India's Engineering Education Story, With an Eye on Tamil Nadu's Colleges

It seems to be mostly an upper-class myth that most people study engineering. It ignores the high cost of technical education in the country.

Last time, we discussed medical education and with this post, the first of a three-part mini-series, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the other grand old Indian cliche, engineering. The national love affair with the profession of Engineering can be easily rationalised if one is the mood – students of science with a focus on practical application? Of course that’s the kind of human capital that a country in the process of building itself would need! But somewhere along the line, aided by the BPO, IT and other miscellaneous booms, engineering stopped being seen as the bedrock for development, but rather the minimum qualification for the acquisition of seemingly any job whatsoever. Or so common wisdom goes anyway. The data tells a different story. According to the AISHE 2013-14 Provisional Report that I’ve mentioned before:

  • The largest number of Students are enrolled in B.A. programmes followed by B.Com and B.Sc. programmes. Only 15 Programmes out of approximately 150 cover 83% of the total students enrolled in higher education.
  • At Undergraduate level the highest number (40%) of students are enrolled in Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences courses followed by Engineering & Technology (17%), Commerce (15%) and Science (12%).

It seems to be mostly an upper-class myth that most people do Engineering. It ignores the high cost of technical education in the country – the true cost of which can’t be accurately ascertained because of the pernicious capitation fee system. That is not to say that there isn’t a large quantity of sub-par engineering education as there was news recently that as much as 600,000 seats were going to be cut.

So, maybe some context is needed, for a truer, broader understanding of engineering.

An overview

The governing body responsible for the oversight of Engineering education in the country is the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Like its name suggests, AICTE has a broader mandate than just engineering. It also looks after pharmaceutical, architecture, urban planning, tourism and management courses such as the MBA.

The following chart sourced from data available on the AICTE website shows the distribution of engineering colleges across the six main zones of the country. I’ve not included information on the Union Territories and Islands so one caveat to be kept in mind is that the North Zone does not include Delhi/NCR and Chandigarh.

colleges across zones

The South zone has a clear majority in the number of institutions. This looks very different, just as it did in our study of medical colleges, when we factored in the population of the respective zones. It must be pointed out here that I did not use the AICTE’s breakup of ‘Regions’, but rather, as I did for medical colleges, divided the states into Zones as per the classification used in the SocioEconomic Caste Census (SECC) 2011 so the population data could be comparable to my count of colleges. There is a difference in classification as the SECC2011 puts Uttar Pradesh in the Central zone as against the Northern zone.

per lakh pop

The distribution instantly becomes more equitable with the West, South and North Zones having comparable ratios. The East and North East zones still suffer from an extreme lack of access to technical education. This lack of domestic access means that students in these zones end up traveling much greater distances to access technical education, which leads to ‘brain drain’ as it’s commonly known which only perpetuates the slow development of these areas.

What are the causes for the current anomalies in distribution? The answer might lie in the early 1980s according to a 2010 National University of Education Planning and Administration (NUEPA) paper which states that “during the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85), when the central and state governments were finding it difficult to expand technical education in the country, a few state governments, especially the governments of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh took a bold decision to permit private registered societies and trusts to establish and run technical institutions on a self-financing basis”. Ah, privatisation, it took long enough for the word to appear!

Looking at the following chart, it’s clear that it was the states that took the bold step to allow private institutions that saw a huge growth in technical education.

top 6 by colleges

Prior to splitting, united Andhra Pradesh would’ve had the highest number of colleges but currently that position is held by Maharashtra with Tamil Nadu in second and Uttar Pradesh in third.

Tamil Nadu: A case study

In an ideal situation, I would’ve been able to collect and analyze data for the the whole country but that wasn’t possible for this analysis and I’ve had to take the case study route and focus on my home state of Tamil Nadu, for which information is available on the AICTE website.

This dataset includes 992 different engineering institutes in Tamil Nadu, 467 of them being diploma level institutions. We don’t normally think of diploma courses when we think of engineering but there are a huge number of polytechnic colleges, both in TN and the country as a whole, that act as a vital link to higher education for certain sections of society.

seats by deg types

There a couple things to point out in this chart other than the sheer number of Diploma seats in Tamil Nadu. First, Post Diploma isn’t a zero category, there are exactly 532 Post Diploma seats in various subjects across the whole state. Second, post-graduate options in engineering are marginal and clearly not in demand. There could be a number of reasons for this but the intuitive one is that typically engineers pick MBAs as their post-graduate degree of choice. I don’t know enough about the structural aspects of the engineering profession and industry to tell you why further technical specialisation in engineering subjects isn’t valued in the job market but that seems to be the case.

