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Engineering Colleges, 'Exposure' and Information Technology

The Supreme Court's recent judgment on reservations in private colleges has caused controversy in Tamil Nadu, especially in relation to engineering colleges. The number of engineering colleges has risen rapidly, particularly because of the growth of the IT industry, but the majority of their graduates cannot secure jobs in the top software companies, which dominate the industry in Chennai, mainly because they lack "communication skills". These skills are a form of social and cultural capital mostly possessed by the urban middle class, whose members believe that a key ingredient for success in a competitive economy and society is enhancing personal skills and knowledge through "exposure". Although abolishing castebased reservations in private engineering colleges would have some effect on social mobility, it would not diminish middle class advantage. The reservations are only one factor in the equation, and are only marginally relevant to the real issues about social class mobility and the promotion of equality raised by the rapid growth of the IT industry in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

Special articles

Engineering Colleges, ‘Exposure’ and Information Technology Professionals in Tamil Nadu

The Supreme Court’s recent judgment on reservations in private colleges has causedcontroversy in Tamil Nadu, especially in relation to engineering colleges. The number ofengineering colleges has risen rapidly, particularly because of the growth of the IT industry,but the majority of their graduates cannot secure jobs in the top software companies, whichdominate the industry in Chennai, mainly because they lack “communication skills”. Theseskills are a form of social and cultural capital mostly possessed by the urban middle class,whose members believe that a key ingredient for success in a competitive economy and societyis enhancing personal skills and knowledge through “exposure”. Although abolishing castebased reservations in private engineering colleges would have some effect on social mobility,it would not diminish middle class advantage. The reservations are only one factor in the equation,and are only marginally relevant to the real issues about social class mobility and thepromotion of equality raised by the rapid growth of the IT industry in contemporary Tamil Nadu.


n Tamil Nadu, the engineering colleges are rarely out of thein Tamil Nadu – as well as in some other states, notably Andhranews. Their most recent appearance stems from the SupremePradesh and Karnataka – is that they produce a vast majorityCourt’s judgment on August 12, 2005 in P A Inamdar vs Stateof graduates who make up the workforce of the rapidly growingof Maharashtra that the state cannot require unaided, privateinformation technology (IT) sector. In fact, for many years beforeeducational institutions to implement the reservations policy forthe advent of IT, engineering was a prestigious discipline attractthe backward classes; instead, it can only impose minimal regulationing able students and leading to good employment opportunities,to maintain fairness and transparency in admissions. The effectand engineers have always been well-respected professionals inof the P A Inamdar judgment will be to eliminate the “governmentmodern India. Today, however, IT overshadows the rest ofquota” or “free seats” – half the places in most private engineeringengineering; moreover, both in India and abroad, it is now taken(and medical) colleges – to which the reservations system applies,for granted that the global success of the country’s IT industryso that all places will become “management seats” that can bedepends on its vast pool of graduates qualified in engineering,filled by any qualified applicant. The court’s judgment has beenand in cognate scientific and technological disciplines. Pavancondemned by all the state’s political parties, which have calledVarma, for instance, argues that there is a direct connectionfor a central legislation to correct the situation. Commentatorsbetween India’s “veritable army of technically proficient gradusuch as M Anandakrishnan, the experienced educationalist, haveates” and its development as a “global power in technology”expressed concern that opportunities for “the weaker sections(2005:115-16), although he also rightly emphasises how higherof society” will be further eroded and instead enhanced for “theeducation has flourished at the expense of elementary schoolingurban population and those with higher economic status”.1 for the poor. More and more ordinary citizens – both young peopleIn the last six years, the number of private engineering collegesthinking about their education and careers, and of course theirin Tamil Nadu has doubled, so that by 2005 there were moreparents – also assume that an engineering degree is the bestthan 240 – 20 per cent of the total number of engineeringpassport to a lucrative career as an IT professional. In very generalinstitutions in India – offering over 80,000 seats; a few of theterms, these assumptions are valid, but when they are scrutinisedcolleges have recently become autonomous “deemed universi-more closely, it becomes clear that most engineering graduatesties”. By contrast, only nine engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu,will never become well-paid IT professionals and that in manywith about 4,800 seats, are government-run or state-financed.respects an academic training in engineering, even in one of theThe private colleges have also featured regularly in the newsIT-related branches, actually matters less than it appears to.because of public concern about low academic standards andmismanagement in some of them, which is one factor behind

