The future of engineering education in India – DATAQUEST

Engineering education in India over the last few decades had very impressive growth.  In the 1980s, Engineering along with Medicine was the most sought-after career. One needed to at least have a first-class in 12th Standard and typically more than 80% marks to secure an Engineering seat.  During the same time, the degree programs in Science, Arts, and Commerce continued to attract a good number of students. These students managed to get jobs in the public sector as well as private organizations drawing salaries not very differently from Engineering graduates. 
Then between 1980 and 2000, India made a name for itself globally by participating in onsite engagements in the USA, Europe, and many other countries, a model pioneered by Tata Consultancy Services.  TCS also put pre-condition for such global assignments where the employees returned to India and worked for twice the period and trained new recruits. This led to the building of off-shore capacity and the overall ecosystem in India now had a lot more companies who were ready to capitalize on huge opportunities which became available due to the Y2K problem. 
Indian Engineering Institutions also had built phenomenal capacity in all branches of Engineering graduating around 7 Lac Engineers per year at one time. The IT industry wanted graduates who were analytically strong and able to learn new techniques and work in new environments. Their undergraduate qualification did not matter.  Thus, the IT boom was beneficial to all branches of Engineering. 
This was also helped by the fact that typically Mechanical, Civil, and Electrical Engineers were needed in far fewer numbers by traditional industries. Even though Electronics continued to be preferred by students the number of job opportunities was not radically different.  Between 2000 and 2020, the kind of jobs and job opportunities changed dramatically. 
During the early years, companies could afford to recruit students of any branch and retrain them after paying nominal salaries at times as long as a year. But that became a luxury that is affordable only to very few companies. The majority of jobs were related to doing legacy projects or transitioning work from the USA to India. But over the last decade, Indian organizations participate in projects from day 1 or initiate projects/programs that are completely based in India. Then there is also a startup boom where a large number of jobs are in India itself. 
The domestic IT sector also requires a huge workforce to support it. These jobs require graduates to be productive in stacks/toolchains/platforms that are extremely powerful enabling high productivity with a lot of custom features but they also have a significant learning curve and opportunity to specialize.  All these have made companies choose only those graduates whom they think will be very productive. Naturally, they would prefer Computer Science and Engineering graduates. With mushrooming of private universities there is no dearth of such graduates.  
Even though there is a huge buzz about emerging fields such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence and a large number of student projects are related to these fields, the companies visiting campuses look at these more as icing on the cake.
Let us examine what went wrong with other Engineering branches. Due to faulty policies, India neither developed a Military Industry complex nor encouraged a free market. Then after the inclusion of China in the WTO, India imported the majority of items from China impacting the local industry. The jobs in core Engineering not only declined but paid far less compared to IT jobs which benchmarked their wages to global norms (where human capacity is the real capital).
This brings us to the question of what should we do, going forward with Core Engineering Education? We need to realign Engineering Education to the changing nature of Industry. Thus in these branches students study some portable skills that develop their cognitive and analytical ability on one hand and focus more on integration to be suitable to a specific technology discipline in broader Engineering such as Robotics, Automotive, Renewable Energy, Environment, Public Works, Defense, Environment and so on. Very generic and broad-based education does not add value. If needed these programs can eliminate the common first year or add a year in the end. 
We also need to do away with the current system of admitting students mainly based on what they learned till the 12th, instead may need to come up with an Engineering Aptitude Test that acts as a sieve to ferret out those students who are genuinely passionate about Engineering. It is also high time that the admissions to Engineering are deregulated where the private sector can charge the same fee for the same education to all students the way the private schools do. This should easily be possible considering the enormous supply as well as the capacity of the state to assist students in their education through scholarships and loans and the ability to regulate fees if need be.
By Dr. Shreekanth M Prabhu, Professor and Head – Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Head of CSE CMRIT Research Center
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