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The rise and fall of Annamalai University

It required munificence and foresight to conceive and set up a University, at a time when higher education institutions were driven by altruism, and not profit. Annamalai Chettiar did just that when he established the Annamalai University in 1929. And he left it to stalwarts such as V S Srinivasa Sastri, Dr C P Ramaswamy Iyer, T P Meenakshisundaram Pillai, R P Sethu Pillai, S Somasundara Bharathiar, Kathirasan Chettiar, M M Dhandapani Desikar... to take the institution to greater heights. The university earned the reputation for imparting quality education and produced outstanding graduates. The university made a mark in scientific research as also in commerce and economics. Renowned population expert  Dr. S Chandrasekhar was associated with the university.

Sadly, Chettiar’s successors shifted focus. It began with the university liberally awarding honorary doctorates to the members of the promoters’ family and to politicians. The award of such an honorary degree to M Karunanidhi soon after he assumed power led to protests, which claimed the life of one student. The decline was more rapid after the university tasted money from its engineering and medical colleges. It pioneered the introduction of capitation fees for higher education. This was also a very powerful tool; the rare privilege of a seat in medical or engineering college could be utilised to curry favour with politicians, senior civil servants, leading businessmen and professionals like doctors.

Understandably, when admissions were offered for a price, a system had to be introduced for taking care of the progression of such a ‘donor’ student through the year-end exams. The system of proxy writers and manipulation of answer papers all followed. In this, unfortunately, academics also had to collaborate. In such a system, discipline, character, academic pursuit and excellence were the casualties. The deterioration was rapid. The promoter family did not bother much about the essential purpose of running the university – providing quality education. Finances were in bad shape, expenditure uncontrolled and administration rotten.

The government, which has been funding the university, had to intervene and set matters right. Shivdas Meena, IAS appointed through an ordinance has been administering the university. Good luck to Shivdas in restoring this temple of learning to good health in quick time at the temple town of Chidambaram. Surprisingly, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, a scion of the Annamalai Chettiar family, is a mute witness to this steep fall of the once-famous university.

Universities galore; but of poor quality

Sadly,  Annamalai University  has been adopted as a model by a slew of institutions of higher learning set up in the state for wrong ends. There are over 540 engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu and scores of medical, arts and science colleges. Several of these are flourishing business enterprises run by businessmen and politicians. In most such private institutions, the management is in the hands of the promoter families. The huge demand for engineering and medical education has enabled several of these to collect humungous capitation fees (in black). Only a handful of institutions like the SSN College of Engineering and SASTRA University strictly abide by the fee structure and merit-based admissions.

The situation in state-owned institutions is different. Admissions to these follow the norms of reservations and merit. These have a fee structure, which is ridiculously low for medical education. The administration of these, unfortunately, is politicised.  The tenure of a vice-chancellor is limited to three years. Though eligible for re-appointment, it is a rarity. One can imagine the consequence. Almost his first year is spent on understanding and getting into the nuts and bolts of the administration. The second and third years are needed to curry favour with the powers-that-be to get a second term.  The mode of selection is also subject to political influence. A search committee of three members is appointed and the political leadership decides this. Such a committee should recommend three names and the Governor of the state selects one of these. He can also reject all the three and order a fresh search committee acceptable to the Chief Minister.

In such a system, understandably, there is not much prospect for continuity of policies or major reforms and innovation. Look at the reputation earned by the Madras University under A Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar or Malcolm Adiseshaiah; or Anna University under V C Kulandaiswamy, M Anandakrishnan or E Balagurusami. One doesn’t remember the dozens of others who succeeded. Pursuit of academic excellence with a view to building world  class institutions is not possible in the current system. Powerful politicians such as Jayalalithaa, in the long-term health of the state, should free education from the current system of breeding mediocrity and poor quality.


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