Recruitment of Engineering Graduates

the numerous empty seats in both 2004-05 and 2005-06. As aresult, some colleges with very few students will probably haveIn Chennai, the IT sector is dominated by the leading softwareto close, reversing the recent phase of rapid expansion.2 and services companies. Ranked by export revenue, India’s top

One crucial reason why the number of engineering collegessix software companies, all with large offices in Chennai, arehas expanded so quickly and why they are so politically important Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys Technologies, Wipro

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

Technologies, Cognizant Technology Solutions (CTS), SatyamComputer Services and HCL Technologies.3 In our research, we have mainly been interviewing staff in one of these six, which wecall Indian Computer Services (ICS), although we have alsocollected information from other companies.4 These companiesare currently recruiting on an enormous scale. In May 2005, CTS,in collaboration with Anna University in Chennai, carried out “oneof the biggest recruitment drives ever by a corporate in Indiain a single day”. Anna University is the state’s leading professional university, whose engineering courses are widely regardedas the best, and CTS selected 504 of its students more than one year before their finalgraduation. These students were chosen from1,100 students, who were interviewed, and these were drawn from 1,644 who had taken the company’s aptitude test. But these 504were only a fraction of the 7,700 new recruits that CTS plannedto take on during 2005. Moreover, a few days after CTS, Infosysand Wipro were also visiting Anna University to select their ownquotas of students. Compared with manufacturing or any otherfield of employment in Tamil Nadu, the IT companies are currentlyrecruiting far more engineering graduates. And they appear happywith the outcome, for CTS’s managing director announced afterthe visit to Anna University that “Tamil Nadu wins hands downin terms of quantity and quality of manpower” – a term, it shouldbe stressed, that covers both sexes, for around one-fifth of recruits to CTS (and other leading software companies) are women (TheHindu, May 31, 2005).

Our evidence suggests that although the managing director mayhave exaggerated the particular virtues of Tamil Nadu, CTS andother top companies are obtaining the quantity and quality ofnew recruits that they need in Chennai, although they face moreserious problems retaining staff, especially those who have workedfor several years and have valuable experience. Yet it is also truethat although the companies can find whom they want, theoverwhelming majority of engineering graduates could never geta job with them. In the first place, no student is allowed to sita company aptitude test unless he or she has high marks in allsubjects in the 10th and 12th standards at school, and has alsopassed all college courses with high marks (typically 75 per cent)with “no standing arrears” (i e, no delayed or incompletelyexamined courses); this requirement immediately eliminates manystudents, especially those in colleges with low academic standards. But whether or not they can satisfy this requirement, theunfortunate fact is that “ninety per cent of engineering studentsin [Tamil Nadu], despite possessing adequate knowledge, are stillnot job-ready”, according to E Balagurusamy, then Anna University’svice-chancellor, speaking in February 2005, after only 207 outof 1,975 students from 168 colleges in the Chennai, Coimbatoreand Madurai regions, who were screened by TCS, CTS andWipro, obtained placements with the companies. These 207students came from only 81 colleges; thus most colleges in thestate could not produce a single student suitable for these threecompanies. The fundamental problem, said the vice-chancellor,is that even knowledgeable students “do not possess communication skills and the courage and confidence required to geta job...Some students could not even initiate a discussion whenthey sat before the recruiters” (The Hindu, February 11, 2005).

