Becoming an engineer is one of the easiest tasks in Tamil Nadu what with over 570 engineering colleges in the State, of which 520 are affiliated to Anna University. But if that gave you the impression of hardcore technical experts being churned out in a Germanic mode, perish the thought. Most of those who graduate are technically unemployable, thanks to the level of teaching and facilities in most colleges. The latest news is that five more colleges will be added this year. Are we focusing on quantity instead of quality?

A casual survey among headhunters would certainly indicate this to be so. Most students hired from Tamil Nadu’s engineering colleges, they aver, have poor communication skills, not even bare minimum technical knowledge, and certainly no practical experience. Those taken on have to be put through intensive training in the organizations hiring them, making it almost a repeat process of education. Companies are grumbling at the cost, especially at a time when margins are under squeeze thanks to the recession. Consequently, the on-campus placement figures for Anna University colleges are a measly 11 per cent of all those graduating.

Ever since the 1980s, when the State threw open engineering education to the private sector, several promoters have entered the field. Barring very few, all the others have viewed this as a moneymaking option. The investment is largely in land and buildings, which is why you invariably see only those with large landholdings setting up these colleges. As for the other aspects – an enlightened few go in for high quality equipment and facilities. Most settle for organising a fleet of college buses to ferry the students to the remote locations where the colleges are and leave the rest to chance. The money they rake in, through capitation and regular fees, is considerable. Several promoters go on to finance other businesses from the income earned!

The Government has over the years been attempting to bring in some regulation into these institutions. In 2001, around 400 of them were brought under the purview of Anna University. The numbers have been added to since then. But the move has not achieved its stated objective of raising the bar. The cause for the failure is chiefly due to the poor quality of teaching faculty at most of the private colleges. Apart from the endemic rot in the Indian education system, wherein there is a complete disconnect with the outside world and its requirements when it comes to syllabus, private colleges, barring the best ones, do not attract top quality teaching staff. This is at a time when even Government colleges are facing the same shortage. A recent RTI query revealed that only four out of ten Government engineering colleges even had principals!

All this is in conjunction with the fact that the demand for engineering colleges has been coming down in the State. With Tamil Nadu being one of the most urbanised States of the country, there is increasing awareness of alternative professional courses. Gone are the days when engineering, medicine and CA were the only three ‘respectable’ options. Add to this the fact that increased earnings in many middle class families means parents are willing to send their children abroad for even undergraduate courses. The costs may appear daunting, but the child is at least assured of a good education, appears to be the popular view.

As a consequence of all this, the number of vacancies in engineering colleges in the State has been skyrocketing. The State has over two lakh seats on offer and last year saw around 80,000 not being taken! This year, the figure is expected to reach one lakh. Is it not time to set the alarm bells ringing?