Random Thoughts
D Dhanuraj
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Chennai is a metaphor for South India. Every visit to this bustling city opens a plethora of avenues for social discourse. My recent trip to Chennai was to monitor a study on the autorickshaw sector. My team introduced me to a group of surveyors. To my surprise, they were all engineering graduates with BTech and BE degrees! Why would trained engineers be working on surveys, instead of sitting in plush offices, I wondered. Most of these young surveyors were not from Chennai, but hailed from remote villages in Tamil Nadu. Their tryst with higher education began with admission to engineering colleges in Chennai a few years ago. Their native villages and colleges were not popular or commonly heard of. A couple of them had graduated the previous year, while the others were new graduates. They spoke good English and actively participated in all discussions. Then, why were they conducting surveys?

A little on the education system in the state: Tamil Nadu has 454 engineering colleges. These account for more than 1,35,000 engineering graduates in the country; a significant number, as India produces around 7,50,000 engineers every year. The density of engineering colleges is also the highest in this state. A quick study of the demographic profile of Tamil Nadu reveals that this state has social engineering of the highest order in the Dravidian land - efforts to influence and change the society on a large scale through upward social mobility (in this case through engineering education). Engineering colleges exist in every nook and corner of the State. Yet, students prefer to choose city colleges, as in the case of the young engineers I met. Recently the Tamil Nadu Government tried to accentuate social engineering by lowering the required eligibility marks, so that students would be able to seek admission into engineering institutions, even with just pass marks. At present, students in the general category require a minimum of 55 per cent marks, while those belonging to backward classes need 50 per cent. Those from select backward communities require just 45 per cent. Every student from backward areas of Tamil Nadu views admission to engineering colleges as an opportunity for upward social mobility. They struggle to complete their courses in aspiration of being a part of the 'happening' city life. They seek job opportunities in multinational companies with huge salaries. Then, why were these youngsters working on a survey?

Here comes the irony. Most of these colleges are owned by politicians -- a visible link between crony capitalism and power politics. These engineering courses cost anywhere between 1 lakh INR and 10 lakh INR. When I asked my young surveyors about campus recruitment, they had not heard of any such thing! Most of these students have been attending interviews tirelessly for several months, but to no avail. They thus participate in surveys to earn a livelihood, till they can find the right job. What is alarming is the demand and supply aspect of the employment market. Most studies show that there will be a large requirement of about 200 million skilled workers in India by the end of 2020. However, the present scenario in Tamil Nadu leads to a bigger question: Are we compromising on quality while focusing on quantity? Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu create annual wealth of 1.25 billion INR from student fees alone. But most institutions are not bothered about what these students do after they graduate. These youngsters spend about half a million rupees for their studies and they definitely don't aspire to conduct surveys after they graduate.

As mentioned earlier, India produces around 7,50,000 engineers every year. Of these, almost 40 per cent scout for jobs for almost a year, while it takes another 22 per cent two years before they land a job. If the Tamil Nadu experience is a true reflection of higher education, with respect to engineering, it surely needs to be assessed and channelized for future generations. Interestingly, even entrance examinations conducted by different states in the country are managed by different agencies. If Anna University conducts the entrance examination in Tamil Nadu, the Commissioner for Entrance Examinations holds the same in Kerala. Admission procedures are also under surveillance to tackle the quality quagmire. What is, therefore, required is an index reflecting the admission, results and recruitment for all these colleges. Although there are indices for MBA colleges in India, there are not many for engineering colleges.

It's time these young surveyors start surveying engineering colleges.

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