Balagurusamy’s complaint is actually a perennial refrain, whichis heard even in the engineering colleges with the best reputations.Thus a circular issued in 2004 by the placement officer in chargeof campus recruitment at one of Chennai’s top colleges, whichhas a very good record for its graduates’ employment, stated:“the general feedback received from the company HR peopleis that students lag in several areas like aptitude and technicaltest, communication skills, participation in group discussions[part of the selection process for some companies], interpersonalskills and facing interviews”.

Communication skills are not, of course, culturally neutral.5 Thus, for example, a lot of complaints about deficient skills, apart from inadequate English, are about excessive deference, wherebycandidates tend to weakly agree with an interviewer’s proposition,instead of arguing and expressing their own opinions. In IT companies, which have relatively flat managerial hierarchies, the openand equal exchange of views is part of the corporate ideology.The reality can be rather different, but it is nevertheless true that,for example, men and women mostly interact freely with eachother, younger people are often managers of their seniors, and thereciprocal use of names is the norm, even between managers andtheir subordinates. Moreover, an important part of an IT professional’sjob is effective communication with foreign clients, most oftenAmericans, who tend to be impatient with and confused byIndians who appear too deferential. To succeed in a majorsoftware company, therefore, people have to learn to communicate in a manner that is normally unfamiliar, and may be quitedisturbing, to anyone from a “traditional” Indian family and socialmilieu who is not used to an egalitarian style of social interaction.

IT companies provide some training in communication skillsand “cultural awareness” to new recruits, although one experienced college placement officer criticised them for spendinginsufficient money on training and expecting too much from thecolleges. As things stand, however, the leading companies justreject applicants lacking the skills they expect. Moreover, asalready implied, most of the graduates they select come froma fairly small number of institutions. These include AnnaUniversity, the government and state-aided engineering colleges,and about 20 or 30 of the best private colleges and deemeduniversities, mostly located in and around Chennai and someother cities in Tamil Nadu, notably Coimbatore. Some graduatesfrom the best institutions, as well as the vast majority from allthe other colleges, especially those in small towns and rural areas,lack the qualities and qualifications demanded by the companies.

Since 2001, all engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu have beenaffiliated to Anna University, which monitors their quality. Despitethis supervision, it is well known that most private colleges havepoor facilities and cannot find qualified teachers, especially forIT-related disciplines, mainly because anybody competent canearn a much higher salary working in industry. Many collegesare also appallingly mismanaged and run only for profit, asAnandakrishnan spells out in his hard-hitting report on highereducation in Tamil Nadu (2005:379). Actually, several informantshave told us that the teaching is often poor even in the bestcolleges, but because they have good workshop and libraryfacilities, and select the most able students who virtually teachthemselves, these institutions can maintain a reputation for highacademic standards. Furthermore, the quality of teaching is onlyone factor; just as important are the opportunities for wellresourced and challenging project work, for work experience andcompany visits, for training in communication skills, including theuse of English, and for sound advice on preparing for aptitude testsand interviews. The best colleges provide these opportunities andthey are the key to why their graduates secure well-paid jobs inthe leading companies. In the end, too, whatever students mayimagine, engineering knowledge itself scarcely matters to thesoftware companies, although it can be more relevant to companiesinvolved in hardware development. Thus in ICS, as its CEO toldus, graduate engineers are overqualified for the work they do,but the company recruits them primarily because, in addition tosome professional training, the best students in the best engineeringcolleges acquire analytical skills and learn to solve problems forthemselves, whereas students in other colleges generally do not.But if college graduates in history, for instance, could analyse andsolve problems equally well, his company would recruit historians and they would be just as good at software engineering.6

Anandakrishnan and other critics of the Supreme Court’s recentjudgment are surely right that backward class students, whodisproportionately come from rural and poorer backgrounds, willlose out if the reservations system is not applied in private

