The TN2016 youth vote: High fees, poor education and zero training are the biggest crises for Tamil Nadu students

Editor's note: Tamil Nadu’s political parties are fighting each other mainly for one section of the electorate this year. This election is all about how the youth will vote. Over 60 lakh youngsters will ink their fingers in May and with little ideological baggage, an aspirational and determined youth is calling the politician’s bluff on a number of issues. In this series, Firstpost compiles what the Tamil youth want, if only the politicians would listen. This is part three of a four-part series on #TN2016: The Anger of the Youth. 


Yogendra Babu of Uraiyur town near Trichy in Tamil Nadu is eager to talk and does so rapidly, revealing his angst about the topic – why he views himself as someone that the system failed. Yogendra is 21 years old, studying for a Bachelors degree in Engineering at a private engineering college. He is fuming at perceived injustice.

“We are paying Rs 25,000 extra per year apart from the fees to the college,” he told Firstpost. “There is no bill for this. Is this not corruption? It is time to stop politicians from running colleges,” he said.

Yogendra Babu is angry at the exorbitant sums he is forced to spend on tertiary education. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Yogendra Babu is angry at the exorbitant sums he is forced to spend on tertiary education. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

The extraordinary cost of a tertiary education is a crucial reason for young Tamils feeling rage against the machine. Like Yogendra, many come from poor and middle class families, struggling to make ends meet. Despite this, parents scrimp and save in order to fund ‘quality’ education for their children. Yogendra says his parents put him in a private school whose medium of instruction was Tamil, because they felt private schools were better than government ones. All was well until he reached college.

“The first two years were extremely tough,” recalled Yogendra. “I did not understand a single concept because it was all taught in English. If it had been taught in Tamil I would have understood. It was horrible. I couldn’t use the full three hours in an exam because I simply did not know what to write. Even if I knew the answer in Tamil, I could not deliver it in English. I would just shut down and freeze in the exam hall,” he said.

Yogendra had four arrears through the traumatic first two years of college. In his third year, he has begun to pick up the English language a little and things are slowly looking up, he says. But he is angry, he adds emphatically. “As far as studies are concerned, English is very important,” opined Yogendra. “Tamil is important too, it is our mother tongue. But a lack of English knowledge is very tough for us. Language should not become politics,” he stated.

Language politics

Language politics came to the fore in Tamil Nadu as early as in 1937, when the Congress’ C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), then Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency, issued a circular making Hindi compulsory in all schools. Leaders of the Dravidian movement, EV Ramasamy Naicker (popularly known as Periyar, meaning the ‘elder one’ or ‘great one’), CN Annadurai amongst others, vehemently opposed what they called the imposition of brahminical Hindi and Sanskrit on the Tamils. The issue came to a head once again in 1965, resulting in major clashes and riots across the state, and forcing the Congress out of power for ever after in the state.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), led by then Chief Minister CN Annadurai would come to power for the very first time on the back of this successful anti-Hindi agitation in 1967. By 1968, the Three-Language policy introduced by the Centre was scrapped by the Annadurai government. Only Tamil and English would be taught in schools in the state. The medium of instruction in government schools would be Tamil ever since.

“There was a great exhilaration over the Tamil language from the Tamil nationalists at that time,” said Stalin Rajangam, political analyst. “But no one knew whether the people wanted it. The Dravidian movement supported this stance. The Dravidian movement’s pro-Tamil agenda was helped to a great extent by teachers. Teachers would not look beyond Tamil,” he said.

Rajangam added that there is a need to review this policy since politicking was harming large numbers of students. Political parties have not even reviewed or looked into this issue for years,” he said. “Students from villages who are afraid to try and learn English, end up taking Tamil literature in college or history, rather than the sciences. Political leaders must conduct a review of whether Tamil has really grown in the last 50 years of Dravidian parties’ rule. Without reviewing this, language is still being used politically and glorified,” he said.

Many states in the country, like Maharashtra and Karnataka amongst others, would follow the example set by Tamil Nadu in gaining mileage out of language politics.

Try. Fail. Repeat process.

Mahesh Kumar is writing his second round of exams since he has language issues. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Mahesh Kumar is writing his second round of exams since he has language issues. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

28-year-old M Mahesh Kumar, resident of a Dalit slum called Solama Nagar near Uraiyur, is pursuing his PhD, after completing his M Tech degree. Despite being well qualified, Mahesh says he has failed every single exam he has attempted including the Civil Services exam. “Subject-wise I know all the answers but I am unable to answer in English,” he explained. “I am going to write all exams all over again.”

These repetitive exams put enormous strain on the family’s finances. Mahesh’s father having died a number of years ago, his elder brother, a daily wage labourer and his elder sister, a textile company employee, are the breadwinners. Totally the family of four lives on less than Rs 12,000 a month, just enough to keep them all fed and clothed. Mahesh’s debts are increasing as he borrows more to write more exams, desperate for a government job which would be the solution to his family’s woes.

In Thyagaraja Nagar, about 3 km from where Mahesh Kumar lives, another young man is flummoxed by language. 20-year-old S Suriyan, a Diploma certificate holder in Mechanical Engineering laughs as he recounts the conversations with potential employers. “About yourself, about yourself-nu kekkaranga,” he stated, meaning the interviewers ask Suriyan to tell them about himself. When this reporter asked him what he says in reply, Suriyan is embarrassed. “I Suriyan, mother house, father drive auto, I Diploma Mechanical – that is what I tell them,” he replied, visibly mortified at his lack of command over English.

Suriyan wants government schools to teach skills such as handling interviews and group discussions. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Suriyan wants government schools to teach skills such as handling interviews and group discussions. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Suriyan says he has pestered his father no end and managed to join a private tuition course that teaches youngsters like him how to handle interviews and speak basic English. “The interviewers kept rejecting me saying my pronunciation is poor,” he said ruefully. “There are simply no jobs available for people like me. We need to be taught these skills – how to handle interviews and group discussions – all of these must be taught in schools itself,” he said.

While the previous DMK regime introduced the Samacheer Kalvi education system in the state, touting it to be a game change in the education system, in reality, not much has been done to address the real and basic issues in the sector. Despite successive state governments and various courts passing orders capping fees of tertiary educational institutions, capitation fees and hidden costs, like those being paid by Yogendra Babu of Uraiyur, continue to cast shadows over students and their families.

In January, three young students of a college near Kallakurichi allegedly committed suicide jointly by jumping into a well. A note left behind speaks of harassment and a constant demand for money from the students who were forced to live in misery in the college. The deaths sparked off a debate on the need for state government to conduct regular audits of mushrooming private colleges. Barely two months later, the issue seems to have been forgotten, by media and politicians alike.

A state government in stagnation for over a decade does not bode well for the future of young, bright minds in the southern state. Post May 2016, the new government will have to act swiftly to relieve varied and enormous burdens from the young shoulders of Tamil students.

The author tweets @sandhyaravishan

Read part one and two

Updated Date: Mar 16, 2016 14:01 PM

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