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Excellence Graduates to Eminence

Anna University of Technology, reputed for its excellence and for educating annually the largest number of graduates, post-graduates and researchers in engineering, has been given the status of an institution of eminence.

The Anna University (AU) was recently selecterd for the Institute of Eminence (IoE) status. AU was established as a unitary university in September 1978, integrating four well-known technical institutions viz., The College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG had its origin in 1794), Alagappa College of Technology (1944), Madras Institute of Technology (1949) and School of Architecture & Planning (1957).

AU has 13 constituent colleges, three regional campuses and 593 government, government-aided and self-financing affiliated colleges. It offers 29 UG and 90 PG programmes. Over 16,000 students pursue the degree programmes and there are 7.2 lakh students study in the affiliated institutions. The university has 14,023 Ph.D scholars on roll and is nationally ranked 7th on the mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering subjects.

VISIonary PHILANTHROPISTS

The Alagappa College of Technology (ACT) recently celebrated its platinum jubilee. It was started with the munificence of philanthropist Alagappa Chettiar. ACT has earned a reputation for graduating numerous engineers and technologists in chemical, textile and leather.

C Rajam, another illustrious philanthropist, started the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) as a pioneering technological institution. Look at the founder’s foresight to offer engineering courses in aeronautics, automobile, electronics and instrumentation soon after independence when industrialisation was yet to begin! MIT has much to its credit on the emergence of the south strong in these specialised fields.

Over the 60 years of its existence, The School of Architecture & Planning has graduated numerous architects and town planners.

The reputation earned by CEG led to the formation of Anna University in 1978, later expanding as the foremost southern technical university with numerous affiliated colleges.

OUTLAY OF RS 2570 CRORE

The IoE plan foresees developing 20 world-class institutions, putting India on the global education map. The selected institutes would have the autonomy to decide fees, courses and governance structures. Each institution will receive a government grant of Rs 1000 crore.

Professor M K Surappa, Vice-Chancellor, AU, estimates the financial outlay at Rs 2570 crore over the next five years to attain the IoE status. The present Anna University will be bifurcated into Anna Institute of Eminence and Anna University. AU and its four campuses will be affiliated to the former. The rest will be a new technical university with affiliating powers.

After the formation in 1978, AU had a succession of reputed VCs like P Sivalingam, V C Kulandaiswamy
M Anandakrishnan and E Balagurusamy. Its autonomy and reputation continued until the tenure of
Balagurusamy. Sadly, the massive expansion of private engineering colleges and corruption in the selection of VCs led to a steep fall in the quality of administration. Several professors and administrators were charged with fraud, nepotism and moral turbidity. Sadly, even the chancellors (Governors) were complicit. Several universities of Tamil Nadu remained headless for long. It should go to the credit of Governor Purohit in cleansing the system. He took bold to go purely by merit in selecting Surappa from outside the state as VC-AU.

RICH CREDENTIALS

A globally-acknowledged researcher in composite metals, Surappa had MS and Ph.D. degrees from the IISc. He has published over 100 research papers in international journals and has secured US and Indian patents. He had hands-on experience as a senior scientist at the Regional Research Laboratory, Trivandrum and stints with Drexel University, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and most importantly, as the founder-director of IIT – Ropar.

We can now understand the new thrust on research and innovation at AU. The recognition of AU at the national level by the offer of the IoE is a tribute to the transformation brought about by Surappa. IE had written about the great combination of FC Kohli and Anil Sahasrabudhe in bringing about a spectacular transformation of the College of Engineering, Pune (August 2013 issue). In a remarkably short time, the Chancellor-VC duo has brought such a change at Guindy that houses the oldest technical education centre of the south.

In a detailed conversation, Surappa outlines his views on the state of higher technical education in
India and the need to raise standards.

Change focus from quantity to quality…

Despite numerous qualified scientists and engineers, India’s research output in international journals and patents is low. Our engineering graduates have to be strong in fundamentals, be analytical and update themselves for changes in job requirements.