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006 engineering colleges. The urban middle class students from theforward castes will then take even more of the places in the bestprivate colleges than they already do. Nevertheless, we do not thinkthat this would actually lead to much change in the compositionof the workforce in the leading software companies. Somegraduates, especially those with good technical ability but poorcommunication skills, do find jobs in small IT companies, wherethey gain experience and can later move into the top companies;some people also manage to make such a move after startingwork in manufacturing companies. Nonetheless, although thestaff in ICS and other companies whom we have interviewedconstitute only a limited, haphazard sample, their social classbackground is fairly uniform, even in the smaller companies.Thus nearly all of them have fathers (and occasionally mothers)who are or were employed in professional or managerial positionsin government departments and public-or private-sector firms –although a few held relatively low-level positions – or in professions of equivalent status (such as doctors, lawyers and collegeprofessors); the only exceptional fathers are a few small businessmen and farmers. Overwhelmingly, therefore, these IT professionals belong to urban middle class families, predominantlybrahmin or forward caste, in spite of the reservations policy thathas been applied for many years in relation to all places ingovernment colleges and half of those in private colleges.

Almost certainly, the explanation for this urban, middle class,higher caste preponderance is that graduates with such a background are those most likely to possess the communicationsskills, including good English, and the undeferential courage andself-confidence needed in interviews that Anna University’s vicechancellor identified as crucial. In other words, these graduateshave the social and cultural capital required for success in thetop companies’ selection procedures. Although no systematicdata are available to prove that this argument about class reproduction is correct, we can discuss the situation by looking at howpeople themselves perceive it and reflect on their own abilityto improve their life chances.


In this context, the process and state known in Indian Englishas “exposure” is particularly important. In middle class conversation in Chennai, “exposure” is a common term with a fairlywide semantic range, but it mainly denotes the process of enhancing social skills and cultural knowledge through new opportunities, experiences, social contacts and sources of information,as well as the enhanced state that ensues: “I got good exposure”(the process) or “I now have good exposure” (the state). The term“exposure” is usually mentioned in conversations about improving educational or career prospects, although it is occasionallyused in a different sense, such as gaining more knowledge ofone’s own cultural traditions. Sometimes, too, people may speakof having “enough exposure”, meaning that they do not needany more of it because they have already secured a job or beenpromoted, or achieved success in whatever they had set out to do.

Veena and Tulsi, who work for a small company providingIT-enabled services, were eloquent about exposure during a longconversation with Haripriya.7 Veena, who is married, and Tulsi, who is single, are both in their 20s; Veena comes from Tirunelveliin southern Tamil Nadu and Tulsi from Namakkal in the centre of the state. After referring to “exposure” several times, Veenawas asked to define it and she replied:

You experience so many things which you would not have experienced in your earlier life, past life. If you see her [referringto Tulsi], there has been a lot of transformation in her personality,from the way she was in Namakkal, to the way she is now. InNamakkal no one would have shouted at her. If it’s a woman, they would say “Be careful, amma”. Here it is not like that. In front of 40 people, you will be caught [out]. You will be shoutedat. You will be pinned down to the earth. So you will becomethick-skinned. You will have the guts to face them [and say] “See, Idid not commit that mistake”. That’s what we mean by “exposure”.

And when the conversation later turned to Tulsi’s marriageplans, she said she wanted a groom from Chennai, lest she lostthe benefit of her exposure; “If I go back to Namakkal, the wholepurpose of coming to Chennai goes to waste”.

Although most informants explained exposure more brieflythan Veena, her explanation of the difference between Chennaiand Namakkal would command general assent, for over and overagain all sorts of people, not only in IT, told us that Chennaiis much better for exposure than other places in Tamil Nadu.Comments similar to Veena’s came, for example, from two menin their 30s, both junior managers in a manufacturing companyand both natives of Madurai. One of the men described Madurai

– actually a city with more than one million inhabitants – as “justa big village” compared with Chennai, which is a “launchingpad” full of opportunities as well as pressures; his colleaguedisliked the way people in Chennai show off and lack respectfor others, but he also stressed that exposure is “high” comparedwith Madurai and that “Chennai makes you brave”.

