Modern Challenges to the Dravidian Movement: The Question of Access and Quality of Higher Education in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu has one the highest gross enrolment ratio in higher education among major states in India at 51.4%. These impressive numbers can be traced to multiple schemes of successive Dravidian governments that placed a firm emphasis on caste-based social justice, while also focusing on economic development and mobility. However, the abject quality of higher education institutions in Tamil Nadu casts a serious shadow on the legacy of the Dravidian Movement. Increased privatisation, low employability of graduates, and poor quality of higher education institutions (HEIs) further exacerbate wage disparities and income inequalities, taking away the benefits of caste-based reservations, among other legacies of the Dravidian movement. This article analyses the shortcomings of the higher education model in Tamil Nadu and shows how increased access to higher education does little to acknowledge the socio-economic processes of caste in Tamil Nadu.

The Dravidian model, a model of economic development that focuses on economic growth along with social justice, has reaped multiple dividends in Tamil Nadu over the last 60 years, with the state topping on multiple governance indicators. Tamil Nadu is unique among major states in India for its ability to combine processes of structural transformation along with human development, particularly so in higher education.


Tamil Nadus gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is 51.4% (Government of Tamil Nadu, Higher Education Department 2021), which means that 51.4% of all youth in the age group of 1823 is engaged in some form of higher education. This is the highest in India among major states, almost twice the national average of 27.1% and higher than many developed western nations. Moreover, this GER has been fairly inclusive, with the GER of women being 51% compared to the national average of 27.3%, while the GER of Scheduled Caste (SC) men and women stand at 38.8% and 40.4%, respectively.


These impressive numbers can be traced to multiple schemes of successive Tamil Nadu governments to increase access to higher education, such as providing free education in government arts and science colleges, tuition fee waiver for first-generation learners, distribution of free laptops to polytechnic students, and can even be traced back to investments in increasing access to school education among several other schemes. But one of the critical factors for this increased access is the firm affirmative action steps taken by the Tamil Nadu government over the last 60 years. The Dravidian movement foregrounded education as a crucial step in its path towards social justice. M. S. S. Pandian (2011) noted that the politics of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as built around two major ideological planks: caste-based social justice and Tamil identity. The politics of social justice took the form of a critique of caste hierarchy and Brahminism coupled with continuous improvisations in the reservation of government jobs and seats in educational institutions for the lower castes. The Dravidian demand for self-respect through access to modern education has been pivotal in democratising education across Tamil Nadu. More importantly, democratising higher education allowed for the Dravidian movement to strongly critique and address elite biases in higher education (Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar 2021). As a result, Tamil Nadu today has the highest number of educational seats reserved in the country, with 69% of all seats being reserved for people of oppressed castes. Another important initiative has been to continuously oppose the possibility of an elite bias in higher educational institutions. In 2006, the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Exam was scrapped, considering that students from urban centres and relatively privileged backgrounds could have greater access to coaching institutes for these entrance exams. This narrative has also gone on to form the core argument of Tamil Nadus opposition towards National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) as well. While this increased access and commitment to social justice through education deserves to be celebrated, an unfortunate outcome has been their constant neglect of the quality of education.


Poor Quality of Higher Education in Tamil Nadu


The studentteacher ratio (STR) is generally considered a determinant of quality in educational institutions. Tamil Nadus STR is relatively poor and varies largely across different parts of the state and various types of colleges. Delays in faculty recruitment in government institutions have led to a disproportional increase in the STR. This delay in recruitment is coupled with substandard salaries being paid to faculty. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) found that as of March 2020, 4,084 guest lecturers were posted in government colleges with a salary of 15,000 per month as compared to the University Grants Commission (UGC) mandated 50,000 (Government of Tamil Nadu 2021). A common practice to deal with the unavailability of permanent faculty is to recruit guest faculty, who are often paid even lesser than 15,000. The effects of poor recruitment impact the intake of students as well. For example, the University of Madras could not find a single student for 27 master’s programmes, primarily due to the lack of faculty (Government of Tamil Nadu 2021). The CAG report also commented on the terrible state of exam evaluation. During 201419, it found that about 1.48 lakh students of the Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli, Mother Teresa Womens University, Kodaikanal, and University of Madras, Chennai appealed for revaluation, and 50 per cent of them got their marks changed on revaluation (Government of Tamil Nadu 2021). In Tamil Nadus premier technical university, Anna University, the situation is quite similar. The revenue collected by these universities for revaluation goes into hundreds of crores and casts a heavy shadow on the seriousness of evaluation and exam-taking.


Moreover, one of the primary tasks of HEIs is to engage and produce high-quality research. Most government colleges in Tamil Nadu, including the University of Madras, have poor or nil research output. This is further exacerbated by the fact that it is in the midst of a financial crisis due to mismanagement and inadequate funding from the Government of Tamil Nadu (Government of Tamil Nadu 2021).


