He is giving his students everything he didn’t have — academic opportunities, affordable education, dedicated faculty, wide-ranging subjects to choose from and an environment conducive to learning. MV Muthuramalingam, Chairman, Velammal Educational Trust, Chennai, has seen adversity closer than any other academician of his generation. From grazing buffaloes to bringing knowledge to thousands of students, he promises to strengthen the backbone of higher education in India, through handwork and honesty.
In the opening note on your website, you say that you’re a born fighter and have fought a lot of hardships in your childhood. Please elaborate.
I lost my father when I was six. That left me with my mother, a younger brother and a sister. We were thrown out of our ancestral property and found it extremely tough to survive. To feed us, my mother had to take up household work in several homes. She even made a living, selling vegetables and stationery sometimes. With those struggles in the backdrop, I somehow continued my studies. However, I failed in my Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examinations. Thereafter, I had to tend to buffaloes to make ends meet. We sold milk, and from that income, I sat for exams again and finally passed my SSLC and joined a polytechnic college. After completing my Diploma in Civil Engineering, I registered with the Government. Employment Exchange. To my utter dismay, I found the whole process extremely bureaucratic. That spurred me to start something on my own. Being a Civil Engineer, I started taking up small-time civil contracts, and was reasonably successful. However, at the age of 23, when my mother decided to get me married, no one was willing to give their daughter in marriage to me, as I was not employed. After many rejections, I got married but we had to borrow money from various sources to conduct the wedding. Then in the year 1971, I joined the Government Public Works Department, but it was not to my liking. So, I quit the job in six months and started work on some small-time civil contracts. By that time, I had three sons. The need of the hour was to bring in a healthy income. Starting a small establishment of my own by investing whatever I had saved until then, was the only way that could secure a steady income. I opened a small school at Mugappair, Chennai, with only a few students, which gave me a good foundation to build bigger institutions thereafter.
How are you helping the society develop technologically? What is the importance of this particular type of learning in our country?
No country can survive unless it’s technologically advanced and our contribution in this direction has been immense. We ensure that we produce quality Engineers who can play a pivotal role in the growth of the nation. We also encourage them to be entrepreneurs on their own, besides cultivating an atmosphere of research and development. Velammal runs three engineering colleges — two in Chennai and one in Madurai. More than 15,000 students are getting technically educated through three colleges. We have an excellent group of faculty members who nurture the growth of these students. We also have an enviable placement record of close to 95 per cent year over year.
The institute’s watchwords are dedication, determination and distinction. Why are these characteristics important and how do they shape a student’s academic trajectory?
These are the characteristics I have inherited from my mother and so as a natural consequence, they have become the guiding values of all our institutions. We reinforce them day in and day out with all our students and faculty members. Only because of the undeterred faith in these tenets, we believe we could create a brand, and are now able to sustain it. Students who graduate out of our institutions have always proved themselves to be outstanding citizens of our country and we take a lot of pride in that.
What are your thoughts on the scale of the challenge India faces when it comes to higher education?
The basic educational system in India needs to be revisited and immediately revamped. Government policies undergo various changes according to the whims and fancies of those who occupy the position of power, and ultimately the system suffers. Unless our basic education system is recast, higher education will suffer. The quality of students, faculty members and the overall attitudes of both are a big concern. We also need to make higher education more affordable for all sections of the society. There is much debate on that, but few positive measures to make it affordable.
There are no Indian universities in the top 100 global list. How can we get ourselves out of the educational abyss?
We have created a mess of the system. Unless authorities look at the system passionately, it will be very difficult to get anywhere. We need to look at the right model suitable for the society and if we can achieve that, I am sure we will be inferior to none and we will definitely lead the pack.
Have private universities that opened in the past few years been able keep up their promise of providing both access and quality to higher education in India?
I don’t think the advent of private universities has improved the quality of education. In fact, education has only suffered a setback. Private ventures have become mere money-spinning propositions and a game of numbers for the owners. With that scenario, how can one expect quality education?
Do you support the advent of international universities in India?
We need to have healthy competition. To that extent, I would welcome the move. But we need to monitor the universities systematically. Their policies and agendas should be in the larger good of the overall academic system, rather than just focus on their individual growth.