In the Tamil popular imagination, especially in antithesis to thecountryside, Chennai is “dark, foreboding, fearsome yet unavoidable” [Venkatachalapathy 2004:16-17], but in this context itshostile social environment is actually a positive feature becauseof the challenges that it poses. In many respects, of course, theunderlying notion is just another version of worldwide stereotypesabout the mixture of alienation and opportunity, characteristicof great modern cities. Both natives and immigrants extol Chennai’sgood exposure, but the immigrants, not surprisingly, are morelikely to say that the city’s hostile character makes people tough,whereas those raised in the city, like urbane urbanites everywhere,tend to take it for granted. People sometimes remarked on thisdifference in perspective within their own families: for example,if one spouse was from Chennai and the other came fromelsewhere in Tamil Nadu, or the parents were immigrants buttheir children had been brought up in Chennai.

Exposure is not only a feature of adults’ experience, but alsocrucially of children’s, especially in relation to their education.Very often, therefore, our informants who are parents, praisedChennai’s exposure and its educational system in almost the samebreath. Many, if not most, parents of all social classes arepreoccupied by their children’s education and, according to theirmeans, they strive hard to place them in the best schools. Forwell-off, professional, middle class parents, these schools are allprivate, fee-paying, English-medium institutions with first-classacademic records, which produce a steady stream of “toppers”in the final examinations – although most parents believe thatextra tuition is needed even by pupils in the best schools. Academicsuccess is the overriding priority, but among some middle classparents – especially those with knowledge or experience ofschooling in western countries – there is a growing sense thateducation should be about more than examination marks. The leading schools are now responding to this change by, for instance, encouraging or even requiring pupils to participate insports activities or to learn music or other arts, or by taking themon field trips to different kinds of places away from the city.Such a broader education, it is felt, will better equip today’schildren for a rapidly changing future in a globalised world,precisely because it gives them more exposure to different sortsof things. Not all parents approve, however; one principal in aleading school complained about the narrow-minded prejudicesof middle class parents who object to two hours of sport per week,because the time could be used instead for extra computer classes.Such parents are certainly very common, but there are others whohave a different attitude. Thus one mother – a chartered accountant

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

who runs a small business with her husband – was delighted thather teenage daughter went to a student conference in Singapore

– “It has given her tremendous exposure” – and that her youngson went to Bangalore for a cricket match: “I don’t mind thecost. It cost Rs 5,000. But think about the exposure they get!”

Another key aspect of exposure that is widely assumed to besuperior in Chennai is sound advice from teachers or othercounsellors about curriculum choice, examination techniques,college admission and related issues. Thus people assume, almostcertainly rightly, that pupils in the city’s best schools have anenormous advantage over other children because they are notonly more likely to score higher marks in examinations andpossess a wider range of general knowledge and more extracurricular skills in sports or arts; they can also obtain better adviceand more accurate information about colleges and other institutions of higher education, as well as about aptitude tests andentrance examinations, for which they can readily secure usefulextra tuition and tailor-made coaching. Thus even those who havecome to Chennai and have been successful, often say that theywere disadvantaged because they had too little exposure in theirsmall-town or rural schools. Dipesh, a young man working ina major IT company, whose father (now retired) was a professorin the rural university in Gandhigram (near Madurai) and whotherefore comes from a highly-educated middle class family,nevertheless remarked about his schooling that “exposure is 9per cent in Gandhigram and 90 per cent in Chennai”. How Dipeshmeasured the percentages is unclear, but his simple point wasthat students in Chennai have a huge advantage because, as heput it, “The way people are trained to think from seventh standarditself is different in Chennai”. Like his friend Murugan in thesame company, who has a village background, Dipesh came toChennai for one month’s intensive coaching before taking theengineering colleges’ entrance examination (the Tamil NaduProfessional Colleges Entrance Examination), so that he couldgain the “awareness” necessary for success that candidates fromChennai already had. Last but not least, those who have beeneducated in Chennai’s leading schools are normally much morefluent in English than the majority of the population, which isan invaluable asset for life and work in the city. Indeed, Murugancommented that what struck him most on first arriving in Chennaiwas the extensive use of English – a “prestige thing”, rather thanjust “a medium of instruction”, as it always had been for himin his village and at college in Coimbatore.

