Changing our Approach to Higher Education in Technology

Breeze - Education Uncontained

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google; Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft; Shantanu Narayen, the CEO of Adobe… It’s quite interesting to see Indians take the lead in some of the most advanced (and loved) technology companies around the world. Being Indian, it is only natural for us to be proud of their achievements. For, they epitomise the influence and contribution of Indians in the field of technology and engineering - the creme de la creme of today's innovation driven world.

But, amidst all the adulation and acclaim of their success, there's one crucial problem—the contribution of the majority of Indian under-graduate engineering colleges to the distinguished echelons of the engineering fraternity is hopelessly small!

As of 2016, there are over 4000 engineering colleges in India. Yet, the bulk of the top talent comes from the barracks of only a handful of institutes. So, what's going so terribly wrong with the others?

If you thought the lack of top talent from the tier II and III institutes was as bad as it could get, here’s a frightening statistic:

In India, about 1.5 million engineers graduate every year. Of which, over 80% are 'unemployable'.

This does NOT imply that 80% of engineering graduates every year are unemployed. Rather, a large proportion of India's IT sector is underemployed - engineering graduates end up in jobs that are not in par with their expectations in terms of salary and skill set.

It's a rather unfortunate case of supply v/s demand. Numerically, the supply of engineers is more than adequate to cater to the demands of the industry. But, the quality of engineers being subpar forces companies to look elsewhere for talent. Almost every major player in the industry points their finger to the Higher education system in India as the root cause of the huge disparity between what an engineer has to offer and what the industry expects from them.

Let’s look at a few ways that the higher education authorities in India can deal with the issue discussed.

1) Emphasise on a skill-based approach backed by a relevant knowledge base rather than a purely knowledge-centric approach to learning

The essence of being an engineer is about being a problem-solver; someone who can apply their technical know-how in practical ways to solve real-world problems. Sadly, the definition of an engineer has been diluted to appear as a rat-race for theoretical knowledge. Labs are meant to give students a first-hand experience at applying their knowledge to solve problems in the form of computer programs, electronic circuits, mechanical procedures, etc. Ironically, in most colleges, students are made to “memorise” the problems they will have to solve in their exams. (Any guesses on how they prepare for their lab exams?) Practical application and problem-solving are quite literally 'out of syllabus'!

As much has been said about practicality, it is useless without a steadfast knowledge of the domain to begin with. A balanced approach to training in theoretical knowledge along with a deeper understanding of it's practical applications is the most viable means to a wholesome understanding of a given domain.

Evaluating a student in a given course based on real life simulated projects rather than on theoretical (and outdated) knowledge provides a much deeper insight into their technical prowess. Also, it significantly contributes to making much better engineers as the students are exposed to the practical applications of the domain, and problem-solving as a trait is encouraged.

2) An updated curriculum that focusses on current trends facilitated by active participation in real working environments

In the fast paced world of technology, what seems to be cuttingedge or top of the line now, will be rendered obsolete and outdated in a matter of months! Diversification of technology is happening at a very fast rate, with new advancements in technology and new domains being explored everyday. It is absolutely crucial that the education system stays in sync with the happenings of the industry and imparts this knowledge to the students accordingly.

Most curricula in engineering colleges are primordially outdated, especially in the computer science, IT and mechanical spheres. However well-versed one might be, it is utterly useless if a technology is outdated and no longer used. Thus, leaving the graduate completely at sea when he or she takes up a job.

The main reason why many institutions hesitate to alter their curricula to match the advancements in technology is because there is already extensive resources available pertaining to older technologies - a convenient solution. Also, a very large portion of the teaching fraternity is familiar with the bygone advancements and getting them up to date with current technological trends takes a tremendous effort; something institutions are not interested investing in.

A way to keep the disparity between education and the present industry at a minimum is through an industry-institution collaborative effort. Companies will have to invest money, time and man-power to train and expose institutions to the advancements and demands of the modern industry. But, the results in the form of well-qualified and highly capable engineers will be well worth it. The active participation of personnel from the industry in framing the curriculum of technical institutions is vital.

3) Campus placements: quality over quantity

"Record 3800 jobs generated on day 1", reads the headline on the homepage of an engineering college. "Ranked number 3 in placements in South India", boasts another college. This is exactly what's wrong with the approach towards Engineering in India. The number of offers received is used as a metric to gauge the quality of an engineering college - it's fool's gold, really. The harsh truth behind such large numbers is that, a massive proportion of them are underemployed. These are jobs that don't require the skill set obtained from a professional course, nor do they pay well enough to do justice to the degree holder.

In the pandemonium of campus placements, neither the colleges nor the students stop for a second to think about the traits one must posses to be a real engineer. Your degree? It makes you 'educated', not necessarily an engineer. The campus placement you managed to secure? You're employed (maybe even underemployed), but again, not necessarily as an engineer. All the technical subjects you studied and the exams you passed to obtain your degree? You don't consider yourself to be an electrician when you change light bulbs at home, do you? Scoring high means nothing when you have to code an elaborate web software or invent something in the real world.

Take note of the institutions in the west in this regard; one doesn't opt for Stanford or MIT for the placements that they promise. It is what these institutions stand for that attracts the brightest minds in the world - the quest for scientific temper, the immense scope for growth as an individual, the pride that comes with being associated with the best in the world. There is no denying that many of the world's most accomplished personalities in every domain have learnt their trade in these institutions. Quality over quantity! Period.

4) Active participation and support by the Government of India

Government policies and regulations pertaining to higher education in India are outdated and need a major upheaval. The system is highly centralised and focused on government-run institutions, creating too many hurdles for the private sector to get involved in education. The problem is two-fold:

a) Without political backing, it's almost impossible to set up a privately run institute in India. And, where politicians are involved, one can easily decipher the state of matters and what's to follow.

b) Despite big names like Duke Fuqua, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech showing interest in setting up full fledged campuses in India, Government policies of non-repatriation have put an end to their aspirations. What 'non-repatriation' means is, the profits made by the institution cannot be divided among the owners and shareholders. Instead, it must be redirected towards further developing the institution. It doesn't take much business acumen to realise what's keeping foreign universities at bay.

The government must ramp up it's efforts in providing financial and infrastructural aid to privately run institutions. Without that, there is little hope for them to develop and cater to the industry's requirements. Also, relaxation of policies and regulations pertaining to foreign universities will attract numerous established universities to set shop. Hence, significantly improving the standard of education in India.

Sweeping changes are required to reorder the higher education system in India for it to perform at it's full potential. With 1.5 million graduates every year, we are generating more "engineers" than China and the US combined! Manpower is available in abundance. It's the lack of quality education that is costing us so dearly.

Yet, we have hope that the problem is not kept under wraps. People are seeing the ill effects of consumerism in the educational industry. And, we believe that change is just around the corner. India will soon no longer be called the “Call Center” of the world. But, instead, it will produce pioneers guiding the path to tomorrow's technology. As we have already mentioned, Indians are already paving the way to efficient leadership in some of the world’s largest technological corporations.

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