In ‘taming’ Surappa, TN govt shows Centre ‘who’s the boss’

State government’s corruption inquiry against Anna University’s VC is just the latest of its defensive against the Centre’s attempts to get an upper hand in the affairs of the institute, say experts

Political observers say the repeated acts of insubordination by Surappa may have pushed the state government to open cases of corruption against him and initiate an inquiry

Anna University, one of the premier engineering institutes in the country, has of late been the state government’s battlefield to counter the BJP government at the Centre. From refusing the Centre’s Institute of Eminence (IoE) tag, rechristening and bifurcating the university, to recently ordering an inquiry against its Centre-supporting Vice Chancellor MK Surappa, the Edappadi Palaniswami has left no stone unturned to show the central government who calls the shots in Tamil Nadu.

While the state government has been reluctant in accepting the Centre’s IoE offer for Anna University, Surappa in October had allegedly bypassed authorities and offered to raise funds to attain the tag in a letter to the Centre. On November 13, the state government appointed retired Madras High Court judge P Kalaiyarasan to probe past complaints of financial irregularities and malpractices against the vice-chancellor.

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Political analysts say the probe was a step by the state government to ‘fix’ Surappa, and send a message to the Centre.

Countering Centre for reservation

The IoE scheme introduced by the Centre in 2017, would elevate 10 public and private higher educational institutions each to world-class standards, while giving them academic and administrative autonomy. While the Centre offered the IoE tag to Anna University in August 2019, the state government dragged its feet on accepting it, citing doubts over the continuation of the existing 69 per cent reservation policy. The fact that the university will lose its ‘affiliated’ status after getting the tag, was also a concern.

In order to retain that status, the state government in September 2020, enacted a bill to amend the Anna University Act, 1978. Two acts emerged as a result – the Anna University (Amendment) Act, 2020 and Anna Technological and Research University Act, 1978. It was also decided that the name of the university will be changed as Anna Technology and Research University (ATRU).

The Anna University comprises four colleges namely Guindy College of Engineering, Alagappa College of Technology, Madras Institute of Technology and School of Architecture and Planning apart from the state’s private engineering colleges. Under the new amendments, the parent institute will be renamed as ATRU, while the institute under which all the state’s engineering colleges fall will be called Anna University. It is ATRU, and not Anna University that will get the IoE tag and be later renamed as ‘Anna Institute of Eminence’.

The decision has ruffled many feathers, with teachers and students associations protesting against the bifurcation and name change.

“We get an ill-feeling of our intellectual property rights being robbed. The word ‘research’ is redundant for a university’s name. Further, the proposed unitary university now existing under the name of Anna University goes beyond technology as it has excelled in science and humanities as well. Hence, inserting the word ‘technological’ is uncalled for. Besides, it is a wise convention to retain the name of a parent university and give a new name to the offspring?” asked a representative of the Anna University Teachers Association.

Interestingly, Surappa had opposed the bifurcation of the university and its name change.

Battle for autonomy

Meanwhile, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had asked the state to bear half of ₹1,000 crore, the financial aid that would be granted to the IoE university for five years. The Centre will provide the other half of the amount.

While the state was still considering the clause, Surappa allegedly bypassed authorities and in a letter to the Centre said that the university can raise ₹1,570 crore (₹314 crore a year) through internal means. The state government sought an explanation from the vice-chancellor on the letter.

The contents of the letter have not been made public yet.

Earlier, the vice-chancellor had refused to abide by the state government’s order to grant ‘all pass’ for college students including those having arrears in different subjects, citing different orders from All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

Surappa had told the state government that the AICTE in a communication had threatened to cancel the approval of Anna University if it passed students with back-papers without conducting examinations.

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While state higher education minister KP Anbalagan said that the government has not received any such email from AICTE, urging Surappa to release the said email from AICTE, no letter was furnished. However, the screenshots of a related mail was shared on social media, authenticity of which has not been verified yet.

In between, former VC of the university E Balagurusamy filed a PIL in Madras High Court over cancellation of exams and argued that the state has no rights to cancel the exams and it should be decided only by UGC. Finally the exams were conducted online.

Political observers say the repeated acts of insubordination by Surappa may have pushed the state government to open cases of corruption against him and initiate an inquiry. In one of the complaints, the government has mentioned, “Prof MK Surappa has mailed a wrong information to AICTE that the final year students were passed without conducting examinations”.

Sending across a message

Well-known academic activist A Marx says the state government is only countering the bid of the Centre to have an upper hand in the state’s education institutes.

“We have been criticising the moves of Surappa since his appointment in 2018. All the changes that he claims to have brought were ‘anti-student’ and were against the state government’s laws. By writing directly to the Centre and offering to raise funds for the IoE tag, he has made it clear that engineering education is not affordable to poor students. This was the university founded by the state government and Surappa is now trying to hand it over to Centre through IoE,” said Marx.

Balagurusamy, on the other hand, calls the state government’s move ‘pure vendetta’. “If the state has any dissatisfaction with him (Surappa), it could have called him directly and settled the issue instead of forming a probe committee,” he said.

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“He may have a political ideology as an individual, but he is not a member of any political outfit. Likewise, he has not appointed his daughter in the university as a salaried staff. He just asked her to share knowledge. Just because he is being honest and didn’t acted according to the wishes of state ministers, there is an attempt to tame him,” he added.

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