In her conversation with Veena and Tulsi, Haripriya askedwhether Chennai is still a conservative city. They answered thatit is now changing quickly and that the IT industry and its wellpaid workforce are largely responsible, which is a very commonpoint of view among Chennai’s middle class. Veena continued:“IT brings you exposure, does it not? It is because of IT thatsome Parthasarathy somewhere is doing very well in some otherpart of the world...Though people have gone abroad before, ITcaught the market quickly”. Veena’s main point here was thatpeople working in IT gain exposure, which in turn enables themto succeed abroad more rapidly and effectively than earlieremigrants. Although not too much should be read into it, it isinteresting that Veena, a non-brahmin, talked about a“Parthasarathy”, because this is a distinctively Aiyangar brahminname, which suggests that she assumes that brahmins are particularly well represented among IT professionals, as is almostcertainly true (despite the lack of any statistical data to proveit). The complicated question of caste and IT cannot be discussedhere, but we may note that brahmins (except possibly for somechettiyars) are better educated and more urbanised than any otherTamil caste group, and also have a longer history of migrationto other regions of India and overseas. All in all, therefore,brahmins typically possess more of the attributes said to derivefrom exposure than non-brahmins, which gives them a definite advantage in securing jobs in leading IT companies and then inpursuing their careers. As Murugan (a non-brahmin) crisply saidto Haripriya – implicitly referring to communication skills as awhole, not just use of the English language – “Brahmins knowhow to talk, madam; they know good English”.

Almost all IT professionals would agree with Veena’s assertionthat IT brings exposure and many of them, of both sexes, emphasisethat women have particularly benefited.8 They would also agreethat exposure can be enhanced by working in other cities in India;even though Chennai is now changing, Bangalore, Mumbai andDelhi are very frequently mentioned, partly because they are seenas a lot more modern and cosmopolitan, and even shocking.Veena and Tulsi, for instance, reminisced about Delhi; because of its strange mores, as well as its extreme weather, it was a “realtorture”, according to Tulsi, who was particularly shocked bywomen who openly smoked and wore clothes that would be seenas provocative in Chennai.9 Many (though not all) people alsothink that Bangalore provides better exposure because it has amore diversified IT industry than Chennai. Nonetheless, the mostcrucial form of exposure for IT professionals comes from workingoverseas, so that anyone with any career ambition who has notyet been abroad wants to go on a project assignment, which maylast a few weeks, a few months, or even a year or two. And anyonewho has already been abroad, once or several times, invariablyconfirms that they did indeed get good exposure, because theyhad to live and work in a very different foreign environment. Mostpeople we have interviewed do not wish to emigrate permanently,but they recognise that experience in America or another foreigncountry is vital for career success in this global industry.

Parvati, who works for ICS, and is single and in her mid-20s,is typical in these respects. Parvati obtained her US visa inFebruary 2005. She had wanted to go on a project assignmentsome months earlier, but another ICS employee already in theUS took the position in Minneapolis that she expected to fill.Parvati then tried to put some pressure on her project manager,but as the months passed, she became increasingly frustrated thatshe was stuck in Chennai, unable to advance her career, and was talking about leaving ICS for another company. By August,however, she was hoping to go to Salt Lake city on a new project,and she finally set off in September for Kansas city instead,looking forward with excitement and trepidation to life in America.After they have spent some time abroad, however, IT professionals may not want to go again and may conclude, like Anuradha,also in ICS, that no more exposure is needed. Anuradha, whois married with a young child, has 10 years’ experience in theIT industry and has lived for two or three years in the US; youngstaff (like Parvati), she confirmed, always need exposure, butafter about five years “it isn’t a must” and she can safely turndown requests to go abroad again.

