Social strain sparks campus war

  

 While protests at Sairam Engineering College brought the institution's restrictive norms out into the open, it is not the only curtail social freedom on institution to curtail social freedom on campuses. Many engineering institutions and some arts and science colleges in Chennai enforce rules which a large section of students find stifling. Clearly , the conservatism of the managements of these institutions are at odds with the aspirations of their wards. 

The most common complaints pertain to cellphone use, gender segregation and dress codes. Maya N, who passed out of Jeppiar Engineering College a year ago, says the institution had a policy which barred them from wearing leggings and jeans and made them stick to salwar kurtas with the dupatta pinned on both sides. "We became averse to wearing salwarkurta by the end of the course.I avoided wearing it for about a year after I graduated," she says.Other colleges have rules against students wearing anything remotely stylish or in vogue, including T-shirts, kurtis with side slits, skirts, three-fourth pants, sleeveless clothes, etc. 

Some institutions maintain that dress codes and cell phone ban are required to instill discipline, prevent distractions and ensure the focus stays on academics. MoP Vaishnav College principal Lalitha Balakrishnan says her college has a dress code to combat vulgarity . "Students can get harassed while walking to college or taking public transport and we don't want any untoward incident to take place because of their dressing," says the college, admitting that it considers sleeveless clothes or three-fourth pants "obscene." 

Curbs on interactions with the opposite sex are also part of the routine on a few co-ed campuses. Some engineering colleges, for instance, have supervisors to ensure boys and girls do not interact with each other while walking in the corridors or outside classrooms. Separate staircases for boys and girls are a common feature, howsoever repugnant an idea it may be for students. "Even though the classroom would be right near the boys' staircase, we had to go all the way round and use the girls' staircase to get to the classroom," says Shanmugha Priya, alumnus of Jeppiar College. She says the atmosphere prevented students from shedding their inhibitions and acquiring confidence. "Many came from non-metro, rural backgrounds and were not comfortable expressing themselves. If we have rules that restrict you from talking to the other gender, it only makes it worse," said Nandini, another ex-student. A rule of Madras Christian College also prohibits crowding of a group near certain parts of the campus like the children's park or the pavilion and behind the cafeteria. 

When asked about gender segregation, a representative of Jeppiar College said the institution only followed rules laid down by Anna University , the governing authority . However, the varsity maintains hat while it regulates academics, it does not interfere in setting down regulations or social behaviour on campuses. That is evidently left to individual college manage ments, who say they often enforce such policies to keep parents reassured abou he safety of the student. 

While parents admitted students need disciplining, they also pointed out that extreme measures were not necessary to achieve this. Ultimately , their concern for he quality of education came above eve rything else. Those who were uncomfort able with co-education said they would rather send their wards to an all-boys or all-girls institution. 

But as a student of Panimalar college pointed out, such restrictions contribute o the social awkwardness that exist be ween students of opposite genders. Hav ng been on the campus for three years, he wondered how graduates from the institu ion would react when employed in corpo rate offices with mixed work spaces. "Can we sit feeling socially awkward in a work space tomorrow?" He says there have been attempts to challenge these restrictions but they have been unsuccessful so far. 

The lack of a student council in mos of these colleges is perhaps a reason for he students being unable to make their voices heard. 

Experts point out that strict measures may back fire on campuses that seek to promote a sense of growth and progressive ness. Psychologist Sridhar Murthy says that free dom and respon sibility are essen tials for students "By imposing a gender divide, they are creating a wrong perception that a rela tionship between a boy and girl cannot be like any other friendship," he says. 

Also, with colleges and schools impacting the social behaviour of students, HR execu tives say there may be an emerging challenge in integrating such students into the workforce. "Someone coming from a restrictive background could even over react to a regular situation as they may consider it inappropriate," says HR execu ive B R Jagdish. 

Sunil Goel, director of human resources firm GlobalHunt, says global companies do not appreciate such curbs. "Having such rules do not allow the individual to develop reely or fully. So many recruits are too shy and unable to express themselves openly ," he says. HR professionals say that with companies promoting more diversity , em ployees need an open attitude to express hemselves confidently in a cosmopolitan or mixed gathering. 

Having a gender divide is impractical he adds. "There will be instances when a emale member will be required to conduct presentations in front of an all-male pane or vice versa. They cannot afford to fee shy in such situations," he says.