable for employment in the IT industry. The company claims that its training enables students not only to obtain employment in the IT industry but also acquire the ability to be "flexible" in the fast-changing world of IT. The company also claims that its "special bouquet" of training programmes will enable students to get into occupations ranging from manufacturing to travel and health care. The duration of the courses in the bouquet ranges from six months to four years, depending on the set of skills the students opt for. The company claims that it is thus able to deliver "industry-relevant professionals".

The maturing of the software development business, particularly after the onset of the business process outsourcing boom, has led to the emergence of niche areas in software development. In this context, the software-testing segment of the business has acquired critical importance (see separate story).

THE commercialisation of education has meant that higher education is increasingly stratified, aimed at addressing extremely focussed educational market segments. While this is best exemplified in the field of IT education, there are other examples too. Courses tailored to suit the requirements of individual industries have become the norm. In recent years, hotel management, fashion designing and some other areas have attracted attention. Going under the broad nomenclature of "professional courses", these highly targeted segments have attracted attention from the student community because of the situation of unemployment. Students hope that a degree or a diploma in such "professional" courses will fetch them the job they desperately seek. At the height of the IT boom the "herd behaviour" led thousands of students to opt for IT-based courses, often of spurious quality. Experts in education regard the situation as an extremely dangerous consequence of unbridled commercialisation in higher education.

The relentless commercialisation of higher education has in recent years affected the quality of school education too. The growing inequalities in society and the rise of the neo-rich, both direct consequences of economic liberalisation, have resulted in the emergence of "islands" of learning at the school level. Chennai has a host of residential schools that offer "quality education", but only to the very few who can afford it. The St John's International Residential School, for instance, is a "top-notch" school that offers "quality education". Run by the St John's Educational Trust, the school offers "all-round education with special emphasis on moral and ethical instruction as well as physical education." The facilities it offers - a closed circuit television system connected to a dish antenna, a department store and a laundry, among other things - are not available in most Indian schools. The campus has its own hospital and students are taken on outings, picnics, package tours, study trips and educational tours.

The Crescent Residential School offers "superior coaching" and "life-oriented and value-based education". It claims to have an "Islamic foundation" and yet a "highly secular outlook". Extracurricular activities such as driving, karate, swimming and horse-riding, are taught at the school, which has its own swimming pool, tennis courts and football ground. Besides, there is an in-house hospital and a mess that serves excellent food. The liberalisation of the economy has increasingly made education abroad an option worth considering. Besides the United States and the United Kingdom, which were favoured destinations until a decade ago, places ranging from Moscow to Australia are also being considered by those who have the means. Realising the importance of the Chennai market, educational institutions from overseas are increasingly holding roadshows in the city to attract its student population. To those who may not have the money to move overseas to study, there is the e-learning option. In recent times, several institutions have been offering students the option of securing "a foreign degree", in partnership with institutions abroad (see separate story).

Experts in the field of education have pointed out that the rapid growth of the education business, largely unbridled, is likely to be the areas of concern. Physical facilities and teaching personnel are likely to pose problems. More significantly, market-led growth of the sector at the higher education level might impose constraints on the relevance and quality of the degrees and diplomas on offer. Students have to be exposed to cross-disciplinary learning across fields such as the arts, humanities, sciences and engineering. Whether a full-blown commercial system of learning can deliver the results is an open question. How Chennai addresses the question will determine where it will head in the years ahead.

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