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Tech education: Engineering a future

With only 46% of the seats in major branches filled during the recently concluded engineering counselling, it may be time to overhaul the system

Over two decades ago, getting an engineering seat in Tamil Nadu was like playing musical chairs. If you had the marks, you could run, but you had to be closest to the seat when the music stopped. The situation has changed over the last few years with the colleges now doing all the running around and there being more chairs than students.

In recent years, thousands of undergraduate engineering seats have been vacant after counselling, even in the more attractive branches such as Computer Science, Information Technology, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Electronics, and Civil Engineering.

This year, major branches accounted for 1,47,744 government quota seats offered through single-window counselling. But, of these, only 46% (68,735) seats were filled in the just concluded Tamil Nadu Engineering Admissions (TNEA 2017) counselling conducted by Anna University. On top of it, when the MBBS/BDS counselling begins, a few hundred applicants, who have been allotted seats in engineering colleges, could drop out.

This year, there were also reports that many colleges could interest fewer than 10 students during counselling. “We have to collect the data on admissions made through the single-window counselling, as well as admissions made by self-financing managements. Only then will it be appropriate to identify single-digit admissions,” said an official at the Directorate of Technical Education.

A revival in Information Technology as a subject seems to be a good news of sorts. In the last two years, more students have taken IT than they did between 2012 and 2015. Colleges began adding more IT seats in 2012 and the trend continued in 2013. But finding fewer takers, colleges began to keep away from the branch in the subsequent years.

Interest in Civil Engineering, whose graduates could be in demand in the construction industry, has also been falling steadily in the last five years. In 2012, there were 19,097 seats, of which 14,707 were taken. This year though, against the 25,257 seats available, only 8,199 students have chosen the branch.

A similar situation prevails in Mechanical Engineering — known to be a recession-proof, all-weather choice. It is one of the branches of engineering which, traditionally, students have felt would remain in favour in the industry. Students have maintained that no industry can do without machines and hence, they would never be without jobs. Yet, even in this branch, seats have gone abegging. With placements taking a downturn, most experts feel it may be time to shut down non-performing engineering colleges so students’ future could be secured. The better performing ones may be served by a revamp of not just the syllabus, which has been instituted, but also of the quality of teaching, as well as the overall academic environment, they say.

Teaching quality

S. Kuppuswami, principal of Kongu Engineering College, says: “You should look at the counselling process holistically. When there are many colleges, the clincher is the quality of teachers.” Recalling his stint at the All India Council for Technical Education, the MHRD and the University Grants Commission, Mr. Kuppuswami says the advice offered 10 years ago to the State government to not allow private players to start too many engineering colleges went unheeded with the result that the State is now burdened with too many colleges of uneven standards.

He maintains that the number of students genuinely interested in the subject has remained more or less constant. This is borne out by how the top 100 colleges manage to fill seats without difficulty, Mr. Kuppuswamy says. “We have filled all the seats in Civil Engineering but there are still students who want to join our college,” he says, adding, “It is the availability of a good environment for students that brings them to good colleges.” Teachers in colleges that continue to be in demand say they have managed to fill seats in the core branches through the years. It is not buildings or infrastructure but faculty that make the difference, they add. The huge vacancies are generally only in self-financing colleges which do not have sufficient faculty or poorly qualified ones, they point out. There is a checklist for affiliation and colleges are expected to abide by them, say officials who go for inspection. Despite these measures, there could be faculty movement, especially when colleges do not pay their staff, says a professor, who has been in the university’s inspection teams in western districts. There is no way to check this exodus as it happens even during the academic year.

Choosy students

Over the years, students have been alert to the changing situations and learned to sift through the colleges. This year, 614 candidates, who did participate in counselling, returned without taking a seat. Haritha is one such.

With a cut off of 193.5, on the third day of counselling, the native of Madurai had hoped to get into a college in her city. One of her options was fashion technology in a college closer home. But, with seats filled in all colleges of her choice, she ran out of options and decided to skip counselling. “We did not get what we wanted. So, she has decided to skip counselling,” her mother says.

K.G. Parthiban, principal of a college in Coimbatore, lists various reasons for poor student interest in middle-rung colleges. “Last year, the performance of students in examinations conducted by the Anna University was poor. In many subjects, the pass percentage was low. This is a reason that students, especially from Tamil-medium and government schools, have chosen to keep away,” he says. Anna University had received a report around five years ago that as many as 250 colleges did not conform to the norms stipulated, says E. Balagurusamy, former vice-chancellor.

“The government and Anna University should have taken steps immediately. Even now, it is not too late. The university should call the managements of such colleges for a talk. The students could be transferred to colleges of their choice and these colleges could be shut down. It is after all the lives of students that are of utmost importance,” he says

Industry-institution mismatch

Human Resource personnel confirm what Mr. Balagurusamy says. “Software companies look for candidates who can apply the knowledge they gained from education. Companies look for articulation, the ability to solve problems, and analytical skills,” says a Bangalore-based professional.“Not all Anna University colleges have the same rigour. That kind of a model could be a limitation while recruiting,” he adds.

R.K. Dhanabalan, a software company’s senior HR official in Chennai, agrees with him, adding that some companies look for consistency in performance from class X upwards. “But if the student is brilliant, I may decide to recruit him as he may have had arrears for any reason,” he adds.

Typically though, recruiters look for students who do not have arrears in the current semester, says M. Karthik, assistant professor at Coimbatore Institute of Technology.

Change in syllabi

In an attempt to revamp engineering education, Anna University has introduced new syllabi this year. The focus is on educating the faculty and management of self-financing colleges to adopt the syllabi in his college, says Mr. Karthik.

The university has upgraded the syllabi for physics and chemistry. The new syllabi offer the colleges an opportunity to seek industry collaboration through new courses. Also, from this year, students would have longer summer and winter vacations to enable them take up meaningful internships. These changes, Mr. Parthiban says, could improve admission rates in the coming years.

At its recent Academic Council meeting, Anna University’s Dean of College of Engineering T.V. Geetha had listed the various initiatives that colleges were expected to take to enhance the quality of education. These included colleges collaborating with industry and offering courses that would train students for the industry.

If colleges initiate community development programmes and impart skill training to its students, it would encourage students to consider entrepreneurship, Mr. Parthiban believes. “We have to encourage them to consider MSME programmes,” he says of the various initiatives that colleges have been advised to consider.

Colleges that pro-actively go for accreditation of their courses also receive better patronage. Though the Ministry of Human Resource Development has made accreditation through the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) mandatory for all technical institutions, as of now, only 10% have NBA’s quality certificate, points out independent education consultant Moorthy Selvakumaran.

“NBA should ensure outcome-based education through MHRD. Students should have at least one of three capabilities – employability; ability to pursue higher education; or entrepreneurship skills,” he says. Accreditation would not only ensure quality but would also build the credibility of the institution, he opines.

It is not just self-financing colleges that face problems. Even Anna University’s constituent colleges suffer from lack of faculty and infrastructure. Recently, the higher education department decided to recruit teachers through the Teachers Recruitment Board to fill vacancies in university constituent colleges


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