In fact, a recurring pattern in the data set, is that engineering colleges tend to have polytechnics attached to them. Another pattern that is obvious from the data is a peculiar naming convention. I’m not talking about the fact that 232 out of 992 colleges and polytechnic colleges in the state begin with S. A result of the respectful Sri or Shri prefixed to the name of the founder or a favourable deity. No, there is a more puzzling trend – colleges routinely come in pairs, such as ADHIPARASAKTHI COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING and ADHIPARASAKTHI ENGINEERING COLLEGE. This gets repeated hundreds of times.

National Engineering College and National College of Engineering. Coimbatore Institute of Engineering. Coimbatore Institute of Engineering and Technology. The Dhanalaskhmi Srinivasan group takes this to fine art, boasting an Engineering College, a College of Engineering, a College of Engineering and Technology, an Institute of Technology and an Institute of Research and Technology. This could be a harmless naming pattern when done within common ownership, a natural result of wanting to utilise brand value. But it becomes much more questionable when a newer college mimics the name of a much older institution such as Rajalakshmi Engineering College, whose name shortens to REC, the acronym that usually refers to the government-run Regional Engineering Colleges (now called the National Institutes of Technology).

Along with the polytechnics, there are 534 colleges in Tamil Nadu offering undergraduate degrees. These colleges typically offer five or six core courses: Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Civil Engineering, Electronics and Communication, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and last, Information Technology. Information Technology is an offshoot of Computer Science and is generally lighter on the hardware and architectural aspects of the latter.

seats by course

These five or six courses dominate the entire field of engineering. All the other varieties (like Chemical, BioTech, Marine, etc) put together add up to less than half of the the seats available in just Civil Engineering. So it would make sense to believe that most colleges offer these five or six courses.

distribution of courses

About 200 colleges offer exactly five courses while 339 colleges offer more than five, with the majority of them stopping with six or seven. PSG College in Coimbatore offers the most with 19 separate courses in engineering available for study.

Engineering in Tamil Nadu is regulated by Anna University, a state university formed in 1978 in the city of Chennai. All engineering colleges in the state whether government or self-financing are affiliated to the university. We used the University’s website to populate our dataset with the years of formation for each college and built our trademark interactive timeline. But the dataset is sadly incomplete: some colleges lack the date, and for others we couldn’t pinpoint a geographic location on the map. We’re missing approximately 40 colleges, which is rejection of less than 10%, but even then hopefully we find an alternative source and are able to complete it later.

Looking at the above graphic, the spurt of colleges within the last decade becomes extremely apparent. In 2005, Tamil Nadu had 211 colleges affiliated to Anna University, but by 2015, this number has more than doubled to 495. That’s an increase by 135% in ten years.

The majority of this growth happens over the course of two years – 2008 and 2009.

2008 and 2009

A total of 163 institutions were started in these two years alone. What were the factors that influenced such a huge growth? I’m not sure but if you remember our first post that studied universities in India, it was these same years that saw a large increase in the number of deemed and state universities. These were big years for the story of education in India!

Another insight from this information is the formation of geographical clusters – Coimbatore and Chennai are clearly large educational hubs. There are smaller hubs such as the belt between Erode and Salem, the Trichy highway and area around Kanyakumari.

An interesting analysis for the next post will be whether these clusters are retained when we filter the data according to metrics of quality such as their ranking and pass percentage. But that exceeds my goal for this post in which I’d hoped to introduce the broad contours of engineering education in the country with a focus on the state of Tamil Nadu. Over the next two posts, I’ll look at first the data around admissions, rankings and enrolment and then secondly at the funding and financing of engineering colleges, of which capitation fees are sure to play a major role. As always, please write to me at thomas@supportivecities.com with comments and clarifications.

Thomas Manuel is a freelance writer and playwright based out of Chennai. He curates content at the Urban History Project, where this piece first appeared.

Featured image credit: Srinath1905/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.