A deeper look into the funding of higher education in India reveals significant insights. Since 2008–09, the state government spending has, on average, accounted for 60%–65% of the total government spending on higher education (Brookings India 2019). Union government funding has primarily gone into central universities, and these universities are flush with funds for various development activities. A direct consequence of this is the increase in affiliated colleges of universities, which is an easy source of revenue for state universities. The initial push towards allowing private colleges and universities also came from the states that could not afford to finance the expansion of the higher education sector on their own. While the increase in colleges has undoubtedly contributed to the increased access and options for education, the quality in most is severely lacking.


Another factor to note is the exponential increase in private/deemed-to-be universities in Tamil Nadu. Enrolment in private colleges in Tamil Nadu is at 18,11,782, while in government colleges is 4,63,508 across all courses (AISHE 2020). Moreover, 77.6% of all HEIs in Tamil Nadu are privately owned.


Today, over 30 of these universities offer a wide range of courses. While there is little to no data on how the higher education sector is funded, we know that household expenditure on higher education is now the most significant funding source (Brookings India 2019). The educational loan market in Tamil Nadu today stands at 20,200 crore, while the total outlay of the Tamil Nadu government for higher education for the year 202021 was 5,369 crore (Kandavel and Vijayakumar 2021). It would be safe to assume that student fees are the single biggest source of funding in the higher education sector. In fact, private HEIs that do not receive government funding are funded almost entirely by student fees. It would further be safe to assume that students who can afford to pay such high fees are mostly from dominant caste groups in Tamil Nadu.



The emergence of numerous private HEIs of varying quality and the stagnation and mismanagement of public HEIs have the potential to unravel the great strides made in increasing access to higher education in Tamil Nadu. In a report filed by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), an autonomous body funded by the UGC, found that government colleges fare poorly in all seven of their quality indicators, including curricular aspects, teachinglearning, research, infrastructure, learning resources, student support and progression, organisation and management and healthy practices. In its conclusion, the NAAC report, categorically, has asked universities to focus on teaching and evaluation (National Assessment and Accreditation Council 2021).


What has emerged in Tamil Nadu now is the emergence of private HEIs of relatively good quality but which are inaccessible mainly because of their high fees, while public HEIs are largely accessible but consistently declining in quality. A quick skim of multiple websites for engineering and medicine institutions, shows fees of 50,000/year for engineering and up to 40,00,000 a year for medical colleges, fees that are disproportionately inaccessible to the larger public in Tamil Nadu.


Employability of Graduates in Tamil Nadu


The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), in its skill gap study for Tamil Nadu, found negative semi-skilled and skilled labour requirements in agriculture. In contrast, it logged a huge semi-skilled and skilled labour requirement in construction, tourism and travel, information technology and in banking, financial services and insurance (BFSI). The skill gap in sectors like construction, tourism, IT, and BFSI also indicates the lack of employability among graduates in Tamil Nadu. The NSDC noted that skill sets are not matching educational attainment, a lack of awareness regarding skill development and qualifications required by industry, and unavailability of quality trainers are some of the reasons for this glaring skill gap (National Skill Development Council 2022).


Moreover, an analysis of the India Skills Report of 2021 reveals a lack of employability of students in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu ranks eighth in the list of states with students who have available critical thinking and computer skills. It ranks ninth in the list of states with available skills in English. Moreover, Tamil Nadu ranks eighth in female employability, while it ranks high in male employability. Furthermore, the report indicates that students with Bachelor of Engineering /Bachelor of Technology degrees are the most employable in India, while students with Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Science degrees are relatively less employable, with polytechnic students being the least employable (Wheebox 2021).



Neoliberalism and Exposure in the Tamil Context


Neoliberalism manifests in three major trends in higher education: privatisation, commercialisation, and corporatisation (Kezar 2004). An issue with the globalisation and commodification of higher education is a narrow focus only on technical education, leaving aside the liberal arts, humanities, and sciences, and this can clearly be seen in Tamil Nadu with an exponential increase of engineering colleges and a steady decline in the quality and number of HEIs dealing in liberal arts, humanities, and sciences. A common notion within a market-driven approach in higher education is that increased demand and competition for seats due to high quality of education would lead to more revenue generated for that particular high-quality institution. However, with affirmative action policies and a cap on the total number of seats, the demand is now going towards low-quality institutions, resulting in an increase in price for such seats (Kandiko 2010). Moreover, neoliberal economic agendas have led to a decrease in state funding for higher education through the commodification of the higher education market. This is placing a more significant burden on the students and erasing the role of the state in higher education. Neoliberal strategies are shifting the means of production once controlled by nation-states to globalised sites, and the key beneficiaries of this in Indian society are the upper caste. It is within this juncture that the working of caste in modern markets (Mosse 2020) needs to be seriously explored. As Mosse (2020) has effectively pointed out that while socially disabled groups are subjects of policy and interventions (for example, affirmative action in Tamil Nadu), caste as a socio-economic process is not.


