At a time when our State is not in the news for any edifying reason, here is one more statistic to add to the general gloom and doom – Tamil Nadu tops the country when it comes to the number of engineering colleges that have applied for closure. This has been a trend since 2015 when applications to this effect began to be made for the first time. That year the number was 17. Now it is 22. The process is not so simple and permission is yet to be granted to most, but it is indicative of deep rot.

Supply of engineering college seats far outstrips demand in the State. And it is the case in many other States too. Around 275 colleges have applied for closure all over the country. That Tamil Nadu tops this list is perhaps no surprise considering that the State has over 550 engineering colleges in it, a huge number. And there is a history behind this excess.

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

The results have been visible for some time now. The quality of students turned out by these colleges is sub par and on-campus placement percentages have been falling alarmingly. Moreover, with Tamil Nadu being one of the most urbanised States of the country, there is increasing awareness about 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 seem daunting, but the child is at least assured of a good education, appears to be the popular view.

Given all this, around 50 per cent of the total number of engineering college seats in Tamil Nadu have been going vacant in the last two years. It is also rumoured that the demonetisation exercise and the consequent clampdown on transactions in cash have meant difficulties in the handling of capitation fees. The land on which several of these institutions have come up is now seen to be better off being used for real estate development. Of course, many of these colleges are founded by so-called charitable trusts and that restricts their manoeuverability when it comes to developing the land commercially. But we are quite certain that the financial brains that first saw opportunity in commercially exploiting technical education will somehow find a way.

It is worthwhile pointing out that Madras Musings in its issue of June 16, 2014 had written about the falling quality of engineering students, for which the colleges were to blame. It had also highlighted the fact that as many as 80,000 seats had gone unfilled that year in engineering colleges. We guess we can say we did see this coming, but there is very little satisfaction in such a prediction coming true.