Prof Surappa shares his concerns and ambitions on higher technical education in India. Excerpts from the interview:

IE: Your views on the state of higher technical education in India

Prof MKS: It is right in parts, but it can be a lot better. Undergrad education in some IITs, NITs and several private engineering colleges is good, the graduates do have a grasp of the fundamentals.

However, at the post-graduate and doctoral levels, it’s not a happy situation. India is placed 150th from among 200 universities in the recent ranking of institutions in material research. In the quality of research publications, we rank 180 out of 300 global universities. This is pathetic. Academicians only talk about the volume of research publications, while they should be quality focused. They are crazy about everyone doing research, on every college focusing on research. This is not required.

Regulatory measures demand a doctorate compulsory for promotion. This has created a racket to somehow get a Ph.D. Because of this, quality has substantially gone down. The focus should be on doing a job well. Those involved in advanced studies should focus on knowledge creation, innovation, start-ups, new technologies, new algorithms… These require a different mindset of passion, dedication, thinking and intuition.

Knowledge creation isn’t a routine job. Even while we take pride in the numerous universities and graduates in India, we lag behind even smaller developing countries like Vietnam, Iran or South Africa in terms of research quality. We are working with AICTE to bring about changes in the syllabus and a measure of uniformity.

Basic engineering principles will not change. Newton’s Law or Einstein’s equation will stay the same. We must incorporate into our syllabus the newer technological changes. eg. IC engines. These are on the wane and so more time should be allotted for teaching electric vehicles, battery materials, charging stations, power
requirements, safety…

IE: What do you consider the salient features of the needed reforms?

Prof MKS: Look at the evolution of engineering education. Between 1960 and 1980, there were only a few engineering colleges. Admission was merit-based. Including those selected through reservations, most of them graduated as reasonably good engineers. In the desire to open access to engineering education, several private players came up. Among these were philanthropist-promoters who saw education as a social cause. They strove to offer quality education. But from the 1980s, when the economy opened up, the rigours of admission came down: the entry mark was lowered to 45 per cent and engineering education became a business. More and more engineering colleges were started to make money.

With the software boom, demand for engineering graduates for lucrative jobs grew. The mushrooming of engineering colleges continued when the job opportunities expanded. Demand for jobs from the services sector expanded and from the manufacturing industry came down. Soon the supply of engineering graduates exceeded demand. Also, quality was a problem. Of the graduates, at least 50 per cent were below par. With the quality declining, software companies chose to recruit non-engineers and train them for their specific needs. Today, the number of jobless engineers is increasing. Even those with masters and doctoral degrees opt for low-paid jobs unrelated to their specialisation. Sadly, regulatory bodies did not foresee the changes, nor did it intervene by taking tough decisions.
With the demand-supply situation changing so drastically, some of the colleges have low levels of admissions, several even with zero entry. Yet, they haven’t closed down. There is also no action on the part of regulators.

IE: Can’t Anna University act on this?

Prof MKS: We can only cancel the affiliation. We had cut down the number of PG admissions. Last year, we cancelled the affiliation of 82 colleges. Some of these went to court and obtained a stay order. So, the status quo continues.

IE: Like NEET for medical education, can there be a JEE for admission to engineering colleges?

Prof MKS: Some of the states have common entrance tests for selection. There is a need to assess carefully if an applicant is capable of pursuing engineering education, that he has the aptitude and ability to work hard.

The NEET system has its drawbacks. There is a mushrooming of coaching classes for NEET, IIT-JEE. Such centres come up only in urban areas. So only urban students have access to these. You find school students going for such classes, right from VIII standard, skipping regular school. We have to improve our school education a lot to arrest this.

IE: What do you consider the strengths and weaknesses of AU?

Prof MKS: The genesis of AU was excellent. It had the vision to evolve as a world-class institution by producing professionals with high technical knowledge, professional skills and ethical values and remain a preferred partner to industry for development through excellence in teaching, research and consultancy. AU has been endeavouring to realise the vision.