Exposure, therefore, is always relative. For migrants from smalltowns and villages, Chennai provides a lot of exposure that isunavailable at home, but for people in Chennai, exposure isincreased by going elsewhere in India and maximised by goingabroad. This is particularly important for IT professionals in thetop software companies, but, depending on their ambition, theymay eventually acquire enough knowledge and experience throughexposure, so that that they can safely stay where they are.

As far as we know, “exposure” is part of common parlanceamong many, if not all, urban middle class Indians, although weare not sure when it first became current. Yet in its present-dayuse in Chennai – as Katherine Boo noticed in her perceptive essayabout IT and the changing city (2004: 61) – exposure connotesa distinctively individualistic “yearning” for success in a competitive educational and occupational world, in which securing a jobin IT, especially in a major software company, is currently theprincipal goal of a very large number of young people, encouragedor even coerced by their parents. In this competitive world, which

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006 people explicitly link to economic liberalisation and globalisation,there can be no equality of opportunity because some people havegreater exposure than others and, for those with a deficit, the onlysolution is to acquire more. Moreover, people who have exposureare far more likely to understand how important it is than thosewho lack it, and they are therefore better able to improve theirposition still further; the outcome, of course, is greater inequality.


In a recent EPW discussion article, V K Natraj (2005) rightlydraws attention to how the expansion of colleges in India hasenabled “vast multitudes” of students to experience highereducation, which has significant long-term implications for intergenerational social mobility and the promotion of socioeconomic equity and equality. Clearly, eliminating reserved seatsin private colleges will reduce their contribution to promotingequality. Yet the controversy over reservations also divertsattention away from some other issues that are crucial for mobilityand equality, as the case of Tamil Nadu’s engineering collegesand the IT industry shows.

Producing graduates to staff the leading software companiesshould not be the primary goal of higher education in India orTamil Nadu. On the other hand, the main reason today why somany students want to go to engineering colleges is that they,and their parents, hope that they will then get jobs in the IT sector.In Bangalore and Hyderabad, more than in Chennai, US-ownedIT giants like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have a significantpresence, but otherwise the most desirable jobs are in the topIndian software companies, and their unprecedented recruitmentrate must surely lead lots of young people to believe that theglittering prize of becoming a highly-paid IT professional is notbeyond reach. In reality, though, it is unobtainable for the vastmajority, but as long as debate about private colleges continuesto be dominated by arguments about the ostensible quality ofthe engineering education they provide and about caste-basedreservations, two noteworthy facts will continue to be overlooked.

The first of these is that the software companies are largelyuninterested in how much engineering knowledge the graduatesactually possess. If this were more widely appreciated, it mightusefully encourage more teaching of analytical skills, and lesslame memorisation, throughout the college system. As someexperienced school teachers and college professors hope, it mightalso persuade more students to study the subject that mostinterested them, instead of opting for engineering because theyor their parents decided it must be best for their career prospects.

The second and more important fact pertains to the criticalsignificance of social and cultural capital – surfacing in the guiseof “communication skills” – that is predominantly vested in theeducated, professional, urban middle class. The reservationssystem is not irrelevant in this respect, particularly because itdoes permit some relatively poor, backward class students to gainplaces in good engineering colleges, which at least gives themopportunities to acquire these skills. After graduation, a few ofthese students will secure jobs in leading IT companies; rathermore of them will find jobs elsewhere that are less prestigiousand less well-paid, but can still be counted as reasonably goodemployment. If reservations are abolished in private colleges,these opportunities will be curtailed or even ended, and the impacton social mobility may be considerable.