Economic globalisation and Indias neoliberal economic policies brought an IT revolution into the country, and it is no secret that jobs in the IT sector are the most desirable for graduates in Tamil Nadu, both for their remunerative possibility and as status markers. Anthropologists Chris Fuller and Harirpiya Narasimhan (2014), in their study of IT companies in Chennai, noted that a common complaint among recruiters of IT companies is that students have the necessary communication skills” or exposure.” They also found that IT professionals predominantly belong to urban middle-class families, are either Brahmin or forward caste, and this is despite some of the most robust affirmative action policies in higher education in India. This is most likely because urbanised, high-caste people in Tamil Nadu have access to education that prioritises English, communication skills, and builds exposure.” Communication skills and exposure are proxies for social and cultural capital that have for long been built through caste networks and are not skills that are neutral to contexts. This shows that while reservations increase representation, it is doing little to overcome caste-, class-, and geography-based privileges. With multiple innovations in affirmative action starting from the 1950s, Tamil Nadu today has reservations based on caste for 69% of the seats in higher education and government jobs, the highest in the country. Affirmative action policies not only enable equality of opportunity but are also redistributive measures towards the scarcity of public goods such as higher education (Kalaiyarasan and Vijaybhaskar 2021: 42). Piketty (2020) argues that such redistributive measures have contributed to reducing inequalities between lower castes and the rest of the population.


Access to tertiary education in Tamil Nadu is relatively inclusive with about 42 per cent of youth among the SCs being enrolled in higher education as against 21.8 percent at the all-India level (Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabhaskar 2021: 21).


As Kalaiyarasan and Vijaybhaskar (2021: 73) note, the emphasis on education as the route to self-respect translated into a broad-based aspiration for access.​​ This broad-based aspiration for success could also be seen as a push for dignity and self-respect, pillars that the Dravidian movement has long stood by. While this can certainly be hailed as a victory of the Dravidian model, this article illustrates that access to higher education alone may not be enough, but access to quality higher education is crucial, which works to build social capital that can overcome existing caste-, class-, and geography-based privileges.


Neoliberal dispositions have manifested in a drastic uptake among students studying engineering vis-à-vis students studying arts and humanities. Tamil Nadu has 143 arts and science colleges in the state, while it has over 500+ engineering colleges (AISHE 2020). ​​Technical knowledge went from being the purview of Indian lower-caste artisans to becoming integral to state power, economic development, and upper-caste status. This process was intimately linked to the rise of engineering. As technological modernisation became the emblem of state prowess and societal progress, engineering emerged as a white-collar profession tied to the public display of modern power (Subramanian 2020: 2).



This remains one example among many to show how caste as a socio-economic process plays out, and social policies and interventions do little to acknowledge the socio-economic role of caste. The Dravidian movement has long rested on a plank of economic development and social justice,” as often quoted by the current chief minister and leader of the DMK, M. K. Stalin. For a movement that prides itself on making active strides in increasing representation and recognising the calls of the oppressed castes for inclusion, its greatest challenge could perhaps be with how it deals with the inequalities in the quality of higher education brought forth by allowing market dynamics to dominate the entire process of higher education. A defiance towards the existence of caste and its significance in its role of affecting an individual’s life chances and access to markets has given upper castes, especially Brahmins, hegemonic powers in shaping discourses around caste. This ability to alter perceptions is well known to readers of Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci; the ruling classes control not only the material means of production but also the intellectual ones, allowing them to present their positions as a universal truth. However, in India, the difference is that the dominant castes control the intellectual means of production. Having positioned themselves as a “middle-class caste” (Fuller and Narasimhan 2014), Brahmins today effortlessly skate through the complexities that pervade the caste–class debate. This power to impose the principles of the construction of reality—in particular, social reality—is seen as a major dimension of political power (as also discussed by Bourdieu), which, unless corrected, could prove to be a massive impediment to the planks of economic development and social justice. Access to modern education, which remained a firm ideological plank of the Dravidian movement, allowed oppressed castes to simultaneously question dominant norms and also aspire for social and economic mobilities that were not possible earlier (Kalaiyarasan and Vijaybaskar 2021). Today, with the degrading quality of higher education, unemployability of graduates and neoliberal dispositions that are pushing the myths of meritocracy, these aspirations for mobilities are under direct attack. It may not be too long when the dignity achieved by democratising access to education could soon be undone by the indignity of unemployment and unemployability.


With poor quality education and higher access in a neoliberal world, the forms of class dynamics are shifting, thus constituting new sites of struggle, especially over identity and representation. Higher education in Tamil Nadu is amplifying these sites of struggle.


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