However, there has been a reckless expansion of the university in recent years. We have been increasing student enrolment without paying equal attention to expanding the faculty base, upgrading the laboratories, building hostels or having strict norms for faculty recruitment. Over the past 15 years, several things went wrong. With corruption in hiring and promotions, faculty has lost their zeal and the system lost its credibility. There was a loss of interest in knowledge creation, research and innovation. Luckily, a few dedicated people keep the university’s sights high and right. We are endeavouring to increase their numbers. There is lot of scope for innovative research, consultancy and travel abroad to update knowledge.

IE: How are AU’s finances?

Prof MKS: The 500-odd engineering colleges affiliated to the university pay affiliation charges, examination fees and entrance exam fees. The University’s annual budget is around Rs 500 crore.

Fortunately, AU has a sizeable corpus. The negative feature is that the government feels AU’s corpus is quite considerable and so has cut-off grants! I feel the need to use the money collected as students’ fees to improve their amenities, build sports stadia, roads and other infrastructure, laboratories and creating more permanent assets. We increased investments in infrastructure to Rs 100 crore last year. The departments have been given Rs 4 crore – Rs 5 crore each to augment recruitment, service equipment and buy new computers, software…

After almost 20 years, we have raised the fee structure 60-70 per cent to meet increasing costs and also offer higher quality. We need to raise fees every 3-4 years. The annual grants we receive are in the region of Rs 30-35 crore. Most of the funds required are from internal generation. We get around Rs 25 crore through consultancy.

IE: IIT-M Research Park has been successful in encouraging research and incubating start-up companies. What are the prospects of AU setting up one?

Prof MKS: Presently, my focus is to improve the quality and quantity of original research. We work on nurturing several start-ups. The next stage will be to build research parks. Remember, the baby has to wear a diaper and slowly move to pants!

IE: Your views on making higher education free.

Prof: In my opinion, it is neither feasible nor sustainable. But the government can help the student with funding. We should not deny access to education for anyone. Various community charities/trusts can help and so can an active alumni association. I endeavour to set up an alumni office. Banks were also lending liberally through education loans. Increasing default in repayment has created problems.

IE: What is the scope for removing restrictions on foreign universities to set up facilities in India?

Prof MKS: We should welcome these. Anybody should come and we have to compete against them. Only when we complete we can grow.

IE: The employability factor is poor. How to address this?

Prof: We have to make our engineering graduates strong in fundamentals. They must have hands-on experience to tackle problems. They should also update themselves with in changes job requirement. There is a need for strong digital literacy. The onus isn’t only on the student but also on the faculty. They need to keep continuously updated.

Celebrities all!

The College of Engineeing, Guindy (CEG), Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) and Alagappa College of Technology (ACT), along with the School of Architecture and Planning evolved as Anna University, have produced numerous nation builders. Young computer engineers and marketing wizards were produced in abundance to man prized posts in the fast-evolving economy.

Verghese Kurien, Father of the Milk Revolution, well-known entrepreneurs- AC Muthiah and Venu Srinivasan and dozens of professional leaders who head multinationals, athletes, musicians and playwrights are products of CEG.
MIT produced celebrity space scientists, including APJ Abdul Kalam and K Sivan. ‘Sujatha’ (Rangarajan), a popular Tamil writer, involved in the design and production of the electronic voting machine and hundreds of professionals who excelled in aeronautical, automobile and instrumentation engineering, are products of MIT.

Prof GS Laddha, past Director of ACT, is credited with turning out numerous chemical engineers and earned for Chennai the reputation for quality education in chemical engineering and technology. M Santappa headed the leather division with distinction. A prized product of the department was T Ramasami, who headed CLRI and was later Secretary, Department of Science and Technology. N Srinivasan (India Cements) is a product of ACT.
The School of Architecture & Planning turned out architects and town planners in hordes. Its product Sheila Sri Prakash is the first woman to establish her own architectural practice.

The strident growth recorded by the textile, leather, automobile and IT sectors and the copious supply of well-equipped postgraduates in aeronautics and instrumentation owes much to the Anna University.

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