Nevertheless, it must also be emphasised that the reservationssystem scarcely diminishes middle class advantage at all and,for students who have got into a good college, it has no effectwhatsoever on their future career prospects in the IT industry.Moreover, those who best understand the importance of socialand cultural capital for career success are precisely the middleclass people who already possess it and, as far as they are concerned, a key ingredient for success is “exposure”, which theyseek to maximise in an arena of competitive individualism. To whatextent public policy can alter this situation is debatable, although

– as Natraj indicates – an end to the “endless controversy” aboutthe teaching of English in schools would be one useful contribution, because, while it continues, the middle class children in the better English-medium schools retain a decisive advantage.Perhaps, though, the most useful change would be a frankrecognition by politicians, commentators and others that castebased reservations in the private engineering colleges are onlyone factor in the social equation, and are only marginally relevantto the real issues about middle class advantage, class mobilityand the promotion of equality that are being raised by the rapidgrowth of the IT industry in contemporary Tamil Nadu.




[The research in Chennai was carried out for just over 12 months in totalbetween August 2003 and August 2005 by Haripriya, although Fuller workedwith her for about two months in total. The text of this paper was writtenby Fuller, although we have discussed it together and it represents our jointviews. The research was supported by the UK Economic and Social ResearchCouncil as part of a research project on ‘Regionalism, Nationalism andGlobalisation in India’ in the Department of Anthropology at the LSE. Foruseful comments on an earlier draft of this article, we thank Henrike Donner, John Harriss and V K Natraj.]

1 M Anandakrishnan, ‘Vanishing Equity in Higher Education’, The Hindu, August 24, 2005. The P A Inamdar case and its implications for collegesin the southern states are discussed in a series of articles by V Venkatesanand others in Frontline, September 9, 2005, pp 28-37.

2 On engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, see the reports by S Viswanathan inFrontline, September 10, 2004, pp 34-36 and September 9, 2005, pp 30-32.

3 Data on export revenue ranking (2003-04) from NASSCOM; Home> Resource Centre> Facts and Figures> Top20 Software Companies [accessed November 2004].

4 This research is reported in Fuller and Narasimhan (nda). 5 On “culture” in the IT industry, we have benefited from discussion withCarol Upadhya.

6 As professional academics, we naturally do not think that higher educationshould be organised for the benefit of IT companies; nevertheless, thefact that these companies do not consider recruiting history or socialscience graduates, for example, should provoke some reflection on thequality and utility of the latters’ education.

7 All informants’ names are pseudonyms. 8 Women IT professionals and gender relations in IT companies arediscussed in Fuller and Narasimhan (nda).

9 In September 2005, a row erupted in Chennai about the “moral policing”of women in particular, which linked together new dress regulations forcollege students, a film actress’s comments about women’s sexuality,and allegedly obscene kissing at a party in a luxury hotel (The Hindu, September 27, 2005; Outlook, October 10, 2005, pp 18-20; Frontline, October 22, 2005, pp 40-42). This moralistic backlash may be just apassing episode, but it reflects the fact that public behaviour unlikelyto provoke comment in Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi can still causeoutrage in Chennai.


Anandakrishnan, A (2005): ‘Higher Education’ in Tamil Nadu State Development Report, 337-84, Government of Tamil Nadu, Chennai. Boo, Katherine (2004): ‘The Best Job in Town: The Americanisation ofChennai’, The New Yorker, July 5, 55-69.

Fuller, C J and Haripriya Narasimhan (nda): ‘Information TechnologyProfessionals and the New-Rich Middle Class in Chennai (Madras)’,Modern Asian Studies, forthcoming, 2006.

– (2005): ‘Marriage and the Family among IT Professionals in Chennai’,unpublished paper at International Conference on New Global Workforcesand Virtual Workplaces, Bangalore, August.

Natraj, V K (2005): ‘Higher Education: An Alternative Perspective’, Economic and Political Weekly, July 16.Varma, Pavan (2005): Being Indian: The Truth About Why the Twenty-firstCentury Will Be India’s, Penguin, New Delhi.

Venkatachalapathy, A R (2004): ‘Street Smart in Chennai: The City inPopular Imagination’ in C S Lakshmi (ed), The Unhurried City: Writingson Chennai, 15-26, Penguin, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

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